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Sunday, January 26, 2020

Day 7: Western Wall/Dome of the Rock/Israel Museum

Women have the right side of the wall - farther away from the former Temple
Today we got an unexpected but important glimpse into what the tensions are really like here in the Holy Land.

We started the day as the sun was rising in the East on the Western Wall. It used to be called "The Wailing Wall" from 1948-1967 during the years of Jordanian rule when Jews were not permitted access to The Wall. (Imagine!)

There is security at the wall, of course, with separate scanners: men to the left, women to the right. And there is a wall around the wall, men to the left, women to the right.

Men praying at the left side of the wall - closest to the Temple
The left side of the Western Wall is closest to the remnant of the Temple, so it is closest to the Holy of Holies. The left side is also noisy, the men needing to shout out their prayers from time to time, for no real discernible reason, except, perhaps because they can.

The women are on the right side of the Western Wall. Except those women who drag their chairs to the back partition of the men's side of the wall. They are far from the actual wall but closer to the Holy of Holies.  I know. Go figure.

Many of the women bury their faces in their prayer book and rock back and forth. I noticed some of them weeping silently. Some of them start about halfway back and slowly approach the wall. Once there they embrace the wall, sometimes kissing it, sometimes getting the wall wet with their tears.

Some women go back and forth between their chair and the wall. But one never - ever!- turns one's back on the wall. One backs out slowly and walks backward until one gets past the library area of prayer books, just as one would do in the presence of royalty.

I had a lovely experience with one woman who was sitting on a chair next to where I was standing. I was reading the list of prayers softly, holding the paper in my left hand and touching the wall with my right hand.

Moi praying at the Wall.
When I finished saying all the prayers I folded up the paper, bent over slightly, and placed it in a crevice of the wall. As I came up, the woman in the chair next to me patted my leg and said, "Is good. Is okay. Is good."

I was feeling emotionally depleted at that very moment and I was pleasantly surprised that she was able to pick that up with her spiritual antenna.

It felt very pastoral, very loving, very kind.

The emotional and spiritual language of women is, in many ways, universal.

From the wall, we went through another security section - men on the left, women on the right - to go to the Temple Mount.

The Mosque there is closed to anyone who isn't Muslim but I didn't see anyone go in to pray. I suppose I was there when it wasn't one of the five times during the day that devout Muslims pray.

We made our way to the Dome of the Rock, which was built on the site of the Second Jewish Temple which was destroyed in 70 CE.  It's the holiest of sites for Muslims. The Fountain Stone on which the Temple was built is said to be the place where God created the world and the first human.

It is also said to be the place where Abraham attempted to sacrifice his son Isaac, and as the place where God's divine presence is manifested more than in any other place, towards which Jews turn during prayer. This last piece is very important to remember.

Finally, the Dome of the Rock is the place where the Prophet Muhammed was ascended in his "night journey" after his death. Geographically, it is directly across from the place of the Ascension of Jesus.

The healing pools at Bethesda (The Sheep Gate)
Oh, and the fifth chapter of John's Gospel talks about the healing at the medicinal healing pools near the Sheep Gate, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda. 

It's an area rich in spiritual significance for all three Abrahamic faiths.

So, there we were, walking around the Temple Mount, taking pictures, admiring the mosaic, reflecting on the deep, ancient spiritual significance of the place when suddenly, we were very abruptly gathered up and told we had to leave. Now.

A very angry Palestinian Muslim security guard yelled at us to "Get out, now."

We had no idea what was going on or what, if anything, we had done wrong. We just listened to our guide and our leaders and left as quickly and quietly as we could.

When we were a safe distance away, our guide told us that, apparently, the guard had seen one of our leaders sitting on the ground with his eyes closed. (He also happened to be wearing his collar). As he looked around, apparently, he saw other members of our group doing the same thing.

He went to our guide and starting yelling that we were praying and our Christian prayers were not allowed on this holiest of holy places for Muslims.

Our guide tried to tell him that we weren't praying but merely reflecting.

The Dome of the Rock at Temple Mount
That seemed to make him even angrier.

Out! He said. Now!

So, I understand. At first I, too, thought, "Oh, for goodness sake! Prayer is prayer! What the WHAT is wrong with him?"

Well, what is wrong with him is thousands of years of blood-soaked war which were fought over whose prayers are authentic and whose inheritance is valid and who "owns" the place where God created the earth and human beings and Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son and Muhammed ascended into heaven and even the Jews turn toward the Dome of the Rock as the holiest of holies.

It also has to do with the fact that Israel has been building settlements in the West Bank in violation of the agreements so that the Palestinian Arabs, many of whom (but not all) are Muslims and some of whom are Christians, have more and more of their land taken from them.

It has to do with the fact that Israel has built a wall separating the Palestinians from the Israelis and then reinforce that ghettoization with a system of travel that strictly limits Palestinian access to work, hospitals, schools, and families.

A place to wash one's feet
Indeed, after a few days here, one begins to notice that Palestinian homes have one or two or more large black tanks on the roof and the Israeli homes do not.

The large black tanks are filled with water which they sometimes need because the Israeli's have cut off Palestinian access to water and sometimes, for no apparent reason (except that they can), the water will be shut off for days at a time.

The Palestinians have learned to take care of themselves when that harassment begins.

So, it's not surprising that tensions run very high here. The smallest infraction can cause a major scene that could easily escalate and get right out of hand.

I understand. That man was simply holding onto the one thing that he still had control over.  

You should have seen the man's eyes. I know I'll never forget how they burned with outrage!

It doesn't take long to understand that the Israeli occupation of Palestine may be their revenge for years of Arab oppression, but it's also true that turn-about is not necessarily fair play.

All that it seems to be accomplishing is the creation of an incubator for terrorists.

I remembered Yasser Arafat's famous quote, "Whoever stands by a just cause can not possibly be called a terrorist."

We should never let facts get in the way of truth. 'Just' can be different from 'right', and what is right is not necessarily just.

I don't have a solution. I only know that I've caught small glimpses here and there of the tensions Palestinians have to live with every day.

Today provided an even more vivid glimpse into the realities of life here in occupied Palestine.

I think it absolutely breaks God's heart to see Her children waring against one another for centuries, with no apparent end in sight. 

I know I'm going to pray even more fervently for peace in the Middle East in general and Jerusalem and Palestine in particular.

I hope you will join me. 

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