A Jewish Story takes us back to the Temple service in Jerusalem

    June 2008            
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The Temple Service in Ancient Jerusalem


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By Mendel Weinberger

I saw him as I turned the corner onto Malchei Yisrael Street from Amos Street in Jerusalem as I was hurrying to get to the bank before it closed. He was sitting on a low stool holding a paper cup in his hand saying the familiar words "tzedaka matzil maimavet" (charity saves from death) as I passed by. Something in his tone of voice made me stop and look at him. His face was marked with deep lines and his eyes were sad. His black suit was soiled and his white shirt stained with several shades of brown crud. His yellowish white beard was tangled and he reeked of a beggar's odor. I reached in my pocket and searched for a small coin to give him. I found none and opened my wallet to find only a fifty shekel note and two hundreds. I hesitated, reluctant to give a beggar such a large amount. I looked at my watch. The bank was closing in five minutes and I would have to run if I was going to make it in time. I felt his eyes on me but I turned away and ran to the bank. I'm not responsible to give to every single person who holds out his hand, I told myself.

The bank was crowded and it wasn't until thirty minutes later that I left. I had forgotten the old man by then and I stopped in falafel shop to buy a cold drink. I heard the siren of an ambulance and for some reason the image of the old beggar crossed my mind. I now had some change in my pocket so I decided to go back and give him a shekel or two. I walked up to the street and as I approached the place where he had been I saw a paramedic from Hatzala hovering over a man lying on the sidewalk. I came closer and looked at his face. It was the old beggar. His face was ash grey and his eyes were closed. The medic was taking his pulse and I saw him shake his head. He was joined by two more medics from Magen David Adom but none of them was able to resuscitate the old man. One of them placed a white sheet over his body. Police came and more and more people crowded around the scene. I felt sick and left.

The next day as I was paging through one of the religious newspapers I saw a short story about the beggar, whose name was Zushya. He had lived in a small room in Mea Shearim and collected charity every day in various places around Geula. The article said he gave most of his money to poor brides and grooms, helping them to get married. He lived very humbly. One man that was interviewed said he saw Zushya once after midnight in the synagogue learning from a book of kaballah, his eyes ablaze with the fire of Torah. I put down the newspaper and felt a deep pain in my heart. Questions plagued my conscience. Did I contribute to his death by not giving him charity when I had the chance? Was I guilty of a sin? I didn't sleep well that night and in the morning went to see my Rabbi to ask what to do. Rabbi Schwartz listened patiently to the story and when I had finished he took a deep breath and sighed. His eyes were serious when he began his reply.

"Shmuel, you have transgressed a negative mitzvah of the Torah," he said. "And that mitzvah is not to pass by the needs of a poor man. We learn this commandment by what is written in the verse 'You shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your needy brother' (Devarim 15:7). As for you having contributed to this man's death, I think no one can know G-d's calculations and all the more so the judgment concerning life and death. "

"But what can I do now?" I asked. "I feel so guilty and selfish for not having given to him when I had the opportunity. How can I fix what I failed to do?"

"You can't undo what happened," he said. "But I would suggest that for the next month at least, give tzedaka (charity) to every beggar that holds out his hand and give more than you would normally. And give with a smile and a whole heart. Look for a special mitzvah only you can do. Maybe volunteer in a soup kitchen once a week or something like that."

I nodded and thanked the Rabbi for his time. He smiled at me, shook my hand, and told me not to be too hard on myself. I left his house and took a long walk, thinking about what he had said to me. I thought long and hard about my life and what I was doing with my time. I was doing a lot of running around trying to stay one step ahead of the bank and juggle my finances to pay the bills and keep food on the table. I wasn't making time for my friends and family and I was giving charity begrudgingly because I felt I was obligated. I made a commitment to myself to change. There was a small grocery store down the street where I was walking, and I went inside and changed a twenty shekel note for twenty shekel coins. Then I walked up Malchei Yisrael Street and gave every beggar two shekels. I looked each one in the eye and smiled at him trying hard to fulfill the Rabbi's instructions.

