Friday, February 18, 2011

'Center of Universe' filled with beauty and fear

It's Friday, time yet again for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts (IJS&F). Today let's take a journey together to one of the holiest sites in the world.

Christian mapmakers probably went too far when they labeled Jerusalem as the very center of the Universe. If scientifically that has been disproved, spiritually it remains a reality. This is God’s country, a land held off and on by Jews, Christians and Muslims since the day Joshua led the Children of Israel across the Jordan.

The sites of interest that dot the tiny country of Israel – Hebron, Jericho, Jaffa, Sfat, Bethlehem, the Galilee – are of cosmic import to one or another religious tradition. So linked to the ancient past is the state of Israel, that the Bible is not only used for meditation and prayer, but quite often by tour guides to locate spots of note.

At the heart of the country is Jerusalem, arguably the holiest city in the world. Three thousand years ago a guerrilla fighter named David captured this spot from the Jebusites. The rest is history, a rich history of an ancient people that is filled with tales of love and war, political intrigue, religious fanaticism and rebirth.

The Old City of Jerusalem is a euphonic blend of cobblestone streets and serpentine alleys, a place of spiritual energy, ancient secrets – and discord. Trepidation hangs heavily on the horizon. Much of the turmoil is centered on the Temple Mount, sacred and holy ground for two of the three religions that have matured and prospered here.

This bit of real estate speaks to the heart of Muslim belief, for on this site rests a mosque, the Dome of the Rock. Under its inlaid ceiling is the very rock, the observant believe, upon which Ishmael (not Isaac, as the Bible states) was nearly sacrificed by his father Abraham and from which Mohammed flew to heaven on his horse.

That this site also is among the holiest places in Jerusalem for Jews is, as the bard once wrote, the rub. Many Muslims fear that one day they will be tossed aside to make way for the rebuilding of a third Temple to pave the way for the coming of the Messiah. Such fears seem hard to believe, even to imagine, until you learn that the walls surrounding the Dome of the Rock and the adjacent Al Aqsa mosque once supported the immense platform upon which stood the original Temple.

The importance of this site to Jews in Jerusalem and around the world cannot be overestimated. It links them to their past, defines them as a people. Before being elected Prime Minister of Israel the first time in the mid-90s, Binyamin Netanyahu took his then four-year-old son Yair to the Western Wall, known in Hebrew as the Kotel. "I brought him over to see the foundations of our existence," Natanyahu said. Still, only fanatics on the fringes of Islam or Judaism actually believe there will ever be a third Temple.

Built by King Solomon, as detailed in the first book of Kings, The Temple was destroyed by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C. Building of the Second Temple began around the year 515 B.C. It was completed by Herod around 20 B.C. and stood until it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. The only part of the structure still remaining is a portion of the platform, the Western Wall, sun-bleached and worn by time, but a magnet for the religious, the righteous and the curious.

Those are the historic, irrefutable facts. And then there are the legends. Tradition holds that the stone now resting under the Muslim’s sixth-century Dome of the Rock is the source of the dirt from which God fashioned Adam. It is where Adam, Cain and Abel brought a sacrifice, and Noah too, and where Abraham came to sacrifice Isaac, or Ismael, depending on your belief.

This is also where Jacob dreamed of a ladder that served as a low-tech stairway for angels moving between heaven and earth. The entire area is overlaid with these truths and half-truths, constantly filled with pilgrims and mystics who are on spiritual journeys, abuzz with prayers that hang heavily in the air like smog.

Add to this the ebb and flow of everyday life — tourists, beggars, politicians and soldiers; rabbis, priests, imams and students — and you start to understand the interplay of the divine and mundane that makes this spot unlike any other on earth.

One last legend is worth noting. Some Jews, Muslims and Christians believe that it is this very spot where all the prayers of the entire world come and are elevated to heaven. So pervasive is this idea among certain fundamentalist sects, that many Jerusalemites like to say talking to God here is a local call.

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