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Messages of the Mount

reprinted from The Jerusalem Post
Feb. 11, 2005

by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

The Sanctuary was the forerunner of the Temples - the special shrines of our nation during both Commonwealths, and in the vision foreseen by our prophets and anticipated at the conclusion of each Yom Kippur fast and Passover Seder. The Holy Temples stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem - and indeed the unique sanctity of Jerusalem has its source in the special quality of the Temple Mount.

World Jewry was electrified on June 7, 1967, at the zenith of the Six Day War, when Motta Gur triumphantly announced: "The Temple Mount is in our hands!"

What national secret does the Temple Mount hold, what national dream does it anticipate? Is it worth fighting over with our Muslim cousins? Is it worth dying for?

Since our traditional texts consider it to be the most sacred piece of real estate in the world, and since Jewish groups are now visiting it in droves every day, it would behoove us to understand the magic and the mystery of a mountain which seems to hold the key to our eternity.

The first "message of the mount" is the sacredness of sacrifice. For Maimonides, "the most established place [of the Temple] is that of the altar, and it must never be changed for all eternity... There is a tradition in the hands of all that the place where David and Solomon built the altar is the very place where Abraham erected the altar upon which he bound Isaac. It was likewise [the altar] built by Noah when he emerged from the ark; it was the altar on which Cain and Abel offered their sacrifices, and from there [its dust] was he [Adam] created..." (Maimonides, Laws of the Chosen House, 2:1,2).

Maimonides is teaching us that the very world was created from the altar of sacrifice - and that our nation Israel was born from the near-sacrifice of Isaac on the Temple Mount.

The paradox of the binding - "And [God] said [to Abraham], 'Take now your son, your only son, the son whom you love, Isaac, and go to the Land of Moriah and offer him up there as a whole burnt offering'" (Genesis 22:2) - is that the Almighty is teaching the first Hebrew the most paradoxical message of all: you will only merit a future if you're willing to risk your future; you will only be worthy of descendants if you have the courage to bring your only son to the altar.

I thought of this painful lesson when I accompanied each of my sons to their army posts not long after we made aliya; Abraham and Sarah are all too realistic as prototypes for a nation reborn, and which has now experienced its fifth difficult war in less than six decades. As the prophet Ezekiel expressed it: "And I see that you are rooted in your blood. And I say unto you, 'By your blood shall you live, by your blood shall you live."

The altar on the Temple Mount expresses yet another message.

"This is the very place where Abraham erected the altar on which he bound Isaac," teaches Maimonides - bound, but not sacrificed. The Almighty amends his initial command: "Abraham, Abraham... do not send forth your hand against the lad, and do not do him any harm" (Genesis 22:11,12). I only meant for you to dedicate him, not to slaughter him; I want him committed to Me in life, not sacrificed to Me in death. I am first and foremost the God of those who live by My word.

The third "message of the mount" is what Maimonides calls the "eternal sanctity of the divine presence," a sanctity which can never be nullified, "not even by the most cruel and powerful of enemies" (Maimonides, Laws of the Chosen House, 6,16).

Obviously, Maimonides cannot believe that the divine presence is a physical quantity, since he teaches the absolute non-corporeality of the divine. Apparently, Maimonides is referring to the word of the divine, "the Torah which will come forth from Zion, and the word of God from Jerusalem," the idea of Jerusalem (literally, the city of peace) which is the crowning glory of our mission: "And it will come about at the end of days, when the nations will all flock [to the Temple Mount] to learn from its ways, to walk in its paths... They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, humanity shall not learn war anymore" (Isaiah 2, Micah 4). The vision of Jerusalem is the dream of world peace.

And the final "message of the mount" is that of pluralism over exclusivity, acceptance of all who follow the seven fundamental laws of morality centering around "Thou shalt not murder" rather than rejecting - and even vowing to kill - all who refuse to believe in a particular ritual lifestyle or prophetic belief system. Everyone is welcome on the Temple Mount, as long as they believe in - and practice - the ideal of peace; "Let every individual call on the name of his god, and we shall call upon the Lord our God forever and ever" (Micha 4).

The messages of the Temple Mount are the sacredness of sacrifice, the sacredness of life, the sacredness of peace, and the sacredness of humanity. Is this worth fighting for? Is Judaism worth fighting about, dying for? The Temple Mount holds the secrets of our past and the vision for our future, the principles which are the bedrock of our teaching and our mission.

The only life worth living is one dedicated to ideals more precious than any individual life, for then it becomes a life which participates in eternity.

The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.



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