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Disclaimer: My son says words cannot capture what went on. I am trying anyway. This is the week before the 9th of Av, the date of the destruction of both temples, so the date (and recent unrest) makes it seem like now is the right time to post this.
Some months ago, I realized that I had an opportunity to get to Israel. Perhaps more importantly, I saw it as an opportunity to bring my #2 son, @Blessedblacksmith, to spend a few days in Israel. I knew it would be a journey of tears.
#2 was last in Israel when he was seven years old, and his memories were understandably limited. More than that: he is now 19, and extremely spiritually “connected” — but had not actually been to the Kotel, the Western Wall of the ancient Jewish temples which were the connection point between heaven and earth.
It was at this place (the “Foundation Stone”) where Avraham offered his son, Isaac, up to G-d as a sacrifice. Some also believe that it is the place where Jacob laid down his head as he was leaving the Land of Israel, where he dreamed of angels ascending and descending a ladder.
So this was the place, some 480 years after leaving Egypt (440 years after entering the Land, mirroring the 440 years between Avraham and the Exodus), where Solomon built the First Temple, installing the Tabernacle on a permanent basis. It was this act that made all other altars forbidden; the Torah tells us that all Jews are to come to this place three times a year. The Temple became the central place of all of Judaism.
The First Temple was destroyed and, after the Babylonian Exile, Ezra the Scribe led remnants of the Jewish people back to Israel to rebuild what became the Second Temple. In time this Temple was reinforced and built in an extremely grand style by Herod, using walls of solid cut rock that were as big as 600 tons (and no mortar).
After the Jewish Revolt (a terrible misjudgment by people who thought that Judaism was supposed to be a military/political force as well as a spiritual one), the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, and our long exile began.
But we have never forgotten. Our prayers, thrice daily, are always toward Jerusalem. We fill our lives with constant reminders that joy can never be complete for as long as the Temple remains destroyed. Indeed, an often told story goes as follows:
It is told of Napoleon, that upon passing a synagogue during the Ninth of Av [which is next week], looked inside and saw Jews sitting on the floor and weeping. When he inquired further he was told the Jews were mourning over the destruction of their Holy Temple. “How long ago did this occur?” he asked. “About 1,500 years ago.” “In that case,” said Napoleon, “there is no doubt that their Temple will be rebuilt. A people capable of crying for so long over its destroyed Temple and Land will eventually find its way home.”
We believe that G-d keeps our tears in a flask, that He treasures our desire to connect with him, even if that connection is through tragedy and suffering, instead of tears of joy.
For over 2,000 years, millions of Jews have prayed, daily, for the rebuilding of the Temple. It is the wellspring of our faith, the place where we can fully serve G-d, as commanded in the Torah.
So I knew that bringing #2 Son there was a Big Deal. Especially this son, this year. It just felt right.
He spent the first few days looking elsewhere in Israel — museums, Masada, etc. And we set Friday aside to spend together, in the Old City of Jerusalem.
The morning started early. I could not sleep; I was so excited about doing this with him. So I woke at about 4, and he woke perhaps an hour later. And we walked from our relative’s apartment in the German Colony to the gates of the Old City. Along the way, I reminded him of all the history and connections we have had. He listened politely (he honors his father), but I could tell (and he later confirmed) that he was taking a “wait and see” attitude.
But then we entered the gates, some ways North of the Wall, and we started walking the cobblestone paths, talking of the Book of Lamentations; the women weeping over their young, the blood running in the streets from the battle with the Romans. As clean as the streets are, you can feel the history, seeping in from all sides. And #2 started shaking and crying, while we walked. We stopped for a bit, #2 composed himself, and we went on.
We stopped to look at a recreated gold Menorah that had been built by the Temple Institute. #2 looked it over, and started critiquing it — it was too large for the 1 Talent of gold (75 pounds), it looked cast rather than hammered, etc. And he got himself in full flow, arguing with the way it was made, while we walked down the steps toward the Wall.
And then the Wall came into few. #2 turned his head, stopped arguing mid-word, and his knees gave way. He could not stand, so we sat on the stairs, and we wept, together.
To my dying day, I hope I never forget that moment. It was the moment when you reconnect through the spirituality of others, the moment when my son became an example to me. I knew that the Wall would be powerful to him (as it is to me), but neither of us saw this coming.
