We made it to Jerusalem in time for Shabbat and no one could have adequately prepared me for what I was about to experience.
The sun had set and as the night descended, a spirit of anticipation rose within us, as hundreds, if not thousands of people streamed to the Western Wall to pray. Jews, from the visibly orthodox to the not so apparent. Christians visiting the Holy City. Young, old, women, men, and families from many different nations. Some groups like ours gathered in the area outside the wall to receive instructions. Others proceeded directly to the wall.
Amidst the polyglot sounds of people from many languages and dialects, a sound of joyous singing could be heard. Male voices synchronized in perfect unison wafted into the atmosphere.
Our guide gave us our instructions: “cover your heads; take no pictures at the wall; men and women, separate and proceed to two different sections of the wall; return to this spot in 15-20 minutes.” We were about to participate in the ancient prayer tradition of the Jewish people. The evening prayer at sundown marked the beginning of the Sabbath.
The Sabbath Tradition
And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done Genesis 2:2
Jewish people the world over have observed Sabbath since antiquity and continue to do so in our contemporary society. As our guide explained: “Each week from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, we cease from our creating in honor of God who had ceased from His work on the seventh day of creation.”
Buying, selling, merchandising and trading are obvious forms of creating commerce, and Jewish shop owners close their stores early on Friday. Yet the ritual to cease from creating extends to even more mundane activities of life. Starting the elevator in our hotel, for instance, is seen as a form of creating a new current or cycle of energy. So for Sabbath keepers, there is a bank of elevators that run continuously and stop on each floor during the Sabbath so one does not have to push the button to their floor and start a new cycle of work.
Creating and working are replaced with prayer first and then the evening family meal. The sabbath brings families together to remember God and each other.
The Western Wall
In Jerusalem Sabbath prayers start at the Wall once known as the Wailing Wall. For centuries under various ruling powers the prayer traditions of the Jewish people were challenged. From the Romans, to the Byzantine emperors to the Crusaders of the Middle Ages to the Europeans of modernity, in each era, colonizer after colonizer, ruled the remnant of Jews that remained in the land when the majority were dispersed.
The Western Wall is on the site where Solomon’s Temple had been built, but was destroyed in 70 AD by the Romans. A few years later the walls of the city were rebuilt, no longer around the mountain that is Jerusalem but in a square configured according to Roman orderliness; the western retaining wall of the Temple complex built by Herod remained. During one particular rule, however, the area surrounding the wall was turned into a trash heap, and it was there the Jewish people were relegated to enter through the dung gate for prayer. There they wailed, and cried out to God.
Years later the Byzantine emperors built a mosque on the site that had been the site of the temple of Israel. I was reminded that three streams of ancient religious traditions meet in this spot as we, as Christian pilgrims, joined Sabbath keeping Jews with the golden dome of that mosque in the background.
Our guide explained as he stretched his hands toward the wall and the mass of people walking toward the wall, “we the Jews were given a second chance and we no longer call the place of prayer the wailing wall. We come here each week, not to wail in defeat but to celebrate and thank our God that this is even possible.”
As my husband and the other male pastors went to the men’s section with our male guide, I and the two other female pastors went with our female guide to the women’s section . There women were praying intently and intensely. Some sat. Others stood three or four women deep and those closest to the wall laid their hands on the wall as they prayed.
Periodically a woman at the wall would move, leaving an empty space at the wall. Quietly another woman would move to the wall, filling in that gap. In the background the chorus of men singing in unity continued to punctuate the atmosphere. I must admit, the fervor of the men singing struck me and I wanted to go on their side to check it out and join them.
On the women’s side, as I prayed and soaked in the sound of the prayers and praises to God, the gestalt of the sacred moment and place hit me and my heart swelled with gratitude as my eyes welled up with tears. This was the place where Solomon had built the first Temple to God. Where Herod built the second. This was the place where Jesus went to worship while in Jerusalem. This is the place where Jews and Christian pilgrims come to pray. This is the sacred place in which I was standing. I was humbled. Who was I to receive such grace?
As I got my turn at the wall, I prayed. I quietly placed a request that a young mother had previously given me for her son, and honoring her faith, believed with her in prayer for her son’s deliverance.
Departing the Wall
As the four of us reconnected, our guide instructed us that the tradition called for us to walk backwards away from the wall–the Jews respect the Wall so much that they do no turn their back toward the Wall. We walked backwards for a few yards, peeking back periodically to ensure we didn’t bump into any pillar or person.
My first experience of Sabbath prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem was so moving. When we rejoined the larger group, many of us walked in silence. I was in quiet, internally processing the experience, trying to make sense of it all.
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. (Exodus 20:8)
Sacred ritual points to something larger and is intended to help us remember and reflect on the holy. Sabbath keeping, and prayer at the wall evoke a sacred memory of God’s command and continuity of the people of God.
At the Western Wall that Sabbath evening I remembered the faithfulness of God to His people. I remembered that now my body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, a sacred site for God.
I remembered my connection to the people of the world, our common humanity amidst our great diversity. I remembered a mother’s cry for her son and the cries of mothers and fathers across the world for their children. I remembered our call to pray and, as leaders, work for peace and justice.
And now, after Sabbath has ended, I return to work. To creating . To serving. To responding to the call to justice. To inspiring through writing and preaching and teaching. To giving. To loving. To showing mercy.
But not so fast! After remembering the Sabbath in Jerusalem, how can I come back home the same? How can I return to the status quo of busyness as usual?
Now, moving forward, I am challenged to remember the Sabbath. In times past as a Christian ministry leader I observed Sabbath or rest times very inconsistently and irregularly. I have ministry programs on many Saturdays and, if I’m not preaching on Sunday, I’m meeting with ministry leaders or doing pastoral care after service. I did not make keeping a day of sacred rest a priority.
Because I remembered the Sabbath in Jerusalem, I am now challenged to remember the Sabbath back here in my own culture in ways that are culturally relevant. More importantly, I am challenged to cease from creating and settle into resting my spirit, soul and body. I am challenged to remember my God and my family.
Whether one calls it sabbath time, quiet time or downtime, it’s time for more of us to observe a time of sacred rest to remember that we are finite creatures ever in need of an infinite Creator.
As I embark upon consistently keeping a time of sacred rest, I’d love to hear from you about how you do it. Some of you have developed great practices of rest. Please share your practices to help me and others. Others of you, like me, struggle with the nonstop pace of ministry and work and haven’t taken the time to cultivate such a practice. How many of us start the new work week exhausted from the busy weekend? It’s time to change that!
Let’s look at our schedules this week and plan sabbath time now. Let us schedule our sacred time, our down time. Let’s make an appointment to spend prayerful, playful, restful, restorative time with God and family. And keep it.
© 2013 TransPorter Communication LLC