When the Roman Tenth Legion destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, they heaved large building stones downward from the elevated platform to the street below. After the Temple burned a large mound remained. Over the centuries, as earth and debris accumulated over the area just to the west of the Herodian platform, that mound of stones was fully covered, completely obscured from view. In our time, and in particular over the past 50 years, archeologists have been digging virtually non-stop on all sides of the Temple Mount, and their findings have been nothing short of remarkable. Today, the pile of rocks created by rampaging Roman soldiers sits at the edge of the archeological park known as Robinson’s Arch, fully visible and explicitly identified as the actual stones of the Second Temple which stood up above on the Temple Mount.
Those stones speak. They tell the story of our people, both the agony and the ecstasy. From those stones flow the water of Torah – ki mi-tziyyon teitzei Torah, u’dvar Adonai mi-yirushalayim – and to them flow visitors and worshipers of all stripes seeking connection with that place and, sometimes at least, with the Divine Presence. I was last there this past February with a group of Protestant ministers from around the Philadelphia region. We talked together about Jesus, who visited the Temple and famously overturned the tables of money changers whose shops stood where we stood that clear winter morning. We discussed Muhammad, who visited that spot on a night journey which took him on a tour of the heavens, tethering his horse to a hole on one of the cornerstones of the platform which can be seen to this day. And we summoned up the memory of generations of Jews who entered the Temple via a bridge that would have extended over our heads delivering pilgrims to the outer courtyard of Israel’s holy place, God’s House.
The much disputed egalitarian prayer space is right there. Over the years, I have had the opportunity to worship there both on my own and with many groups of Jews. Usually, we have also visited the “official” Western Wall Plaza just up the hill. I’ve worshiped there as well, but in truth I’m much less drawn to it and much less moved by it than I once was. It no longer feels like my place. Robinson’s Arch, in contrast, does. In truth, the whole expanse is the western wall of the platform atop the Temple Mount. The southern end is no more, and no less, sacred than the northern end. It’s all one wall. We, increasingly, seem not to be one people. That, for me, is the tragedy of the current moment. It’s not news exactly. American Jews and Israeli Jews have been drifting apart for a while now. We occupy very different realities, and have distinct lived experiences. It is largely a sense of ‘peoplehood’ that connects us to one another; it is that feeling of family that feels frayed and fraying right now.
This past Sunday, my eldest son reported to his ‘permanent’ assignment as a new soldier in the Israel Defense Forces. Right now, he’s living out his commitment to Jewish peoplehood on an army base in the West Bank, the Judea-Samaria Region in IDF lingo. On the very same day, Israel’s Cabinet voted to suspend a plan, negotiated over the course of many months, to establish an officially recognized egalitarian prayer space along the stretch of the western wall near Robinson’s Arch. As I write these words, there are indications that a renewal of discussions is in the offing and that a compromise might yet be reached. On the one hand, I’m encouraged by that prospect. On the other, I’m disgusted by the double dealing and the, at best, a-moral political behavior that has accompanied the process so far. My son is welcome, of course, to visit the Kotel, and even to pray there, but not as part of the kind of minyan with which he grew up at Beth Am Israel, and at Perelman Jewish Day School, and at Camp Ramah in the Poconos. Somehow, that doesn’t seem right to me. It shouldn’t seem right to any of us.
Parashat Hukkat features harsh words directed to the people of Israel along with a rock that, in the end, produces copious water. Famously, God instructs Moses to speak to the rock, commanding it to produce water for the people. Equally famously, Moses strikes the rock – not once, but twice – instead. The water flows, but Moses loses the opportunity to accompany the people he has led for close to 40 years into the Promised Land. His words to the people are harsh – “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” – and his violent act is harsher still. R. Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev finds a standard for leadership embedded in the story. “The teacher who admonishes us with goodwill raises our souls higher and higher,” he writes. That raising up of others renders one fit to lead. The opposite is, well, the opposite. R. Shimon ben Lakish, a 3rd century Land of Israel sage, derives a beautiful and tantalizing piece of halakha from Moses’ propensity to violence elsewhere in the Torah’s narrative. “Resh Lakish says: One who raises his hand against his friend, even without hitting him, is called wicked…” The hint and threat of violence renders one wicked. Also, not trustworthy. The later halakha teaches that “one who raises his hand against his friend in order to hit him is ineligible to serve as a witness by Rabbinic law.” (ReMA, Shulhan Arukh, Hoshen Mishpat 34:4) Harsh words, acts of violence, and rocks that speak have been part of our people’s story from the beginning. Alas, that combination is still with us. How I wish we could get the water of Torah to flow with greater calm, deeper respect, and an abundance of peace and goodwill.