And so I returned to Jerusalem. I came alone -- as everyone does, in a sense -- to an uncertain destination. I came because this is the best place to understand Abraham, and to understand what he revealed about God.
And because this is the best place to understand myself.
Dusk fell early in Jerusalem that Friday. The sun left a wake of lavender and ruby that clung to the clouds and gave them the appearance of mother-of-pearl. By four o'clock it was nearly dark.
I walked down to the plaza in front of the Wall, where revelers gathered for the lighting of the menorah. The day had passed with disquiet but no blood, leaving the city grateful but spent. The explosions, I realized, were as much a part of the landscape as olive trees and primeval tales. Tomorrow everyone would wake again and once more confront the ache of anxiety.
But now was a time for celebration. A man with a white beard, black coat, and circular fur hat stood on a platform just under the Dome. Before him was a ten-foot-long iron menorah, eight feet tall, with nine round oil caskets the size of paint buckets. He lit a torch and raised it into the air. The crowd began to chant: Praised be thou, 0 Lord our God, king of the universe, who has wrought miracles for our forefathers, in days long ago, at this season.
And then the moment these worshipers came for. The five hundred or so people gathered at the remains of the Second Temple, a place desecrated two thousand years earlier, then reclaimed by a small band of radical Jews, began to sing "Rock of Ages." It was the same song my mother made my family sing, atonally, awkwardly holding hands around hundreds of multicolored candles during countless nights in my childhood. And yet this time I couldn't sing; all I could do was listen -- to the voices, the stones, that throbbing of fear I'd felt earlier in the day -- as I heard the words anew. And thy word broke their sword when our own strength failed us.
And as I stood there, remembering, staring at the prayers folded into the Wall, I realized that in the diaspora of monotheism we think of these holidays as being radiant with joy, but here they are resplendent in pain as well. Ramadan is a story of fasting and replenishing, Christmas the story of exile and birth, Hanukkah the story of destruction and deliverance. The same holds for this place, the Rock, the place where life meets death. At the navel of the world, Muhammad left earth for heaven, then returned; Jesus left earth, then also returned. Abraham lay his son on the earth and offered to slaughter him.
Is that the model of holiness, the legacy of Abraham: to be prepared to kill for God?
After a few minutes, a man approached. He was short, with a cropped sandy beard and black kippah covering his head. David Willna had attended a Jewish day school in Los Angeles, then a Roman Catholic university. After winning fourteen thousand dollars on Wheel of Fortune, he decided to come to Israel for a year. Fifteen years later he hadn't left. I asked why, and he told me a story.
Two brothers live on either side of a hill. One is wealthy but has no family; the other has a large family but limited wealth. The rich brother decides one night that he is blessed with goods and, taking a sack of grain from his silo, carries it to the silo of his brother. The other brother decides that he is blessed with many children, and since his brother should at least have wealth, he takes a sack of grain from his silo and carries it to that of his brother. Each night they go through this process, and every morning each brother is astounded that he has the same amount of grain as the day before. Finally one night they meet at the top of the hill and realize what's been happening. They embrace and kiss each other.
And at that moment a heavenly voice declares, "This is the place where I can build my house on earth."
The foregoing is excerpted from Abraham by Bruce Feiler. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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