I went home that night and told my wife about the conversation with Rabbi Schwartz and about my own decisions to reorder my priorities in life. She nodded in agreement and suggested that maybe I could volunteer at the old age home where she worked trying to cheer up the elderly people there, many of whom were lonely and sad. I took the phone number of the social worker and said I would talk to her about it.

That night I went to sleep with a heavy heart. I knew I could never make up for my transgression, but somehow I wished I could clean the slate and begin again. I dreamed of the old man that night and saw his face and those sad pleading eyes. I wanted to give him money, but I couldn't find any in my pockets. He held out his cup and I couldn't give him anything. I said I was sorry but he kept looking at me pleading with me to help him. I screamed out "I'm sorry!!" and woke up, my face covered in a cold sweat. I looked at my watch. It was five o'clock in the morning. I washed my hands and got out of bed and was careful not to wake my wife. I went to the kitchen and made myself a cup of tea. I thought to myself, 'this can't go on; I've got to call Uri to help me'.

I immersed in the mikveh and prayed with the sunrise minyan. After breakfast I called Uri and he sounded pleased to hear from me. I repeated the story of the death of Zushya and my feeling of guilt over my failure to give him tzedaka. I also told him about my conversation with Rabbi Shwartz and his suggestions for a tikun. And finally I told him about the dream. He listened without interrupting until I was finished. There was silence on the other end of the line for a minute then he replied.

"Come to my house on Thursday night at six o'clock," he said. "And tell your wife you won't be back until the morning."

I knew I had to do it and I had one day to think of a good excuse to tell my wife. That night as we sat at the dining room table eating supper I broached the subject.

"Tomorrow night I am planning to go to Bait Vegan to learn with Uri," I said. "And I won't be back until the morning. We are doing a special learning session called a mishmar. Do you mind if I go?"

"I thought that kind of thing is for yeshiva men," she said. "Don't you think you are a little too old?"

"You think I'm too old?!" I said. I'm young in spirit and Uri told me that this practice is a segulah (charm) for parnassa (earning a living)."

"As long as you pick up some things in the shuk for me before you go, I don't mind," she said.

I smiled to myself at my ingenuity. And I don't really think I was lying. I knew I would feel better after a session with my mentor.

On Thursday afternoon, I packed a small bag with an extra sweater, a bottle of water, and my talit bag and took the bus to Bait Vegan. I arrived a few minutes before six. Uri met me at the door and together we went to a local synagouge to pray the mincha service. Then he told me to get in his car and he drove to the Jerusalem forest, which was close by. He parked by the side of the road, took two blankets out of the trunk of the car, and we started walking. Soon we turned off the road onto a hiking trail. We walked in silence as the sun dipped lower in the sky. I listened to the birds singing their evening songs and watched the wind blow through the treetops as we went deeper into the forest. We didn't encounter anyone else on the way.

After about fifteen minutes, Uri stopped in small clearing. There were rocks in a circle surrounding a pile of ash where there once had been a campfire. Uri put down the blankets and told me to look around for firewood. I walked a little way up the path and found a tree with a lot of dead wood under it. I collected it and went back to the campsite. Uri had already started a small fire. He told me to go out once more and bring back thicker pieces of wood that would burn for a long time. I found a fallen tree and broke off the thickest branches to use as firewood. When I returned, the sun was nearly down and the fire was blazing. Uri had spread out the two blankets close to the fire and was sitting on one of them. He indicated to me to sit down on the other. When I was comfortable he began to speak.

"What Rabbi Shwartz told you was absolutely correct. Your repentance is to do the opposite of what brought you to sin. That is, if you neglected to give tzedaka to a poor man, you must now give to everyone, and with a full heart. And you must get involved in other more personal acts of chesed (kindness) for others. But what I think still bothers you is a feeling of guilt. And guilt that you carry around inside you for very long without release can eat you up."