After a while, we resumed our trip, realizing that we had not brought enough handkerchiefs. And we went down to the Wall, walking back into a private space where we could pray against the stone, the veil separating us from the divine. #2 wanted to put on Tefillin first, so we did — he later said that without Tefillin, he could not have handled the experience. He says that he experienced a rush of blood, fear and love, filling him. “I could not handle standing there, before the Lord, bare but for my clothes. The Tefillin were an armor.”
And we went up against the rock, and felt the call of the ages, the countless hands and tears and prayers that had been poured into this little hill. It was as if our souls were being magnetically and inexorably pulled in the direction of the Holy of Holies, reunifying with all of the Jewish people throughout all of history.
After half an hour of individual prayer, we joined a quorum, a Minyan, and davened the more-formal morning prayer (which is still quite chaotic and individualistic among Orthodox Jews). We were also all the way up against the ancient Herodian rock; the aura was indescribably powerful. #2 ended up dropping tears into his prayer book siddur. He worried about ruining it — I assured him that, counter to common sense, these tears were going into the flask anyway, and his prayer book would be improved.
At some point in the prayers, #2 turned to me, and said, “That man over there lost his wife. And he just comes here to connect with G-d; it is what he has left.” I asked how he knew — he said he could tell from his face. I have no doubt that he had the right of it.
I told my son that he was blessed, indeed. After all, most people do not have this kind of connection without going through immense suffering — to be able to reach that spiritual level without enormous trauma is an incredible opportunity, a gift.
#2 is a strapping young man, six feet tall and extremely strong and fit. But this was taking a toll on him; he found standing up almost impossible. We spoke about what it would be like to be here for Yom Kippur, and he said that he could not imagine being able to survive the experience.
So after the minyan (which was nice and slow, lasting almost an hour), we backed away, and found a place to sit. It is interesting to me that the Wall is the only place in the world in which Jews of every stripe pray together; we are a divided people. It is fitting and beautiful that this place is where we come together.
And then we went back into the Jewish Quarter, and started exploring the Temple Institute. The spiritual journey had not exorcized the critic from the child, and so he had many, um, constructive comments about some of the handwork. The Temple Institute tries to build the instruments and vessels for the third temple, and therefor employs researchers, craftsmen, and fine materials to create the vessels. The shovels and trumpets were stellar pieces of handiwork. The same could not be said for the larger pieces, where seams were visible, and gaps let light shine through where it should have not. Jews are very good at a great many things, but not all the craftsmen involved in creating the vessels for the Third Temple are as good as they could be. Not yet, at least. They — we — can do better.
We next went off on the Tunnel Tours. If you get to Jerusalem, I recommend them highly. It is worth it if only to gain an understanding of how many layers of civilization have lived in that place, all the terraforming and quarrying and building that occurred to make the Temple Mount a flat structure. Hundreds of years are measured in vertical feet, thousands of years sometimes in tens of meters. Civilization after civilization. Ancient Jewish ritual baths (so far, 38 have been discovered on one side of the Wall) that are identical in dimensions and purpose to the mikvaot in use today. This City is us.
Our guide was highly informed, and able to answer a range of questions. We discussed the Arab excavations of the Temple Mount, directed by the Wakf, which have been digging out the ancient temple and dumping them in a landfill (where Jewish archaeologists come to sift through and try to re-piece the past even as the Arabs try to blot us out of our own history).
It was also fascinating how local knowledge can differ from the professionals. I am quite sure that archaeologists in Israel are superb, but it was amusing that when they “discovered” cisterns at the northwest corner of the Temple Mount, they learned soon after that the above-ground shopkeepers (and their ancestors) had been drawing water from those same cisterns for hundreds of years.
After the tour, #2 and I stopped, to pray at the rock that is nearest the Foundation Stone where Avraham offered up Isaac, where the Holy of Holies was placed. It was a prayer of farewell, of bonding and promises.
We left by the Jaffa Gate. In the archway, sitting up on a wall, was a young woman, dressed in a flowing white dress and playing Yerushalayim shel Zahav on a harp. She looked like an angel. Her friends, presumably also Seminary students, were hanging out and singing along. It was a heavenly scene, and a fitting way to leave the Old City.