Ascending the Mountain of the Lord

Today marks fourteen years since I first ascended the Temple Mount/Har HaBayit. My reflections on the first time, fourteen years ago, have only intensified with time. The ascent is now much more dignified, and hence uplifting, owing the the diligence of the various Har HaBayit groups, the help of the Ministry for Internal Security and especially the untiring efforts of people like Arnon Segal. 

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. Yesterday, I had just such an experience, when I ascended Har HaBayit for the first time. 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 Heshbon HaNefesh 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. Neither decision came easily. In fact, as late as yesterday morning I seriously considered not going. Nevertheless, I finally decided that not only is it permitted to go, I was obliged to go.

First, after a proper tevillah, ascending the Mount offers the possibility of observing mitzvot that would be otherwise unobtainable (E.g. Morah Ha-Miqdash, and Tefillah ba-Miqdash; though not Rei’ah ba-Azarah-except according to R. Aqiva Yosef Schlesinger). [Here I must give credit to the role played in my decision by the wonderful and inspiring halakhic/archaeological/hashqafic discussions contained in the collection Qumu ve-Na’aleh by my late friend and former student, Rav Yehudah Shaviv.]

Second, the Arabs constantly work (with success) to destroy any traces of the Bet HaMiqdash and to deny that it was even there. The Muslims have succeeded in this to such a degree that Ha HaBayit is mentioned in the media first as ‘Haram a Sharif’ and then as ‘the place that Jews claim was the site of King Solomon’s Temple’ Jews must go up to the mountain to assert the fact that this is ‘Hamaqom asher yivhar HaShem.

However, there was an even greater consideration. In his famous remarks upon completing the first chapter in Hullin, the Rov zt”l (who I am fully aware would most likely not have supported my decision) commented that by nature, a Jew craves Qedusha. That, in brief, 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 Qedusha. [The full text is available in J. Epstein’s Shiurei Harav: A Conspectus of the Public Lectures of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.] I felt 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. Obviously, again using the Rov’s terminology, even on the mountain there would be clear self-restrictions, a clear act of sacrifice since the area of the Temple and the Azarot would be off limits. Nevertheless, just as I felt when I decided to come on Aliyah, 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 hatzitza in the first person.  On the way to Jerusalem, and while waiting to be allowed up with the group I had joined, I tried to prepare myself spiritually and emotionally.It was hard. I had no idea what to expect.

In the end, entering felt very natural. The spy sent by the waqf to prevent us from praying stayed behind us, so I was able to say Qabbalat Ol Malkhut Shamayim (a moment that can’t be described), Pirke Tehillim and Mishnayot. Our guide, aside from showing us the route around the mountain that avoided the Maqom HaMiqdash, pointed out the place of the Azarot, the altar, the steps to the Hulda Tunnels and integrated prayers into his presentation. I felt uplifted in a way that I never had before. God’s presence was truly in the קול דממה דקה, in the still small voice.

At the same time, it was clear that we were still in Galut. עַל הַר-צִיּוֹן שֶׁשָּׁמֵם, שׁוּעָלִים הִלְּכוּ-בוֹ. The destruction wrought by the waqf was everywhere to be seen. There was every reason to tear our clothes, except that it was Hol HaMoed. I was feeling this last sentiment very keenly, when two things happened. First, we were approached by Rav Yosef Elbaum. Rav Elbaum is a Belzer Hasid who, since 1969, has constantly visited Har HaBayit and devoted his life to raising awareness of the mountain and of the Miqdash. He urged us to come as often as possible.

Then we reached the area behind the Dome of the Rock, the site of the real Kotel Ma’aravi, that of the Qodesh haQodoshim, the Holy of Holies. There are no words for this. לך דומיה תהילה.

We walked out backwards, bowed toward the Maqom HaShekhina and exited through the Sha’ar HaShalshelet 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. As we stood back from the gate, and the waqf resumed their iron grip on Har HaBayit, we started to sing:

אדיר הוא יבנה ביתו בקרוב במהרה, במהרה בקרוב אל בנה – בנה ביתך בקרוב

He is mighty, He is mighty.  May He soon rebuild his house
Speedily, speedily and in our days, soon.
God, rebuild! God, rebuild!
Rebuild your house soon!

It was time to cry from gratitude, from pain, from longing for hope.

About the Author
Jeffrey Woolf is an Associate Professor in the Talmud Department at Bar Ilan University. He is both a Medieval and Renaissance Jewish Historian, and an Orthodox Rabbi who is a long time advocate of the creation of a uniquely Israeli form of Modern Orthodoxy.
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