By Susan Esther Barnes
The most holy place for Jews is the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the place where our Temple once stood. It is said God's presence in the world emanates from this place. It is where Abraham brought Isaac; it is where God spoke and created the world.
For the almost 2,000 years of our exile, we yearned to return to this place. Throughout those long years, when the land was in the control of others, the closest we could get to it was a small piece of the retaining wall that forms a rectangle holding up the hill on which the Temple used to stand.
This accessible piece of the wall is West and South of the Temple's former location, which was about half way between the North and South ends of the wall surrounding the hill. The Holy of Holies, the most sacred place within the Temple, where the presence of God resides, was on the West side.
Although Jews are now in control of Jerusalem, we are still not allowed to pray on the Temple Mount, still not allowed to pray near the old Temple site or the Holy of Holies. I am not advocating a change in this policy.
Untold thousands of Jews continue to come to the Western Wall to pray, where the men and women are divided by a barrier and women are not allowed to sing aloud or wear a tallit (prayer shawl). It is crowded with people. There is always someone there praying, 7 days a week, 24 hours a day.
But recent excavation has opened a path along the base of the Western Wall, heading North. It leads to a place that is clearly marked as being aligned with where the Temple used to be. This is the closest any Jew can now come to the old Temple site, to the Holy of Holies, to the source of God's presence in the world.
So who is allowed to walk this path to this special place? Just the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem or other dignitaries? Only the most devout? No, it is open to everyone.
So it must be crowded, right? Bursting at the seams? Humming with life and prayer? No. Even though anyone can come here; men and women, children and families; wearing a tallit or not; singing aloud or not; this Holy place stands as empty as a forgotten tomb.
Mah Zeh Achim?
What is This, My Brothers, My Sisters?
You have been separated from your beloved for many years. Your heart aches for her, you long to embrace him again, and though you know your love is reciprocated, despite your best efforts you are kept at a distance.
She dropped a scented kerchief to you, and you cling to it as you pray by her outer courtyard, calling to her.
He sent you a love letter, and you write down your deepest fears, your secret dreams, on little scraps of paper that you leave by his outer gate, hoping he will discover them there.
But what is this? The outer gate has been opened to you, for the first time in all your years of longing you may enter. And although you still may not approach her front door, and though you may not enter his home, yet you have been given a chance to come closer to the dwelling place of your beloved.
What is this?
She begs you to draw nearer, yet you stand aloof. She calls out to you, yet you do not hear. "What is this?" she cries, "Why have you abandoned me?"
"Why do you linger yet in the street outside?" he wails, "Have you clung so long to your kerchief and your letter, have you spent so much time adoring the place to which you have been coming all these years, that you have forgotten why you ever started to come there at all?"
"My beloved," she whispers, "Has it been so long you have forgotten it was me you once loved, and not the cold, hard stones?" She aches for you to abandon your worship of the wall and to draw nearer, to return to her.
My brothers, my sisters, wake up. Open your eyes.
Mah zeh achim?
What are you doing?