Thursday, July 5, 2012

Holy Land: Temple Mount and Western Wall

May 21 was another full day.  Many of us found it tiring partly because of the heat when you go under the sun especially towards noon, although up at the Temple Mount, the highest place in the Old City of Jerusalem, you can shiver from the cold when the wind blew.  The Temple Mount is an incomparable place.  On it once stood king Solomon’s majestic temple, built around 950 BCE and which was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BCE.

The Second Temple, which was initially a modest building in the 5th century BCE but was greatly expanded and refurbished by Herod the Great 20 years before Jesus was born, was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.

The Jews believed that the holiest section of both temples stood on the rock where Abraham bound Isaac, his son through Sarah, and nearly sacrificed him.  Now what stands on that spot is the (golden) Dome of the Rock, an impressive Islamic shrine and the oldest existing Islamic building, built in 691 CE.  The shrine commemorates Mohammed's ascension into heaven (temporarily because he returned).

At the southern end of the Temple Mount is the Al-Aqsa mosque, Islam's third most important mosque (after those in Mecca and Medina).  The Temple Mount complex is under Islamic religious authorities.

To go up, we went through metal detectors.  Women had to be properly dressed.  We were told that there was a fashion police.  Women should not show much skin.  Outside the security check, there was an official sign from the Jewish Rabbinate of Jerusalem warning that the Temple Mount is such a sacred place that nobody should go up there.  Of course, non-Jews and secular Jews ignore the warning.

Tourists could go up there but non-Muslims are forbidden to pray or bring the Bible.  But you can peacefully walk around with your guide and have your pictures taken.  You could see groups of Muslims at prayer or simply touring the place.  I was told that during Ramadan and other important occasions tens of thousands of Muslims would go there.

Entrance into the Dome and the Mosque has become off-limits to non-Muslims ever since Defence Minister Ariel Sharon with 150 Israeli bodyguards provocatively climbed and entered the Temple Mount area in the year 2000 which triggered the 2nd Intifada uprising from Palestinian Muslims.  It is a pity we could not enter the Dome because the postcard pictures I bought showed how beautiful it is inside.

From the Temple Mount we went down to the holiest site that observant Jews could visit, the Western Wall, which used to be called the Wailing Wall.  Ever since Israel occupied the Old City (East Jerusalem) and took control of it away from Jordan in the aftermath of the 6th-day war in 1967, Jews have preferred to call it the Western Wall, which is part of the original retaining wall put up by king Herod in order to expand the esplanade or courtyard of the Temple.

Men and women had separate sections of the Wall.  The men's section was bigger and off-limits to women.  Men have to wear a kipper or skull cap which is freely provided if you had none.  There were many Jews who were praying in front of the wall, touching it, swaying as they prayed, inserting small pieces of paper with prayers into the crevices, which were full of paper.  The people were not too many so it was not hard to find a blank spot.  I was able to touch the wall, say a prayer, and insert my piece of paper.

When I moved away from the wall, I stayed for another 15 minutes to observe people.  It was fascinating to watch devout and not-so-devout Jews, some with their young sons, praying and singing, also because they celebrated bar-mitzvahs for 13 year old boys, which means the boys were considered mature enough to be expected to follow Jewish teachings, a coming-of-age celebration.

It reminded me of the importance of the active involvement of the father in the spiritual and moral formation of his son (and daughter).  I resolved that we should make the confirmation of Sophie and Dennis a special family celebration (and also Dennis' circumcision when he asks for it).

The Western Wall was starting to get packed with people as noon approached, and as more families came to celebrate the bar-mitzvah, carrying small canopies over the boys, with joyful singing, dancing, and candy-throwing to bystanders.

As a Filipino, I found it amusing to think that many would decide to celebrate bar-mitzvah at high noon when, even though the air was cool and dry, the sun was hot and can be stinging and there were chairs but no tents or trees near the Western Wall.

Since men and women had separate sections, the women who came for the bar mitzvahs went to the divider and climbed on top of their chairs to witness the ceremony for their sons or brothers. They would sing, clap, make ululation sounds, and throw candy from the divider.  It was touching to see the boys, some somewhat small for a thirteen year old, carrying the big heavy scroll of the Torah (5 books of Moses).  They now take upon themselves the (sweet) yoke of God’s Law.

Some fathers assist their small sons.  But you could see how happy and proud the fathers were, many kissing their sons affectionately every now and then.  Some of the boys, unsurprisingly, look embarrassed at such display of joy and affection from their loved ones.  The boys of course were prepared for this day through years of listening to and assisted reading of the Torah, in some very devout families starting at age of 5.  There is something to this: the day when a boy (or girl) is considered mature enough to be responsible in the realm of faith and morals should be celebrated as a very joyful day and should be remembered as such.

The picture of Deeda, Dennis and Sophie of course came to my mind.  I did not ask God for anything specific for them in the paper I inserted in the Wall.  I thanked the Holy One of Blessing for his Presence fills creation and his wisdom and love are trustworthy as regards our welfare.

Confirmation is our closest equivalent to the bar-mitzvah (and maybe circumcision for the teenage boy) and I am more convinced that it should be celebrated in a more special way by Catholic families.

Entering the area of the Western Wall, the Jewish rabbis put up a formal sign declaring that the Divine Presence is always in the Wall.  It was fascinating to see birds entering holes high in the Wall and plants growing out of it, including one with beautiful flowers.  Glenn told me that those flowering plants with small fruits were caper bushes.  So I shall not look at the capers Deeda serves in our salads the same way anymore.

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