Every so often one has an experience that transcends most of what has gone before in one’s life. Every so often, if we’re lucky, God provides us with a moment that is nothing less than ineffable. Today, for the second time, I was privileged with just such an experience, when I ascended Har HaBayit, in honor of Yom Yerushalayim. Even now, I am still at a loss to describe the thoughts and emotions that washed over me.
Ascending Har HaBayit was not an impetuous act on my part. I thought long and hard about. I spent time delving into the halakhic and the archaeological details. I undertook a lot of soul-searching as to whether it was the right thing to do. Once I was convinced of the latter, I had to decide whether it was the appropriate thing for me to do. Nevertheless, I finally decided that not only is it permitted to go, I was obliged to go. First, ascending the Mount offers the possibility of observing mitzvot that would be otherwise unobtainable. [Here I must give credit to the role played in my decision by the wonderful and inspiring discussions contained in the collection Qumu ve-Na’aleh by my friend and former student, Rav Yehudah Shaviv.]
Second, the Arabs constantly work (with success) to destroy any traces of the Bet Ha-Miqdash and to deny that it was even there. The Muslims have succeeded in this to such a degree that when the Temple Mount is mentioned in the media, it is often cited first as ‘Haram a Sharif’ (the “Noble Sanctuary,’ though only when others are interested in it) and only then as ‘the place that Jews claim was the site of King Solomon’s Temple’ Hence, Jews absolutely Jews MUST go up to the mountain to assert our inalienable rights to place where, according to our Rabbis, Heaven and Earth meet. This is especially so on Yom Yerushalayim, for Jerusalem is an extension of the Temple itself.
For me, personally, there was another, perhaps greater consideration. In remarks he once made upon completing a chapter of the Talmud,my teacher Rav Soloveitchik zt”l (who I am fully aware would most likely not have supported my decision) commented that by nature, a Jew craves Holiness. That is why we mark the completion of a tractate of the Talmud by saying ‘Hadran Alakh’ (“We will return to you’). We feel the strong need to return to sources of Sanctity. And so, I feel drawn, inexorably, to the fountain of sanctity that lies at the center of Har HaBayit, at the center of the world, at the veritable Gates of Heaven. Just as I felt when I decided to come on Aliyah that I could not imagine living my life outside of Eretz Yisrael, so too I could not countenance the fact that I had the chance of coming closer to the Shekhina and I did not seize the opportunity.
The experience itself was a radical mix of emotions, starting with the preparations and anticipation. Going to miqveh is something all religious men do at least once a year. However, this was a different type of tevila. I had never had to think about all of the niceties involved in really purifying myself (something men should consider, instead of taking their wives’ for granted). I had never had to consider saying a blessing on tevila On the way to Jerusalem, I tried to prepare myself spiritually and emotionally. As it happened, Providence intervened and I had an hour to wait before going up. I spent that hour at the Kotel, which (oddly enough) now became an antechamber to the real thing, reciting Psalms and thinking of all the people for whom I wanted to pray and of all of the things for which I am thankful.
In the end, entering felt very natural. True, I was accompanied by a policeman and a spy sent by the waqf, to make sure I didn’t pray. But I concentrated on looking at the mountain, the sight of the Temple (and its still discernible remains) and thought about Maimonides’ comment that ‘the Divine Presence is never absent’ from the Holy of Holies. I felt uplifted in an indescribable way. The waves of sanctity that pulsate out from there are almost physically tangible. When I reached the area behind the Dome of the Rock, the site of the real Kotel Ma’aravi, that of the Holy of Holies, my eyes welled up. Even had I been allowed to pray, I would not have been able. Some moments are too sublime for words.
At the same time, I was burdened by Galut. It is nothing less than obscene that Jews are not allowed to pray in our most important of places. Muslim claims that Judaism is a washed out, invalidated faith inherited by Islam were embodied not only by the waqf spy. Women near Al-Aqsa (which, ironically, is not technically on the Temple Mount), screaming at “Allahu A-Kbar,’ at me as I silently walked.The destruction wrought by the waqf was everywhere to be seen.
And yet, as my all too brief visit ended, all of that paled. I walked out backwards, bowed, and exited through the Chain Gate that leads to the Kotel. As I left, I felt as if I was fighting against gravity, against the force of sanctity that pulled me back in.
‘Hadran Alakh’ (“We must return to you’).