Here in Miami we amuse ourselves — please forgive the impertinence — by making jokes about the elderly and their driving habits. Perhaps it is a defense mechanism of sorts. The latest one to make the rounds has the old woman desperately calling 911. She has just entered her car and found that she has been robbed: they took the radio, the CD player, and even the steering wheel. The dispatcher promises to send an officer forthwith.
Ten minutes later the policeman calls his report back in to headquarters:
“No emergency here. The lady got into the back seat by accident.”
I was feeling much the same sense of disorientation when I watched the Internet broadcast of the Western Wall in Jerusalem the other night. The wall itself seemed to shrink into the background, just a splash of painted scenery to highlight the crowd in the square. Despite its being just five a.m. in Israel, the gallery was packed. The atmosphere was decidedly festive, the air crackling with anticipation. Yet none of this felt familiar or comfortable but was actually quite jarring. This was because of the two huge campaign posters dominating the foreground, with the Hebrew legend printed in what the Yiddish phrase calls “letters for reading by moonlight”: BARACK OBAMA.
Seeing his name spelled out in that language, my mind naturally drifted to the wordplay possibilities. The Hebrew word BARACK means lightning, OH means or and BAMA means a platform, used in the Bible to refer to unauthorized altars, often idolatrous ones. “Lightning or an idolatrous altar?” Now there was a question that encapsulated the Barack Obama phenomenon very nicely.
To see this holiest place reduced to the theater of the ego was disconcerting. I thought back to experiences I had there over the years. Once I stood there on a Friday night, silently absorbing the sounds of the traditional prayer greeting the Sabbath. Groups of twenty or thirty people each congregated in clusters, singing the same words in a wide range of accents, Jews from Western Europe and Eastern Europe, from South Africa and South America, from Yemen and the Arab countries, all united in freedom after two millennia of exile.
In the throes of inspiration I looked up and saw a lone white dove perched in a groove etched between two magnificent stones near the top of the wall. It seemed to be standing at full attention, ears perked, attuned to every note wafting heavenward from below. A tingle ran down my spine. In that moment no amount of rationality could have convinced me that was not an angel.
Once I was there on the first morning after the three-week summer mourning period. The tradition says that both Temples were destroyed during that same season 490 years apart. All weddings and happy occasions are delayed until after this span. As a result, three weeks of bar-mitzvahs were backed up, all spilling over into a single day.
That was an astounding scene. Twenty-two days worth of sweet, fresh-faced boys from all over the country — and some from abroad — all surrounded by proud families. So much love was in the air that day, so much eagerness, so much verve, so much hope, so much faith in the noble future of mankind. The wall stood sentinel, strong and silent, an invincible guarantor of all this promise.
Why does this wall have such a poignant quality? The Jewish tradition invests it with a unique sanctity. It is said to have been the westernmost barrier of the Temple campus. As children, we were all taught the Midrash that says it was built exlusively from the donations of the poor. For this reason, God’s presence always hovers there and it can never be destroyed by human hands. Well, not physically destroyed anyway, but it apparently can be brought down a few pegs of dignity by being used as a prop for a political photo-op. (I did once meet Peter O’Toole there, and another time Walter Matthau, but they both behaved very humbly.)
Senator Obama tells us that he is a serious man. Indeed, ABC reported that he complained on the plane afterwards that he had expected a greater atmosphere of reverence. Instead the tranquility of his visit was abraded by one troublemaker repeatedly yelling (hollering, Obama said) that Jerusalem is not for sale. He is hardly in a position to express this gripe, since it was his own supporters who had set the mood by hanging those tacky posters. Barack Obama, step to the head of the crass.