Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Jews were coming to the Temple Mount, Har HaBayit, in larger numbers than ever before, if still a small number, a trickle. It was a miracle. Since the terror attack on July 14 that murdered two policemen and injured a third, Har HaBayit  had become quiet and peaceful. The Arabs were boycotting the Mount.

There was no one to harass the Jews.

Some Jews figured it out and went to visit right away, before the opportunity to tour the Mount in peace evaporated. Others hesitated, afraid of tensions, not sure they trusted the quiet, not sure they believed that for the first time in a very long time, there was no Muslim presence on Har HaBayit.

For years I'd wanted to visit but held back out of respect for the Litvishe rabbis who tend to discourage the practice. I couldn't visit but I supported freedom of worship for Jews on the Mount. I befriended many people in the various Temple Mount movements. And I learned.

Long Lists of Rabbis

Yosef Rabin shared with me a pdf file of a long list of rabbis that support visits to Har HaBayit. Most of them were not rabbis from my faction. But one or two of them were. Probably not good enough, I thought to myself. I just couldn't take the liberty. It was important to me that I follow the rabbis.

But since the terror attack, I was seeing photos and clips of Jews visiting Har HaBayit and I could see that many of the visitors were Haredi, the faction with which I most closely associate religiously. Something was happening.

It was an awakening of the collective Jewish heart. There was an opportunity.

And no one wanted to miss out.

Proper Preparation

Thanks to dabbling in Jewish Temple Mount rights, I had also come to learn quite a bit about the controversy surrounding ascension. The rabbis were either not confident enough on the subject to permit ascension, or they were afraid that people would desecrate Har HaBayit by walking where forbidden, or by not preparing properly.

None of this would have been an issue for me. By now I knew what to do, how to prepare, how to comport myself. I knew there would be guides to help me navigate where it is and isn't okay to walk. Organizations affiliated with Har HaBayit have made sure there is always a guide to help people tour and learn.

As I witnessed those photos of the smiling faces of friends visiting the Mount, a yearning had grown so strong in me that something clicked in my heart and mind and decided the matter for me. I would go.

I had to go. 

Yearning For Aliyah

It was reminiscent of how I'd felt about coming to Israel. I was a teenager and yearned to make Aliyah. I ate, slept, and dreamt Eretz HaKodesh. I had to be in Israel. My mother had her hands full, a widowed single mother, trying to persuade me to hold off long enough to at least graduate high school first.

It was that yearning again, but this time for Har HaBayit. I had to go now. I was only afraid I was too late. I was afraid that things would go back to the status quo. That I wouldn't be able to see this miraculous sight of a Har HaBayit that was peaceful and calm, beheld in reverence by visiting Jews.

My husband didn't want to go. I didn't want to go alone, so I posted to a Facebook group seeking a companion. One woman responded, tentatively at first, then more sure: JoAnn Goldberg. We knew each other but slightly. She had also never been to the Mount.

The End?

We discussed the visit sporadically throughout the day. The police closed the Mount to Jews after some guy made a provocation by praying loudly. We thought that was the end of our jaunt. Then the Mount was reopened.

Next it was announced they were closing off the Mount to visits early because there was to be a memorial service for the murdered policemen.

Then they canceled the memorial service.

It's like that with Har HaBayit. You never know what's going to be. The police are so afraid something is going to happen that they waffle back and forth constantly.

A Short Window

We decided we would go ahead. We would leave at 6:10 in the morning in order to make sure we made the 7:30 visiting time, as recommended by Jenni Heltay Menashe. There's only a short window for visits. If you're Jewish or otherwise non-Muslim, you can visit from 7:30-11:00 and from 1:30-2:30. Muslims, meantime, can visit any time they like.

That night I went to the mikvah to prepare for my visit. I felt like a kallah, a bride, getting ready for my beloved. I was absolutely gleeful in the water. On the way home I felt shiny somehow, crystalline and pure under the night sky, as if I had absorbed a portion of the light of the moon and the stars.

My heart was soaring.

I did not sleep all night. I tossed and turned, afraid I wouldn't be able to get up when the alarm went off so early. My heart was pounding so that I became fearful. It was just anticipation, but the sensation was so strong I worried a coronary event was imminent.

Cloth Slippers

I arose from my bed at 5:15, even before the alarm went off, and drank my coffee as I watched the sky lighten through the window. I got dressed, grabbed my frozen bottle of water from the freezer and bagged up my cloth slippers (we don't wear leather shoes on Har HaBayit).

