Sometimes it hits you with a jolt. The mundane and material world that we live in juxtaposed with our ability to instantaneously leave that all behind and enter places that are holy.
I’m referring to locations in Eretz Yisrael that have always been holy for us from time immemorial. Among other things, holiness is defined by separation, whatever it is that distinguishes the Jewish nation from others around the world.
That is what the gifted non-Jewish prophet said about the future Jewish people — that we are a nation destined “to dwell apart.” That was a few thousand years ago, but he may have been referring to our generation.
There aren’t too many holy places in New York, despite the preponderance of Jews. Numbers might be able to create a powerful and even influential movement, but you cannot make something or someplace holy by popular demand.
Israel, as you know and have experienced, is a modern society, not that much different from the way New York functions. But there is something going on there that sets the land and the people of Israel apart, and that is our holy places.
There are numerous ways the world defines what is holy. Most of the so-called holy cities in places such as Saudi Arabia and Iraq are relatively new inventions without true roots in anything meaningfully religious. In Israel, however, the holy places in part enjoy that status because of their undisputed history and continuous connection to acts and events of a Divine nature that very few dispute.
And today our holy places in Israel have been integrated and woven into the fabric of everyday life. It is as if despite the fact that we live in difficult and challenging times, a period in which Godliness is obscured and hidden from us, somehow we are able to almost reflexively feel it in our bones, in our lives.
Over all these decades, regardless of how you spend your time in Israel, there are three holy places that are a must on just about every itinerary. Yes, of course there are more and they may even be numerous, but in my estimation these are the top three that are a never-miss no matter how many times you are visiting the land of Israel.
The first is the Kotel HaMa’aravi, the Western Wall. First of all, it’s located in the most central part of Jerusalem, in the heart of the golden Old City. Our sages said that Jerusalem is the source and provides all the light for the world. And if that is so, they ponder, Who provides the light for Jerusalem? That is G-d Himself.
The Kotel is a crossroads of Jewish life and arguably for many thousands of people of other religions. This part of the city, of Israel, and of the world is an epicenter. In terms of closeness to the place where G-d’s manifestation existed on earth, this is the closest one can get to that kind of Divinity on earth short of the Temple Mount itself, where many do not tread because of the uncertainty of the location of the rare and raw type of holiness that was once very present and to an extent is still there to this very day.
As human beings, we may have difficulty reconciling our mundane, material existence with that of being holy, which we tend to assign to something that existed in the past. Israel, though, is the one place on earth where this side-by-side combination is possible.
The other two not-to-be missed locations are the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Kever Rachel in Bethlehem. The hallowed nature of these locations requires minimal explanation to our core readership. Hebron is where our forefathers and mothers are buried, and Bethlehem is where Yaakov buried his wife Rachel who died while giving birth to the youngest of the 12 tribes, Binyamin.
Rachel’s burial plot was nationally strategic, as it was the location the Jewish exiles from the land of Israel would pass as they were forced to exit the land time and again. Our sages tell us that on these occasions, Rachel would weep for her suffering children, and Hashem promises her that her sacrifices and her tears won’t be for naught. She was promised — as were we — that the time will come when her children will return to the land, something that we might be witnessing today even as we write these words in 2019.
The fascinating contemporary thing about the holy sites is how today we manage to combine experiences like eating hot kosher pizza in the Hebron kiosk with davening at the foot of the kevarim of Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Sarah, Rivka, and Leah, and Adam and Chava are said to be interred there as well.
Hebron and the cave of the Patriarchs feature a deep and significant history. It is almost unnecessary to mention that the UN agency UNESCO has determined that both places are Muslim holy sites that the Jews have somehow commandeered. Like I said above, it is really not worth wasting space or ink on the subject.
Last week, when we wanted to go daven at Kever Rachel we hailed a taxi on the street and the driver was very pleased to take us there. It is a good fare, plus you get paid for about a half-hour of waiting time which is another 50 or so shekel. Over the years, the entrance and even the interior of Kever Rachel has been rebuilt and drastically changed.
As with just about everything in Jewish life, there is some disagreement about what the order or value of some of our holy places are. The Arizal includes the burial site of Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai over that of the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. Rebbe Shimon’s kever in Meron is a popular holy site where hundreds of thousands gather to daven and dance on his yahrzeit, which is Lag B’Omer.
Then there is Amuka, which is where the Talmudic sage R’ Yonason ben Uziel is buried. Amuka has special contemporary relevance inasmuch as tradition relates that singles who pray at the gravesite of this tanna will find their zivug, true soulmate. Needless to say, it is a very busy place.
It is important to note that both Hebron and Bethlehem today are cities with a majority population of Arabs. Therein lies the struggle and the challenge to maintaining the sacredness of these Jewish holy places while interfacing with the local non-Jewish population.
The ride to Hebron is a few miles farther than the trip to Bethlehem, which requires driving through a series of Arab towns. Whether it is at Hebron or Kever Rachel, after we recite Tehillim and beseech those buried there to join us in petitioning the heavens for whatever is on our minds at that particular moment, it is back to the car, taxi, or bus to return to central Jerusalem where we sometimes feel a little different and fulfilled by having these outlets through which we can express ourselves. We have just communed with our forefathers and mothers, the founders of the depth of what it means to be a Jew, both back then and today.
There is a several-thousand-year divide between then and now. When you stand there, however, eyes closed and lips moving in prayer, you can feel the holiness, and it is as if no time has passed at all.