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Friday, August 23, 2019

Shtick at the entrance to the Temple Mount, Tisha B’Av 2018. (Credit: Ben Sandler)

Two years ago, on Shiva Asar B’Tammuz, I went up to Har Habayit. I had been there a number of times before, but this was a particularly meaningful visit, to be reconnecting to this holy place on the day when the path to its destruction began. There were about 50 people in the group. A few people shared divrei Torah and talked about the Temple, and pointed out various significant locations. However, my family and I were blessed to have an even more meaningful visit last year when we all went up on Tish’a b’Av, among the more than 1,400 Jews who went up that day. This year I will be in Teaneck for Tisha B’Av and am feeling not just the loss of the Temple 2,000 years ago, but also deeply missing that closeness to holiness that I felt just last year.

Many religious Jews have never been to Har Habayit and may have been told that it is forbidden to go. This is not the place for a full exposition of the laws of entering Har Habayit. But a quick summary “on one foot” is in order. It is permitted for someone who is tamei met (has been exposed to a dead body) to go up to the Temple Mount after going to a mikvah, but they may not enter the Temple itself. Our practice is to avoid entering the place where the Temple stood, even though it is no longer there. Although the exact location is not known, there is fairly conclusive evidence of where it was, and also where Har Habayit was extended by Herod. Thus, the path that is accepted by those who go up takes you on three sides beyond even the original Har Habayit, and on one side (the eastern side) to the original Har Habayit, but outside of where the courtyard around the Temple was. Due to the security and organized nature of the visits, there is no chance you will deviate from the path. But by not going you are missing out on a unique opportunity to experience physical holiness that for Jews does not exist anywhere else in the world. For a thorough discussion of the topic, see Hakirah Volume 10, “Entering the Temple Mount in Halacha and Jewish History,” by Gedaliya Meyer and Henoch Messner, available at http://www.hakirah.org/.

Following the agreement between the Israeli government and the Waqf that oversees the Temple Mount, non-Muslims may only visit for a few hours a day and may not engage in any form of prayer or religious activities. Religious Jews are given extra scrutiny and generally need to wait to be grouped together and escorted, while non-Jewish tourists stream past. It can be difficult, as it is probably the only place in Israel where you feel singled out for being Jewish.

For our visit on Tisha B’Av we got there very early, as the mountain is opened to non-Muslim visitors starting at 7:30 a.m., and we knew there would be a large crowd. Although it was a sad day, there was an energy there that I’ve never felt on Tisha B’Av before. We were mourning the loss of the Temple, yet returning to its location as a sovereign people in our ancestral land.

Despite the large crowds, we were still limited to a single group of 70 Jews being on the mountain at one time, and to enable as many people to visit as possible, they kept us moving.

But despite the challenges and the usually somber mood of the day, this was a truly uplifting experience. We were grouped together with a number of other families with children, and there was someone explaining to the kids the history of the place. A few people were crying for the Temple that is no longer there, but for the most part the mood was upbeat. The custom, and the practice that all religious groups follow, is to make a counter-clockwise circuit around the mountain, starting at the Mughrabi Gate and ending at the Chain Gate. This is in line with the practice recorded by the Rambam in Hilchot Beit Habechira 7:3.

The “status quo” rules mentioned above do not allow prayer or singing on the mountain for non-Muslims. But as soon as our group exited the Mount, we all spontaneously started dancing and singing the Carlebach tune for “Hashiveinu Hashem eilecha venashuva, chadesh yameinu k’kedem.” An Israeli police officer asked me why were were singing and dancing on this day of mourning. I explained to him that the words we were singing are from the end of Megillat Eicha, which we read on Tisha B’Av, and they express the hope that God will return to us, and we will in turn return to Him. I told the officer that this has been fulfilled, and here we are—we have returned.

After this visit, we went down to the Kotel to daven. I said Shacharit, and then felt I should say some kinnot, though I did not have my book of kinnot with me. I sat down on the ground and recited the first line of kinnot: Oy, me haya lanu—Woe, what did we have. But then I looked around at the gleaming, rebuilt city of Jerusalem and said, aval walla, ma yesh lanu—But wow, what do we have? I couldn’t continue to mourn being exiled from the land and from God’s presence when I had just stood in the place where He chose to rest His name, here in the heart of the Jewish city and land, filled with millions of Jews. Of course, the Temple is still missing. Of course, things are not perfect, and of course there are myriad tragedies of Jewish history that deserve their day of mourning. But the mourning could not help but mix with hope and even joy at the prophecies that have already been fulfilled.

For most of us reading this, Sunday will be another Tisha B’Av in exile. We will sit on the floor and mourn for the Temples, the exiles, the destruction, the pogroms and the Holocaust. But let’s add another dimension, and not let that be the end of the story by disconnecting from the miracles that have occurred over the past century.

After we left the Kotel last Tisha B’Av, we saw a strange sight. A few people were walking around in costume, with toy shovels, vests and hard hats. They were dressed as construction workers, ready to rebuild the Temple. My first thought was it’s not Purim—is this really a time for shtick? But they captured the same hope as I felt when we were dancing earlier that morning. One of the “construction workers” captured it perfectly when he said, “Tafsik livkot, tatchil livnot—stop crying, start building!”

We are living in historic times from a religious perspective, and most of the destruction that we read about in the kinot and prayers of Tisha B’Av has been reversed. Jerusalem is not empty and desolate. The land is filled with Jews, Jewish children play in the streets of Jerusalem, and construction crews are building non-stop. Let’s commit to increasing our connection to Israel, whether by living there or visiting more often or giving strength and support to those who are there.

And let’s also commit to taking one active step toward rebuilding the Temple. All of the miracles of our return to Zion happened with God’s help, but would not have happened without people making practical efforts to be physically present, to settle and build up the land. And the Temple will only be rebuilt if Jews continue to stake our claim to the Temple Mount by learning about it and going up and being present. Every Jew who goes up is one more demonstration to the Israeli government, the Wakf, and the world that this place is holy to us, and we will not forget or neglect where the Temples stood, and where the third Temple will one day stand.

This Tisha B’Av let’s cry for the past, and then commit to taking one step forward toward the future. The redemption will not be televised. It is happening now, in Israel. Stop crying and start building!

By Ben Sandler