My first view of the Western Wall – the Kotel – came when I traveled to Israel for school. Shortly after arriving, we took a school trip to Mount Scopus and the Kotel. From Mount Scopus we looked across the valley at the walls of Jerusalem, recited verses of mourning, and tore our shirts across our hearts, as one does for the death of a parent, G-d forbid.
From there we ascended to the Kotel. I knew that Primordial Adam was created from the dust of this mountain top; the binding of Isaac took place here; Jacob’s dream of a ladder with angels ascending and descending. I could sing a dozen songs about the holiness of Jerusalem and the Kotel. But my first thought on seeing the Wall was, That’s it? It’s so small. And just as quickly, I felt ashamed. How could I fail to sense its holiness and sanctity?
On every side women whispered in their mother tongues, cried out, swayed in prayer, engaging with G-d. I laid my forehead against its stones, waiting for a rush of something spiritual. But nothing came.
As Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz explains, Kabbalah enumerates four elements that comprise the world: fire, air, water and earth. Each of these correspond to one of the four letters of G-d’s Divine Name, yud-hei-vav-hei. This quadratic structure extends to the Holy Temple itself, constructed of four main areas: the Temple Mount, the Courtyard, the Sanctuary, and the Holy of Holies.
With the destruction of the Temple, our Sages sought to instill its entire essence into our prayers. One of the ways they did so was by establishing a four part prayer, leading from praises of G-d to prayers before the Shema, to the Shema itself, and finally, the Amidah (silent devotional). Each stage in prayer leads closer to the inmost throne.
One cannot jump from the palace gates to the throne room; there are antechambers and halls to pass through. But once you’ve been admitted to the King’s presence you find your way back more easily the next time.
Over the course of that year I came to feel the holiness and power of the Kotel. In repeated visits I inched my way forward to the throne room. And by the time I left, I marveled at the vast height of the Wall.