It is said that when man plans, God laughs; so when my dear friend and colleague, Shlomo Vile called me late last night to invite me for a Sukkot ascension to the Temple Mount, I could hear God laughing in the background. Of course, I said ‘yes.’ Shlomo is an amazing man and if he had invited me to sit on a beach and munch on rocks I would have agreed, knowing it would be an uplifting and spiritual experience. I figured walking with Shlomo where the Temple once stood would be a trip to heaven and, as it turned out, I wasn’t too far off.
We arranged to meet at the entrance to the Temple Mount at 7:30 in the morning, which would require a very early start to arrive at the Western Wall, pray, drink some coffee, and still arrive on time.
The next morning, I woke up before dawn and got ready for a day of work reporting for Breaking Israel News, packing my laptop and camera along with my tallit and lulav. As I headed out the door, I was a bit anxious. I had come to Jerusalem for Chol Hamoed (the intermediary days of Sukkot) and was staying with a friend in a unfamiliar section of Jerusalem. Jewish men are required to immerse in a mikveh (ritual bath) before visiting the Temple Mount and I had no idea where the nearest mikveh was. Rather than worry, I decided to leave it in God’s hands. I stepped outside and saw a man walking down the dark street.
“Excuse me,” I said to the stranger, hesitant to ask such an incongruous question. “Do you know if there is a men’s mikveh near here?”
He looked surprised and said, “Well, actually, yes. Just around the corner. I happen to be going there now and I’ll show you the way.”
Ten minutes later, I was alone in the tiled room, dunking under the water. Ten minutes after that, I was standing at the bus-stop feeling rather blessed that I barely had to wait three minutes for the bus to arrive. Had I paid more attention, I would have heard God snickering in the background. When I opened my wallet to show my bus pass to the driver I saw that the pass was gone. Jerusalem bus drivers only accept the cards which must be charged with credits before boarding. I stood there on the swaying bus, struggling for mental and physical balance.
“I don’t know what to do,” I admitted. “I don’t have any cash on me since my card had plenty of credits on it. I am going to the Temple Mount to meet a friend and really can’t be late.”
The driver, a young Sephardi man, inspected me in the rear view mirror. “You’re going to the Temple Mount?” He thought about it, looking around at the empty bus.”Go sit before you fall down.”
Ten minutes later I got off the bus near Jaffa Gate and began walking toward the Kotel (Western Wall), winding my way through the narrow and twisted alleys of the Old City. Since leather shoes are forbidden on the Temple Mount, I was wearing an old pair of Crocs, their soles worn smooth. They offered little traction on the ancient stones under my feet and to make matters even worse, the streets were soaking wet. In Israel, you can pack your umbrella away after Passover and rest assured you probably won’t need it until well after Sukkot; so the slick stones perplexed me. Near the Cardo (one of the city’s ancient Roman arteries), my way forward was blocked by an Arab working a pressure washer, solving the riddle of why I could barely keep my footing.
I had fifteen minutes until I needed to meet Shlomo, which I figured gave me plenty of time to grab a coffee first. When I arrived at the stairs leading down to the Western Wall Plaza, I nearly dropped my coffee; the plaza was overflowing with people, far more than I had ever seen on any other Chol Hamoed visit. It was as if Jerusalem had burst to life, becoming the number one global tourist destination overnight. As I approached the line to enter the Temple Mount, I realized that there were hundreds of people, Jews mixed in with non-Jews, all waiting their turn.
I called Shlomo. “Where are you?”
“I am almost inside,” he answered.
“I’m sorry to disappoint you,” I said. “I just got in line and it looks like it will be quite some time until I get up to where you are. You’ll have to go in without me, We’ll do it together some other time.”
Half an hour later, I finally made it to the head of the line where a police-woman asked for my identification. As I handed her my photo ID, I noticed the man standing next to me hand over his card as well.
“Shlomo!” I shouted. “I thought…”
The rest of my sentence was drowned out by an annoying group of angels that wouldn’t stop laughing.
As we entered the wood tunnel that led up to the Temple Mount, our conversation became a sharing of deep thoughts and Biblical quotes, as it always does when we get together. I am not always that focused on holy matters but I suspect that Shlomo is, at all times and with everyone he meets. He is certainly that way with me and it brings out the absolute best in me. Our observations before entering the Temple Mount were focused on how there was clearly an awakening going on, an unstoppable uprising of Jews.
“But it is amazing how many non-Jews are here,” Shlomo noted, citing Psalm 126.
“Our mouths shall be filled with laughter, our tongues, with songs of joy. Then shall they say among the nations, “Hashem has done great things for them!”
“This is what I am looking at right now,” Shlomo said. “Non-Jews are coming to Israel to see what Hashem has done for us. And that is having an effect on us. Everyone, including you, looks happy. It is the Sukkot Effect.”