I went to wait for JoAnn in the designated spot and watched as she drove right past me. Thank goodness, she called me soon after and came back for me. We were both sleep deprived. JoAnn had also not slept a wink the night before.

It was amazing being out in the early Judean morning, hazy and cool though we were in the midst of a fierce heatwave. It's one of the things I love best about where I live. No matter how hot it is, the nights and early mornings are cool, with the exception of sharav conditions, which occur only once or twice a year, thankfully.

We had decided to park on Mt. Zion and walk to the Western Wall plaza from there. We got to Mt. Zion around 7 and already, the large lot was filled. We circled and circled, hoping we wouldn't have to park farther away. Finally, someone looked to be leaving, and a spot opened up for us! We decided it was God wanting us to visit His holy place, and helping us make it happen.

We made our way down to the Western Wall through the Old City, excitement building in us, not really sure where the entrance was to Har HaBayit. When we went through security, we discovered we had to actually exit the area in order to get to the gate for Har HaBayit. Not a big deal. I wanted to change into my slippers anyway, so I sat on the ledge outside the Kotel plaza and changed out of my shoes. Then we left the plaza to make our way to the waiting area for the Temple Mount where I spotted this sign.

I feel Westren. Do you feel Westren?
We got to the gate where there were already people waiting, maybe 8 or 10. Some were praying the morning service. Others were standing around chatting. I worried that if we weren't at the front of the line, we wouldn't get in. I knew it was unlikely the policemen would allow in more than 10-15 Jews at a time. I grabbed JoAnn and we wound our way to the beginning of the line.

This was so not like me. I never assert myself or push. In fact, it took me about three years to make it onto an Israeli bus. I'd wait in line, and when the bus got there, everyone would push in front of me and before I knew it, the doors of the bus would close and the bus would take off. I'd be left in a cloud of exhaust, feeling like a very polite failure. I was so American. (Still am.)

But I wanted to be in that 7:30 group. I would not be put off.

I had a hunch that two of the women there at the front of the line were to be our guides that morning, so I asked them, "Are you with Nashim L'Maan HaMikdash?"

Sure enough, they were.

Second Security Check

The gates opened and we went through security. I had been warned not to bring any prayer books or religious items, but as he looked through my bag, the guard was freaking out about. . . my wallet. It was leather and had a snap on the front. Some prayer books have a similar look. I figured out his concern and told him it was a wallet.

They took everyone's ID cards as we passed through metal detectors, x-ray, and a manual bag check. After we'd all gone through the security check, a policemen read out the names in the stack of ID cards he was holding, one at a time, looking at us to make sure we matched our photos as he gave them back.

As we waited to ascend, Rivka Shimon, a guide, began to explain what was original to Temple times and what was built by Herod to widen the roads and walkways. She was able to point things out nicely from our vantage point.

I was so excited I breaking out in goose bumps.

Group Of Thirty

Security had decided to let all the people waiting with us ascend to Har HaBayit. This just doesn't happen. But since the terror attack, and since the Arabs had decided they were boycotting the Mount, the policemen were letting in all Jewish comers. We were 30, an unprecedented number, according to our guides.

Finally, they let us go ahead. The men began to sing lusty, joyful Hebrew songs, dancing their way across the wooden-slatted bridge, rickety under our feet. The Arabs had shut down an attempt to repair the bridge some years ago. This was Mughrabi Bridge and it leads to the Mughrabi Gate entrance to the Mount.

After the murder of Hallel Yaffa Ariel, the 13-year-old girl murdered in her bed by an Arab terrorist, her family had pushed to rename the gate Shaar Hallel, Hallel Gate, in her memory. I'm told that all the Temple Mount activists call it Shaar Hallel. I determined that I would do so, too.

The rest of the visit was kind of a blur. I wanted to stop and see things, touch things, but the policemen rushed us along. We were not allowed to linger. They had cameras on us, filming the entire time. There were at least 7 or more policemen following us. They were making sure we didn't pray.
So quiet and peaceful

Just us and the cops
Now I had thought about it and decided that if it looked like it were possible, I would pretend to quietly chat with JoAnn, but in actuality, say some prayers. I asked her on the way there if she was okay with this, how she'd feel if I got arrested, and etc. She said it was fine. That if I got arrested, she would be fine.

While we waited to ascend, I asked our two guides if I could do that, and one of them said, "Certainly. Just don't be provocative and it should be fine."

We got to one part of Har HaBayit which the guide explained was a place for quiet reflection. We stood there only moments before the policemen shooed us onward, but I managed to say the shema.

Next, we came to a ledge where we were told to sit and listen to words of Torah. Strangely, no one minded if we said Divrei Torah. We just couldn't pray!

