14 July 2010

"The Gatekeepers"

Following is an essay I wrote a few years ago that appeared in the Jewish Press...
[Note for clarification: This essay concerns the area immediately OUTSIDE the Temple Mount, not ON it.]

It was one of those spring-like late winter days not uncommon to Jerusalem in February---flawless blue sky, first pink bloom of almonds. It was also Shabbat Parshat Mishpatim - Shabbat Mevorchim shel Rosh Chodesh Adar Aleph 5763. On this particular Shabbat, I walked into the Old City from my home in nearby Nachlaot to pray the afternoon service. In predominantly Jewish neighborhoods, it is easy to get a sense of the peace of Shabbat, as all business ceases with the onset of the Jewish holy day.

However, on the approach to the entrance to the Old City of Jerusalem, traffic barrels along the highway, like it is just any other day. Entering through Jaffa Gate brings one directly into the Arab Christian quarter, where it is a busy Saturday. The contrast between what is and what should be is disconcerting, to say the least.

Jerusalemites faithful to the daily prayers for the rebuilding of the Temple have made a practice of encircling Har Habayit (the Temple Mount), reciting Tehillim (Psalms) before each of the gates which surround it on each Shabbat Mevorchim---the Shabbat on which each new Hebrew month is announced. A flyer taped to the wall on the descent to the Kotel Plaza in the Jewish Quarter notifies me that on this Shabbat a group will meet in front of the first gate to Har Habayit at 1:15 pm. I had just enough time to pray mincha before joining them so I determined to go.

Although I like to consider myself a Temple activist, it had actually been some time since I had participated in such an activity, and for good reason. I am not anxious to see the inside of the Kishle---the Israeli police station in the Old City of Jerusalem. The Israeli police in this part of the city are primarily Arab, and those who aren't, might as well be. They are not friendly to religious Jews in general and are in fact, active enemies of those who desire to see the Jewish Temple rebuilt in its original place. Jews are the only people in the Old City of Jerusalem who have no rights to their holiest religious site.

The injustice of it overwhelms me every time I am confronted with it face to face. My Jewish soul is pained beyond endurance by the reality of it. The zealot within me is at times too strong to curtail when push comes to shove, as it has literally done on more than one occasion with the Israeli police.

You see, even within Holy Jerusalem there is a Jewish ghetto---a place where Jewish presence is confined---and it is called the Western Wall Plaza. If Jews want to go beyond this fenced and walled-off area, they must go only under police escort, ostensibly for their own protection.

The group was led by a handful of young men whose study centers around the Temple at a yeshiva in the Old City which specializes in the subject. They are called the Temple Guard, and they wear a distinctive uniform marking them as such. Their job is to acquaint people with the subject and to direct Jewish consciousness toward the loss and eventual restoration of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Besides them and myself, there were another handful of young women (one obviously pregnant), one older gentleman and three or four children. We were a very threatening-looking lot, or at least we must have appeared so to the hundreds of Arabs we passed in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, where the majority of the gates to Har Habayit are located.

Raucous music blared in the crowded, smoky, trash-strewn streets, and Arabs all along the way stopped to stare their obvious displeasure at this Jewish intrusion into their midst. Some complained openly and loudly. The yeshiva boys sang songs extolling the kedusha (holiness) of Yerushalayim, but we couldn't hear them at the rear of the line in which the police forced us to walk. Despite our leader's pleas with the policeman in charge that the group was guaranteed rights to approach the gates, an instant Arab denial of access was enforced by the police escort without argument or redress.

It was reminiscent of what I had read about the Cave of the Patriarchs. When under the control of the Arabs, the actual burial place of the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs was made off-limits to Jews. As a sign of Muslim control and superiority, no Jew was allowed to approach closer than the seventh step from the entrance of the Me'arat haMachpelah. Here we were, supposedly the masters and rulers of our own land and we were again being restricted, not only from entering the area of the Mount itself for two and a half years, but we were not being allowed to enter even within 50 feet of the gates!

The Jews, in typical Jewish fashion, did as they were told without complaint or refusal to obey orders. The control was so complete that the police insisted upon keeping everyone in a single line all on one side of the street even though those at the rear could not hear the prayers as they were being lead. Keep in mind that this was essentially taking place at a dead-end where there is no through traffic and the "streets" are all pedestrian in any case.

It was extremely difficult for me not to give way to the tears that blurred my vision, as my heart broke over the sad state into which both we and our holy place had sunk. But it was, after all, both Shabbat and Rosh Chodesh Adar, two days when it is forbidden to be sad. Just when I felt I could not take any more, I called out to Hashem in silent prayer and begged Him to give me a sign for good so that I could overcome the feelings of despair.

As the little group made its way singing up to the Lion's Gate, the very one through which the paratroopers had entered to conquer the Mount in 1967, the policemen who had been trailing us ran ahead and joined up with the guards who were regularly assigned to this gate, and they all scurried quickly to set up a barricade to prevent a close approach. Suddenly, I saw their actions in an entirely new light. Hashem gave me the sign I had requested, and I saw that in reality they were very much afraid of us---afraid of what we represented and subconsciously afraid of what our actions and prayers portended. When our day arrives, their day is over and they are keenly aware of this at some deep soul-level, perhaps even more than we.

The next stop was Sha'ar haRachamim, the Mercy Gate in Hebrew, also called the Golden Gate, the one the Muslims sealed and before which a Muslim cemetery was located in the erroneous belief that it will prevent the approach of Eliyahu, prophet and priest and herald of the arrival of the Messiah. Since it is outside the Old City walls and the Muslim Quarter, the police were content to simply observe from the top of the walls and did not accompany us along this part of our route. In front of the Mercy Gate, the Temple Guard led the group in prayers for the rebuilding of the Holy Temple in our days and ended with the recitation of the Shema, as it is proclaimed at the end of the Yom Kippur Service when the portion which is normally spoken softly is pronounced in a loud voice---"Blessed is the Name of His glorious kingdom for all eternity!" This was followed by the sevenfold announcement that "Hashem, Hu haElokim!---Hashem, He is G-d!"

Finally, we came around the corner of the very high southeast corner of the Old City walls and stood along the street opposite the Hulda Gates, where, in the time when the Temple stood, those wishing to ascend to come close to Hashem would enter. And there I saw another sign for good. Of all the places for the stones of the wall to be protruding and in real danger of buckling, it is here, all around the sealed Hulda Gates, above which the Al-Aksa Mosque stands. It is as if Hashem wants to push them out and make an opening for us to ascend to His Presence once more as in days long past, but which we know from prophecy are destined to return again.

We had now returned to the starting point, and as the group disbanded, I realized that I had found my good thought, the vision which Rebbe Nachman says we must visualize in order to be happy and have perfect faith that Hashem is in control of his universe. One day---Hashem grant that it be soon---the gates of Har Habayit will stand wide open for all the Jews to enter and no one will stand between us and Avinu Malkeynu---our Father and our King.