“To be honest,” he said. “It is embarrassing. God told us to build His house and to do the Temple service. But we aren’t doing it. It seems that having the non-Jews remind us about this is what is bringing us to it.”
As we entered, I realized this was the third time I had been here. But not only was I not becoming apathetic, the growing familiarity allowed me to focus on details I had missed before. On my first visit, I had been dumbfounded by the sheer size of the place. While the world focuses on the Muslim structures, the gold and silver domes, they actually obscure the true nature of the site. The air glows with holiness.
Along the walkways are endless piles of cut stones, each one a witness of what once stood here and what needs to be built again. After all the political fairy-tales are told in the hallowed halls of government, after the echoes of peace plans and Middle-East agendas die down, these stones will still be here, bearing silent witness, waiting for me, or my children, or my children’s children, to reach out for them.
But the place is nothing if it is empty, and on this morning, it was full to overflowing. Jews and non-Jews moved through the site, God’s holy mountain, each a unique product of prophecy. A shiny-faced father with a new kippah on his head, a loud American tourist, who brought his children to see what he didn’t understand but what he knew was important.
“Kiss the stones,” he instructed his children, a nervous smile on his face. “Let’s take another selfie to send to your teacher in Hebrew school.”
I silently blessed him for following the slender thread of spiritual heritage that led him back to stand by me and all the other Jews who had answered the Biblical imperative to come to God’s house for the holiday.
“Please, no praying,” the young Israeli policeman reminded the group. “It’s nothing personal. If it was up to me, I would let you pray. I want you to, but those are the rules for now.”
“It’s okay,” an older man with a thick beard replied. “We won’t cause any trouble. What’s your name? I’ll say a prayer for you too.”
“Rachim ben (the son of) Avital,” the policeman said, as the older man closed his eyes in deep meditation.
A man with a sad smile approached me. I realized I knew him from when I lived in Gush Etzion.
“My rabbi said that the lack of sacrifices has allowed the world to become apathetic about blood,” he said. “Murder used to be unthinkable, a rarity. Now, amazing men like Ari Fuld can be stabbed in cold blood and one week later, the world has forgotten. That is not the way the world should be. We need to do our job here and fix the world.”
I lifted my camera to take a photo of one of the many olive orchards on the mount and I heard a shout in Arabic. A Waqf guard was sitting under the tree that I was about to photograph. He was waving his finger angrily at me.
“No picture,” he said.
I shrugged. I had discovered a glitch in my camera unique to the Temple Mount. When I had carefully set up the photo, I had not seen him in the screen. I certainly wasn’t interested in taking a picture of an Arab security guard.
We continued toward the exit and I overheard a conversation between two men in my group.
“I turn my eyes to the mountains; from where will my help come?” one man asked the other as they walked next to two diligent Waqf guards.
“My help comes from Hashem, maker of heaven and earth,” his friend answered him casually, adding, “He will not let your foot give way; your guardian will not slumber.”
“You know,” Shlomo said to me. “We already know how this will end. We just have to figure out what role we want to play in it.”
I nodded, trying to figure out how a small-town boy from New Jersey, a former motorcycle enthusiast and classically trained chef, fit into prophecy.
As we neared the exit, many in the group turned around, walking backward out of respect for the place. I held up my fingertips, not towards the mosque, but towards the empty space surrounding it that will one day be filled with something else entirely.
“Goodbye, abba,” I whispered, kissing my fingertips. “I’m glad I came to visit you in your house. I’ll try not to wait so long until next time.”
We walked through the iron doors, stepping into the dim light of the Arab Quarter. I looked back, catching a last glimpse before the police closed the door. Suddenly, I was sobbing uncontrollably, my forehead pressed against the grimy wall of the shuk (Arab market). Images flew through my mind. I had done teshuva, repented, become a religiously observant Jew. I had left my sinful behavior behind. I was a good husband, a proud father, I prayed and kept kosher. But the final step, the one thing I need so desperately to fix my life, was entirely outside of me. God demanded I be moral, which I understood. God required me to be religious and I consented. But God had other demands that made no sense. He wanted a house, he wanted service, he wanted a House of Prayer for all nations. And he had given that job to my ancestors in a way that implicated me as well. I could not be whole until I answered that call and in the craziest scene ever, non-Jews were coming from all over the world to make me live up to this.
When I first started down this path to being a Jew, my rabbi said it would be difficult. But what he neglected to tell me was that it is actually impossible without friends like Shlomo. He didn’t tell me that once I started, entire nations would be lining up to cheer me on and keep me to the straight and narrow.
Well, here I am, with tears soaking my beard. Where do I go from here?