Rivka Shimon made a beautiful Dvar Torah and made sure to thank the policemen for their dedication to guarding us so well and for taking care of us. I liked that she did that. I'd noticed as we waited to ascend that an Ethiopian policewoman had run up to her for a hug, her face alight. Rivka was the kind of person you had to love.

Rivka finished and a man began to give his Dvar Torah. A policeman tried to stop him. But the cop relented and let the man give his little sermon, though he cautioned him to keep it short. The man didn't keep it short, and eventually, the cops got a bit huffy and he wound it up.

We moved along. I was trying to take photos, but it was difficult what with the policemen rushing us through. If I moved to the side to take a photo, a cop would be right there next to me, filming me. It was creepy.

Why weren't we free to linger? Why weren't we free to pray? There were no Muslims to provoke or offend, so why were our own Israeli policemen keeping us from these freedoms?

It was painful.

The guides explained each thing we saw as best they could, filling things out with their encyclopedic knowledge of the place, its history, and the Torah. I asked if I could see the ancient beams that had been left to rot, out in the elements. A guide showed me where they were.

I'd seen photos and still, as I looked over the ledge, I was horrified. They'd been carbon tested. They were 3,000 year old beams made of cedars of Lebanon. They may very well have been part of the Temple. The Arabs had sold some of them off for firewood, and had carelessly abandoned the rest, barely covering them up with these makeshift tarps.  

In spite of the difficulties of being rushed and watched, I felt all aglow. Rivka Shimon could see it on my face. She kept coming over to touch my arm or give me a squeeze, she was so happy for me. My first time. Rivka saw what I was feeling.

Rivka and the other guide, whose name we never got, had warned us that some people feel moved and others do not, and that both are okay. I had no doubt that I would feel moved. I feel moved every time I go to the Western Wall! And now I knew that the Western Wall was just something Herod built that really had nothing to do with the Temple.

We prayed there only because we couldn't get to the real deal.

Now we could.

Now I had.

The other thing we discussed before climbing that rickety bridge was where we could and couldn't walk, according to Jewish law. The guide whose name we didn't get said that some rabbis said you can walk anywhere on Har HaBayit because it is for the purpose of the mitzvah called Kibush Haaretz (conquering the land). She also said that going anywhere that annoys the goyim (non-Jews) qualifies as Kibush Haaretz.

Clearly she was more right wing than I! But Rivka Shimon interjected: "I don't go to Har HaBayit to annoy anyone. I go to Har HaBayit to be close to God."

That was more my style. I wasn't going there to provoke anyone. I was going there out of a yearning to be close to Hashem, to His holy presence, on His holy mountain. I was on fire with that.

It wasn't about politics. I wasn't going to prostrate myself to the ground to get arrested. I was there for LOVE.

All too soon, it was over. We were rushed out the gate and our guides disappeared. It was actually a little scary because we were two women and we had two roads to choose from and it was an Arab neighborhood. Thank God, we quickly figured out which way it was back to the Western Wall plaza. Funnily enough, we saw Rivka Shimon again and after we went through security (third time's the charm!) we asked her where she lived and how long she'd been doing this. Then she asked us where we come from and said that the ancient mikvaot in our area prove that people would stop there on the way to visit Har HaBayit.

Before we parted ways, Rivka said that when we leave Har HaBayit, we take some of the holiness with us and spread it around to wherever we go, for instance to our homes. "Imagine," she said, "How much greater that holiness will be when the Third Temple is built!"

With that we said goodbye and continued past the Western Wall. I noticed JoAnn looking at the Wall and I found that I didn't even care to look. I said to her, "After where we were? The Kotel feels like a nothing burger."

It was crazy to feel and say that. But there it was. The Western Wall was just a retaining wall that Herod had built, and as Rivka Shimon had mentioned to us, contrary to popular thought, it's not the only remaining remnant connected to the Temple. The northern, southern, and eastern retaining walls are all extant as well.

The Western Wall got built up in our collective Jewish mind and heart because it was the only bit we had access to, and then we didn't even have access to that.

But there is so much more than that. And there is Har HaBayit!

JoAnn and I slowly wound our way back through the Jewish Quarter to Mt. Zion and then to the car to drive home. Now, it was hot. Walking was difficult. We were glad to be in the air-conditioned car.

By the time JoAnn pulled up to the front of my home, we didn't really want to leave each other. We'd just bonded, both of us going to Har HaBayit for the first time together, leaving at the crack of dawn. We sat and talked some more and knew that we would be friends, good friends, from this point on.

We'd shared a most precious experience.

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