Yom Kippur had come around again and I was feeling spent, empty, lost. Religion, my own beliefs of reward and punishment, weighed down on me to the point where I didnt know what to believe in anymore or how to escape my own oppression. I carried myself, hunched over with an inivisble burden, through the streets of Jerusalem, past shuls full of incessant chanting and piety. I had suffered so much; I couldn’t bear the thought of facing the words again that proscribed life or death. I couldn’t stand the idea of fate being sealed, of suffering waiting to take me again and roll me in a bed of nails until I bled to death. My feet drifted as the sun beat down on me. I fasted, perhaps to cleanse myself, and wandered on in the heat until I found myself walking down the steps to the Kotel.
The old city on Yom Kippur felt strangely empty. The streets were quiet; the missing sounds of bustling feet on cobblestones hung in the air like a hollow echo. All you could see were the eternal stones baking in the sun, weathering times of war and peace. Everyone was huddled in tiny shuls engaged in fervrent supplication, urgent prayer, love and fear, hate and guilt, emotions tumbling one upon the other in a chaotic race for forgiveness and repentance. I needed air, the cleanliness of fresh air. My feet took me across the massive stones and I stood facing the Kotel.
There was something peaceful in the air, perhaps because most people were in shul and left the Kotel space open and more free. There was no heaviness, no feeling of obligation, no one looking to judge me or judge others, as if those who were brave enough to pray at the kotel on a fast day in the heat of the sun had earned the right to daven freely, without interference. There was an unspoken tolerance, a true sense of reverence and awe, of humanity in communion with God under the open sky. I felt I had finally found my place on Yom Kippur, the one place where I could sit and just Be, where I could set the weight on my shoulders down for a moment because no one was there to judge and pressure me. I felt God was more kind there, because ‘our’ energy was kinder, softer, cleaner.
I found one of the many empty white chairs and sat down, not sure what I would do. I was surprisingly calm for the first time on my long walk that day. My eyes wandered to the few women at the wall and I imagined each of their stories, reading their suffering and their joy in the lines on their face as they quietly prayed. Some swayed gently in an aura of meditation, mouthing the words to prayers while others approached the wall more cautiously, unsure of themselves, yet determined to find a way to reach God. Some women merely sat, reciting their prayers dutifully through long practice as the noonday sun beat down on them.
I was engrossed in observation, feeling like a fly on the wall while at the same time feeling a part of the strange communion we all had, contributing my presence to the overall quiet and calm. Wind occassionally brushed accross my face, cooling the sweat beading on my forehead. Although I felt so empty, it just felt right to be there. The now familiar backs and faces of the women were comforting to me.
Suddenly, a man came across my vision, jolting me out of my clear space. I sat bolt upright as I watched him stride boldly through the women’s section and walk straight up to the Kotel with no one trying to stop him! I was shocked! I gripped the edges of my chair tightly, unsure of what to do while straining my eyes to get a clearer look at him. And then I saw.. and my heart skipped a beat.
She had reached the wall and was crying, her back trembling in great heaving sobs. I looked closer and saw the faint outline of breasts beneath the collared polo shirt, her arm with the heavy watch gripped the wall, holding on. She buried her face into the stone, pressing her cheek hard against it as tears streamed down her face. I could barely breathe. No one said a word. No one judged. No one looked at her with puzzled eyes. She had come to bare her heart and pray, and at the kotel that day, there was a place for everyone.
Years later, I still remember her. The image is burned in my mind because I knew, somehow I knew, that it was a sign. I had sat there that day at the kotel after a terrible divorce, not understanding yet that I was gay, and thought that God had punished me because prior to my marriage, I had been with a woman. I thought that I had suffered because I had sinned. The woman seemed so alien to me, and yet, her pain resonated with me so deeply that it carried with me through the years. But even more so, what struck me on that day was despite there being every reason to judge, no one judged. Not even God. I felt, as she sobbed, that God was not a God of judgement, but a god of love. We live in a world where our tendencay to judge is so strong that we begin by being the harshest judges of ourselves. I feel like our idea of Yom Kippur is all wrong. This should be the day where we look at ourselves with eyes of love and find the places within ourselves where we can be healthier, holier, and through that self love, build ourselves to become better people. I cannot relate to signing of our fate, or the beating of my chest as we speak aloud numerous sins and ask for forgiveness. Who will forgive us if we do not love ourselves?
I pray that the safe space I found at the Kotel that day can be created by us every day, that we offer that to each other. And from within that safe space, that we see how beautiful we are, how our very life is a gift, and look at all the places within us that we can improve because when you truly love someone, you take responsibility for them and want for them to be healthy spiritually, emotionally, and physically. I pray that this Yom Kippur we focus on growth through love, finding the places where we can become better people, and creating a safe space for those around us to live up to their fullest potential.