Recently, I decided I wanted to ascend Har Habayit, The Temple Mount, before my next birthday.
I knew that according to Jewish Law, certain preparations had to be made and certain restrictions had to be followed. According to Jewish law, due to certain types of “ritual impurity”, Jews cannot get not too close to the sanctified area of the where the Temples stood (the first 968BCE – 586BCE and the second, 349 BCE-70 CE).
The site is traditionally held to be where Adam was created, where Abraham was told to, and then not to, sacrifice Isaac, and where Heaven touches Earth. It is where God told the Jewish people to make a home for Him so He could reside among us and where Jews would come en masse, three times a year for pilgrimage, to worship and celebrate together.
It is where my father’s ancestors served as priests and where all mothers would bring offerings after giving birth. It is the place where Jews and all nations are meant to connect to and recognize their Creator.
I learned what I needed to know, got in touch with people who know the rules, Jewish, State and Waqf, and did what was required.
Through a few twists of fate, I merited a personal guided tour by Rabbi Richman Director of the International Department of The Temple Institute, an organization dedicated to the Temple Mount and its centrality to the Jewish people and the world.
Early in the morning, I meet Rabbi Richman at the entrance to the Mughrabi gate- the wooden ‘temporary’ permanent structure that leads up and over the Kotel to the Mount. It is the only entrance for non Muslims to the Mount.
As we wait for police to open the gate, this sign sits above us.
Because of the intense holiness of the site, many Rabbis hold the opinion that Jews may not ascend the Mount at all. However, this is not so if one has prepared properly and is with a guide who knows where it is forbidden to tread and where it is not.
A blanket statement that Jews may not ascend the Mount only feeds into the desires of those who actively seek to destroy the Jewish connection to the site.
Jews are only allowed on the Mount at certain times of the day, and only under escort. They are not allowed to prostrate themselves or even pray there, and may be removed if they seem to be doing something as innocuous as moving their lips.
I am warned that I should remove any prayer books I might have in my bag and no matter what happens, to stay calm. I am told that people have been yelled at, cursed at and otherwise made to feel very uncomfortable, but not to worry, that we will be fine.
We make it through security with minimal fuss. This is likely due to the fact that the police know Rabbi Richman, though he keeps telling me that I have incredible ‘mazal’ because it is usually never this easy.
As we ascend the ramp, we rise above the Western Wall on our left. Also known as the Kotel, or Wailing Wall, it is a remnant of the retaining wall of the Mount- not part of the Temple complex.
Like all Jews, we are escorted by a Waqf official and a border policeman, though groups of tourists are allowed to roam free.
We enter the plaza and a strange feeling of otherworldliness sets in. I feel excited, yet very calm and focused. I try to hear the Rabbi as he tells me about the columns lined up on our right and points out the reddish color on some of them as aged gold, which identify them as being from the Temple.
As the policeman tries to hurry us along, I tell him it is my birthday. In true Israeli style, he proceeds to offer me a blessing of happiness, income, health, joy and long life. As I say a hearty, “Amen!” I marvel at the irony that the man charged with preventing me from praying, is giving me a blessing on the Temple Mount. I wonder if he realizes the incredible gift he has just given me.
We walk east, passing the Dome on our left and Al Aksa on our right and then turn north following along the eastern edge of the Old City.
To our left are piles of rubble. Mixed among discarded modern building materials are ancient stones, artifacts and relics that should have been examined by qualified archeologists, but were instead dumped like so much garbage by the Waqf and kept away from Jewish hands and eyes.
It is at this point that we turn to look at the site of the Temple.
It is at this point that I start to cry.
We are silent and I am praying. Our escorts are a good fifty feet away and I take advantage, furtively praying for everyone I can think of. I feel the weight of exile and of being outlawed in my own homeland.
The Rabbi notices I am crying and suggests that I stop lest I am seen and forced to leave.
“I cannot cry?” I ask.
“No,” he says.
The weight grows heavier.
We move on, getting closer to the Golden Gate. The Rabbi tells me to look down. Do I see the wooden beams lying on the ground partially covered with cloth with a cat running over them? Those are the Cedars of Lebanon that were used in the Temple.
Our heritage — the world’s heritage –discarded and left to rot.
A group of Arab men begin shouting Allahu Akhbar at us.
We are told to keep moving and we do, eventually turning left — west. Here, we cross paths with the main entrance for Muslims to the Mount. Here, a young, rather modern looking woman in a Hijab stops to curse at us in Arabic. One does not need to know the language to know when one is being cursed.
A bit farther, we come to a stop with the plaza spread out before us. I cannot not believe how close we are. I feel my heart in my throat.
For, I am looking at the place where Heaven meets Earth, where Jewish tradition holds that all prayers must come in order to ascend to Heaven; where God’s ‘presence’ rests and does not leave.
I cannot speak. I cannot move. I try not to show my tears and I pray in gratitude for all I have and all that I do not have. I pray for my friends who are ill, who seek love, jobs, health, peace, and community. I pray for my people and for the entire world. I pray for real peace.
There are certain times in one’s life that are measured by ‘before’ and ‘after’. When one meets and recognizes their soulmate, when they marry, when one holds their child for the first time, and for me, this moment.
I feel connected to my history, to the world and above all, to the Creator. I feel as though something I didn’t know was missing was found, and settled right where it was meant to be.
A man passes by and stops. He turns to us. “Why are you here?” he yells. “This is not yours! There is nothing for you here!”
I am far too at peace, too deep in my own experience to care what he is saying. And besides, I know that if I do answer him, it is I who will be thrown out.
We tarry as long as we can but are eventually told to move on.
And I can’t help but wonder how this came to be, that on the mountain that is so rich with Jewish history, with Jewish worship, Jewish sacrifice, Jewish ownership… that this place, to which Jews pray three times a day, that the Jewish soul longs to return to, that Jews made, fought and died for, that in this place, it is the Jew who is the persona non grata.
And we, my friends, are accomplices in this injustice. From Dayan who gave the keys to the Waqf in 1967, to those who say Jews cannot ascend, to those who can go but choose not to, and those who say that Jews on the Temple Mount is an incitement and obstacle to peace. We were given a gift and we keep tossing it back.
It is time to state clearly that we do not accept the denial of our basic rights to walk, pray, tarry or cry on the Temple Mount. How can peace ever come when our connection to the heart of this land is denied and refused?
Why do we sit silent at this indignity? At this denial of our rights and heritage? At this attempt to erase our past and in so doing, our present and our future? We must refuse. We must go up and walk the Mount. We must demand that Jews be allowed to pray and sing and cry!
Jewish heritage holds that the Mount is the place where all nations can come to connect with God. If we cannot be at peace there, there cannot be peace anywhere. Perhaps we have been doing this all wrong. We have left the Mount for final negotiations. Perhaps it needs to be first. Perhaps the true test is recognizing that it is God’s house and that all have rights to worship, sing and cry there.
And those who deny that right to others, they are the ones that do not belong.
One thing is for sure, my friends. If we do not show that we want it, we will never get it.
I left the Temple Mount that day a bit different. A bit wiser and a bit more determined. I plan to go back. You are all invited.
For more information on ascending, contact Rabbi Richman, firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know you went!!