Two thousand years ago, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem was the site of the Second Temple, where Jews brought sacrifices to offer to G-d. Shortly after the time of Jesus, the Romans destroyed that Temple. Over the centuries, two mosques were built on top of the Mount with a lovely courtyard between them, and that is what exists there today.
Orthodox Jews will not go up on the Mount, for fear that they accidentally will step into the space that once held the Holy of Holies, which could only be entered by the High Priest on Yom Kippur. Because I’m not an Orthodox Jew, when I was in Israel seven years ago, I went up on the Temple Mount, and what happened there changed my life forever.
Here’s my story . . .
In April of 2007, I was in Jerusalem with a tour group from the Union for Reform Judaism. On the day we were to explore the Muslim and Christian portions of the Old City, our first stop was The Temple Mount. While up by the Dome of the Rock, the gold-domed mosque frequently featured in photographs of Jerusalem, I walked over to the east edge to look across the valley at the Mt. of Olives.
There, in a little sliver of shade at the top of the eastern steps of the Mount, sat an older woman, whose clothing told me she was an observant Muslim. I noticed that she was staring at me and another woman in our group, so I asked in Hebrew if there was something she needed or if I could help her. She responded with a word that I had never heard before. I told her in Hebrew that I didn’t understand, and I asked again if she needed something. She said the same word, so I told her that I was sorry but I didn’t understand. As she walked away from me, she wasn’t “angry,” but she was upset, and I was disappointed because I had wanted to help her if I could.
I looked at the churches and cemetery on the Mt. of Olives, and then I turned west to look more closely at the mosque. Instead, I saw a man handing two or three coins to the same older woman – which I could see because he did not touch her as he placed the coins in her hand. She said what I presume was an expression of gratitude, and she continued to walk west.
Immediately, I knew what the woman had “needed” from me, and I knew that, by making her ask twice but then still not giving her a coin, I had unintentionally shamed her!!
I called for her in Hebrew, but she did not hear me, so the man who had given her the coins called to her in Arabic, and she stopped. When I got to her, I opened my coin pouch, dumped out the Israeli coins that I had, and handed them to her. She got the sweetest “loving grandmother” expression on her face, put her hands on my cheeks, looked right into my eyes, and spoke a really long string of Arabic, which I have always just assumed was a blessing. Then she kissed each of my cheeks, turned, and walked west.
As I stood frozen in the moment, having just been blessed and kissed by a complete stranger from East Jerusalem, the man who had helped me by stopping her came to talk to me. We began in Hebrew, because he had heard me speaking it, and then, when he learned I was a Jew from the United States, he said, “ahh, then we’ll talk in English.”
He told me about the woman — that her children had died and she alone was left to raise her grandchildren, but she was too old to work and she struggled to feed the children every day, so he was moved by my giving to her. Then he expressed his firm belief that we were all one people, we Muslims and Jews, because, if we would only look closely, we have more that unites us than that separates us. As we discussed our many similarities, he prayed that some day, G-d willing, everyone else would come to realize that we are all one family. The last thing he said to me was: “May the G-d of our father, Abraham, bless you fifty times over for what you have done this day.”
While we talked, I felt incomprehensible awe and overwhelming connection to heaven, earth, and all of creation. I was standing on the Temple Mount — the very spot that repeatedly has been a lightning rod for war between Tribes and religions, twenty feet from “the rock of creation” and from where the Holy of Holies had stood, next to that beautiful gold dome — and a Muslim man from East Jerusalem was giving me the most beautiful message of “Oneness” about our tribes, our religions, our father, and our G-d. It was overwhelming and unbelievable.
During the ten minutes that he and I talked, two people from my tour group had come to “save me” from what I am sure they thought was a place I was “trapped” by a man who would not leave me alone — but I had sent them away to continue talking to him because, in that moment, I could feel “G-d” and “Love” and “Unity” in a way that was so palpable that I never wanted the moment to end! Eventually, a URJ rabbi came to get me because the rest of the group was leaving and they didn’t want to leave me on the Mount.
As we toured later, I saw the man sitting outside a madrassah in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. I really wanted to sit and talk to him more, to learn from him … but I also had a sense that I was seeing him there so that I would know that he had been real, that the moment on the Temple Mount had happened, that it was a human being (rather than Elijah the Prophet himself) who had brought me that “close to G-d”….
Over the past seven years, when I’ve tried to share this experience with others, I didn’t really have the vocabulary to explain what happened, and so people consistently thought I was saying: (1) I got blessed because I gave money, and (2) people should be charitable to feel closer to G-d. But, actually, the “lesson” I learned from my experience didn’t have anything to do with money; nor was it really about charity . . . and I think I can finally explain it . . .
I had been completely humbled by my inability to help that woman or to even understand what she was saying. And, in my ignorance, I had (albeit unintentionally) disrespected and shamed her by having her ask me twice for “charity” (or “justice”), but then not honoring her request (when the Israeli accent of my Hebrew suggested I should have known exactly what she was saying).
When I hurried to the woman and gave her coins, they were not “money.” The coins were, between two women with no shared language, simply the vessel that held my apology for shaming her. And her kisses and blessing were acceptance of my apology . . . and gratitude for my desire to return her dignity to her.
It was not my money that permitted my awareness of G-d’s presence as that man talked about Oneness and Peace. I stood in my own personal Holy of Holies because I had been willing to admit my complete ignorance and make amends for the shame I had caused another human being. I was humbled and I showed compassion for another and, in doing so, was allowed a vision of the Unity that underlies all of creation.
My experience on the Temple Mount, and the lesson I learned there, forever changed me, because now I want only to spend my days living humbly and showing compassion to those I meet, so that I might always live with awareness of G-d’s presence.
Praying each of you might also see the Unity and feel G-d’s presence, jen