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As Sirens Blare Across the Land

July 10, 2014 | by Debbie Gutfreund

An elegy to the Jewish people for the 17th of Tammuz.

There's a little cave near the Western Wall tunnels that you can miss if you don't look carefully. To go inside, you must be willing to face the darkness, to step into a yearning so deep, it will surround you with a sudden wave of sadness. It's an unexpected grief far bigger than us. A grief of a nation that has lost its way.

Inside, away from the heat of the sun and the noise of the crowds, there are shelves with prayer books and rows of chairs along the dark stone walls. Songs and voices echo from within, where tunnels lead into tunnels, weaving their way closer to the Holy of Holies, the heart of everything we used to be. Inside is the inner sanctum, the source of our holiness and clarity that housed the Aron Hakodesh, the Holy Ark. We have lost access to that source, but here you can feel a wisp of its power.

I walk into the darkness on the 17th of Tammuz, a fast day commemorating the breach of the walls of Jerusalem before the Second Temple was destroyed. I sit down on one of the chairs and lean my head against the wall. I try to pray but I cannot find the right words. I try to think but my thoughts are so heavy, so tired, so lost.

A woman sits down beside me. Her wrinkled hands clutch a tattered Siddur and her eyes look like they hold ancient secrets that spill onto the pages as she begins to cry.

I have never heard someone cry like this. It sounds like a helpless baby who cannot be comforted. Like someone who can't breathe in this kind of world. She cries and then screams up into the low, jagged ceiling. "Abba (Father), stop our tears! End this! Abba, help us. We are so lost. We can't find you. Abba!" I move my chair away from her. Why is she screaming? I open my own prayer book and find my own tears as her voice echoes in my heart. Where are You? How will we find our way home?

When the woman finishes praying, she taps me on the shoulder. Her eyes are the color of water. She tries to hug me. I pull back. Is she crazy? But she just smiles at me and then walks away, pausing for a moment by the opening to the tunnel, like an angel bridging the distance between darkness and light. I watch her go and feel the fissure that I felt before her heartfelt prayers gave life to my own. I look up at the stones. Let me in. I want to break through the tunnels and get to the place I know is hidden deep inside. I want to come home and hold onto the heart of all we used to be.

This year on the 17th of Tammuz, I will remember that woman as I stand alone, now living in America, so very far from home. I remember that tunnel as I wake up on foreign soil, hear words that are not my language, see people who are not my own. I stand in the darkness. It is so quiet but here there are no stone walls to cradle my prayers. I don't know what to say. I don't even know how to cry. I long to call out like the woman with the ocean eyes, "Abba, end this! Abba, help us! Abba, we can't find you." But instead I am so silent I can hear the beating of my heart.

The walls of our cities are surrounded. We are dying inside. We are losing our children. We are being attacked. And there is silence. The hospitals are being evacuated. The schools are being held in shelters. And there is silence. Our weddings are being interrupted by sirens. We are running, throwing ourselves down onto the ground, cradling our heads with our arms. They want us to give up, leave our homes, disappear. And we are so very tired. So lost.

We, a nation of compassion, of kindness, of truth, are being forced to fight. We are a people who treasure life. Who do everything we can to give life and light to others. But we are surrounded by enemies. We are far from the core of everything we had and used to be. We are burying lives that hadn't had a chance to really begin. We are running for cover and grieving at the same time. Terrorists are intent on destroying, eradicating, pushing us further from the center of who we are.

I wish I could go back into that inner tunnel of the Western Wall and look again into the crying woman's eyes. I wish I could have a fraction of her faith, a tiny part of her courage, a piece of her warmth. I wish I could get back to the beating heart of a nation that lights up the darkness. But I stand so far away, with just the sound of my own heart breaking quietly. For the city that is surrounded. For the sirens that are blaring across the Land. For all that is being destroyed. For my people and for myself. A nation standing alone. So far from its core.

Stop the tears. Bring us home. End this.

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