"I think you're right, Uri," I said. "Even though I tell myself intellectually I wasn't responsible for Zushya's death, emotionally I can't forgive myself. And I feel helpless to rectify the sin since he is no longer alive."

"That was the purpose of the sacrifices in the Temple. When a person commits a sin, he creates distance between himself and G-d. The act of bringing a sacrifice in a spirit of sincere repentance restores the close relationship once again. The word for sacrifice in Hebrew is korban whose root is the made up of the letters kuf, resh, and beit, which means to bring close (KoRoV). The korban enabled a Jew to free himself from guilt and come close to G-d once again. That is what I hope to help you to do this evening. In this case of your not giving tzedaka to a poor man when you could have, you would not be obligated to bring a sin offering. But what you could do is offer a voluntary burnt offering. Though we don't have the holy Temple now on the physical plane, it still exists in all its glory inside each one on the spiritual plane. That is where we will go tonight. Are you ready and willing to bring this sacrifice?"

"Yes, Uri I'm ready," I said. "Are we going to travel back in time like we did before?"

"That is not necessary," he said. "Because the Temple exists right now as a spiritual structure, all that is needed is to go deep within and there you will find it. That is why the verse in the Book of Exodus is written "Build me a sanctuary and I will dwell in them" (Exodus 25:8). It doesn't say I will dwell in it, rather in them. Even during the time when the Temple was standing, the primary dwelling of the Divine Presence was in the heart of every child of Israel."

"So how do I find the Temple within?" I asked.

"I am going to add some wood to the fire," he said. "And then you and I will sit here side by side and look into the flames. That will be the gateway to enter inside."

Uri stood up and added some thick pieces of wood to the fire until the flames rose up licking the darkness and sending sparks flying all around us. Then he sat down next to me and put his hand on my shoulder.

"Breathe slowly and deeply and look into the heart of the fire," he said. "Fix your intention on the Holy Temple and ask G-d to show you the way inside."

I stared into the flames and muttered a silent prayer asking G-d to allow me to enter into the Temple in order to cleanse myself of my sin. I felt deep regret for what I had done and tears welled up in my eyes. The fire blurred in front of my eyes and I felt myself falling backwards.

I opened up my eyes in the bright sunlight. I was lying on a hillside and when I sat up I could see the magnificent Temple spread out below me. It was exactly as I had pictured it in my mind so many times before. The Temple Mount was clothed in a spiritual light that was almost tangible. I could see the surrounding walls, and then the walls of the Temple itself, the Women's Court, the Court of Israel, the Outer Altar, and the Hall containing the Holy and the Holy of Holies. It was all there before me and I was filled with awe. Was I alone? I didn't know. I turned around and saw Uri sitting a few meters behind me smiling his slightly mischievous smile. He was dressed in Biblical attire as was I, so I guessed that all this was happening in another dimension where these details are taken care of automatically.

"How do you feel?" he asked me as he stood up and came closer.

"I feel good, thank G-d," I said. "I know this must be some kind of a dream, but it feels so real to me."

"I could begin a dissertation on what reality is," he said. "But I think that would not serve you well. Suffice it to say that inner reality can often feel more real than what we perceive with our senses. Are you ready to begin the atonement?"

"Yes," I said. "I suppose I will need to buy a goat to bring for the sin offering."

"Let's go down to the main gate and see what is available."

We began walking down the slope along a well trodden path toward the main gate of the Temple Mount. My throat was dry and I felt a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach. But at the same time I was excited to be in this holy place, the place where the shechina (the presence of G-d) dwells.

As we came closer to the gate I could see men and animals gathered around. Uri led the way to a man standing in front of a small pen holding about ten goats. He spoke to the man and handed him a gold coin. The man tied a rope around one of the goat's necks and led him out of the pen. Uri led the goat over to where I was standing and gave him over to me. He then turned to look me in the eyes and began to speak.

"Shmuel, this time you must go alone into the Temple. There is nothing I can do to help you. Consider your transgression and be totally present throughout this ritual. It will cleanse you of your feeling of guilt. I will wait for you here."

I knew he was right, though I felt fear in my gut as I walked towards the gate to the Temple Mount. Before entering I took off my shoes and carefully washed my hands and feet in accordance with the requirements of ritual purity for one to enter into this sacred space. I led my goat offering through the gate and began to walk across the mall towards the Temple itself.

The Temple walls rose up before me, awesome testimony to G-d's Presence. I entered, feeling unworthy to stand before Him, yet determined to expiate my transgression. Leading my goat offering by a rope, I walked through the Women's section, a holy dread upon me. I reached the fifteen steps leading up to the Men's section and began my ascent, pausing upon each step in order to strengthen my intention. An invisible hand pushed me on until I stood at the threshold of the Courtyard.

My gaze took in the surreal scene. The priests dressed in white were slaughtering sheep and goats, stripping off their skin, cutting out their guts, and butchering slabs of meat for burning and eating. There was blood everywhere, the priests were ascending and descending the ramp of the altar, and smoke rose up from the burning of the animal sacrifices. The smell of burning flesh reached my nostrils as I listened to the Levites singing and playing their harps, drums, and trumpets. My senses were overwhelmed and I stood in awe.

Presently, a priest approached me and led me to the north side of the altar. He instructed me to lay the goat down on the ground, his feet bound and his head held still under the iron ring fixed in the earth. The priest gave me the slaughtering knife and instructed me how to cut through the main artery on the goat's neck. He looked at me with frightened eyes and his body shuddered as I cut his throat. His blood flowed into the vessel held in the priest's hand. I felt sick as I witnessed the goat's life ebb away.

When the vessel was full the priest stood up, walked up the ramp and smeared blood on the horns of the altar, then down to the base to spill out the rest. I waited for him by my dead goat with tears in my eyes and when I tried to stand up my knees were weak and my head was spinning. He returned to where I was standing, picked up the goat, and carried him to a nearby marble table. With speed and skill he stripped off the hide, cut his body up into several pieces, and placed them on a large silver tray. Another priest came to take the skin to the priest's chamber. My priest took the silver tray with the goat's body pieces, walked up the ramp, and threw them on the fire. As I watched, I saw a fire descend from heaven and consume the sacrifice. I felt my spirit rise with the smoke from the altar.

The priest returned and led me to a side exit from the Azara – courtyard. Before he left me he looked me straight in the eye, grabbed me by the shoulders, and said "Kapara, kapara, kapara (atonement)". His gaze pierced my soul and the burden of my guilt lifted off me. I left the Temple humbled and cleansed.

I walked around the Temple walls light headed and filled with awe at what had just taken place. Within minutes I was back at the gate of the Temple Mount and as I came out I saw Uri waiting for me with a big smile on his face. He greeted me warmly with a hug and together we began the trek back up the hill overlooking the Temple. When we reached the spot where we began he stopped and told me to lie down.

"Close your eyes and visualize the fire that we built back in the Jerusalem forest," he said. "And when you can see it clearly, feel yourself sitting cross legged opposite it."

With a little effort I was able to do as Uri instructed and then the vision became blurry and I felt myself falling backwards and everything went black. I opened my eyes and saw the branches of the pine trees swaying in the breeze against the dark night sky. I slowly sat up and looked around me. The fire was still burning and the smoke rose up like a column. Uri sat behind it looking at me with a serious expression on his face.

"The light of the shechina is shining above your head," he said. "I hope you will be able to keep it there."

"I feel different," I said. "Like my soul is really clean".

"It is," he said. "You have achieved atonement for your sin. May G-d continue to bless you in all your ways."

I lay back down feeling exhausted and soon fell into a deep sleep. The next time I opened my eyes the morning sun was shining through the trees. I stretched my arms and legs and stood up feeling well rested and happy. Uri was sitting next to the smoldering ashes of the fire. He motioned for me to fold up my blanket and together we began the walk back to his car. There was nothing to say. There was only to feel the peace that comes with a return to the source.


from the July 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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