By Rabbi Allen S. Maller
Rabat – According to the Hajj Ministry of Saudi Arabia, 5 million Umrah visas were issued in 2013 and 6 million each during 2014 and 2015. It expects to issue more than 20 million visas by 2018. More than 1.4 million pilgrims from abroad, plus over 100,000 Saudis, will perform the Hajj this year.
To the north, some 1.09 million tourist entries into Israel were recorded in the first four months of 2017, a 28 percent increase over the same period last year. A record 349,000 Christian and Jewish foreigners visited during April (the Easter and Passover seasons), an increase of 38 percent over last year.
To this very day, Jerusalem and Mecca remain much smaller than the capitals of the great empires of the distant past, like Rome and Constantinople, and the recent past, London and France. Yet the spirit that continues to rush forth from those two geographically tiny places provides inspiration to billions of Christians, Jews, and Muslims throughout the world.
In the pagan Greco-Roman Empire during the days of Jesus, the Jerusalem Temple (Beit HaMikdosh) was well known, while the Ka’aba, the House of God (Baitullah) in Mecca was hardly known at all. The first Roman reference to the Baitullah is from DiodorusSiculus, a first century BCE Roman historian who wrote that in Arabia there was a “pagan” temple greatly revered by the Arabs.
According to G. E. Von Grunebaum, whom I studied with at UCLA in 1959, Mecca was also mentioned by Ptolemy, a second century Alexandrian mathematician, astronomer, and geographer: “The name he gives it allows us to identify it as a South Arabian foundation created around a sanctuary,”Von Grunebaum writes in‘Classical Islam: A History 600–1258’.
Both Mecca, Jerusalem, and their sanctuaries, one almost unknown by the Romans and the other totally destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE., were destined, just a few centuries after Rome itself was looted and sacked, to become widely known throughout and outside of the Roman Empire. For millions of monotheistic believers, these two locations would become the centers of their spiritual worlds.
The following tale was passed down orally in Arabic and Hebrew for many centuries, but written versions were not produced until the 19th century. Many versions emerged during this time, and it is disputed if the setting is in the time of Noah or Abraham.
Though these cities have new meaning in today’s world, they continue to work in tandem; functioning like a pair of lungs, they recycle the words and spirits of the Abrahamic Prophets who walked their streets many centuries ago.
The story tells of how this pair of metaphorical spiritual lungs came to be:
Two brothers who inherited a “valley to hilltop” farm from their father, divided the land in half so each one could farm his own section. Over time, the older brother married and had four children, while the younger brother was still not married.
One year, there was very little rain, and the crop was very meager. This was at the beginning of a long-term draught that would turn the whole valley into an arid, treeless, desert where even grain did not grow and all the springs dried up.
The younger brother lay awake one night praying and thought, “My brother has a wife and four children to feed and I have no children. He needs more grain than I do, especially now when grain is scarce.”
So that night the younger brother went to his barn, gathered a large sack of wheat and left his wheat in his brother’s barn. Then he returned home, feeling pleased with himself.
Earlier that very same night, the older brother was also lying awake praying for rain when he thought: “In my old age my wife and I will have our grown children to take care of us, as well as grandchildren to enjoy, while my brother may have no children. He should at least sell more grain from his fields now, so he can provide for himself in his old age.”
So that night, the older brother also gathered a large sack of wheat, and left it in his brother’s barn, and returned home, feeling pleased with himself.
The next morning, the younger brother, surprised to see the amount of grain in his barn seemed unchanged said, “I did not take as much wheat as I thought. Tonight I’ll take more.” That same morning, the older brother standing in his barn, was thinking the same thoughts.
After night fell, each brother gathered a greater amount of wheat from his barn and in the dark, secretly delivered it to his brother’s barn.
The next morning, the brothers were again puzzled and perplexed. “How can I be mistaken?” each one thought. “There’s the same amount of grain here as there was before. This is impossible! Tonight I’ll make no mistake – I’ll take two large sacks.”
The third night, more determined than ever, each brother gathered two large sacks of wheat from his barn, loaded them onto a cart, and slowly pulled his cart toward his brother’s barn. In the moonlight, each brother noticed a figure in the distance.
When the two brothers got closer, each recognized the form of the other and the load he was pulling, and they both realized what had happened.
Without a word, they dropped the ropes of their carts, ran to each other and embraced.
Here, the tale ends, and the lesson begins.
Only God can make a physical space into a Holy Place. And God’s love of the two brothers for their exemplary love and concern toward each other inspired God’s prophets to make their descendants worthy to worship in a holy house rebuilt in that valley—a holy House later built on that hill.
When all those, both near and far, who revere this place of spirit as a standard, share it in love with everyone else who reveres it, then God will do as Abraham requested, and “Make this (place) a land of Peace, and provide its people with the produce of the land (Qur’an 2:126).”
Then will the children of Adam and Abraham live in Holiness, Peace, and Prosperity.
Christians and Jews believe the hill is Jerusalem; Muslims believe the valley is Mecca. I believe that both views can be correct.
Rabbi Allen S. Maller is an ordained Reform Rabbi who frequently writes about monotheistic values in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic publications. Rabbi Maller is the author of ‘TikunayNefashot’, a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children’s short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, ‘God, Sex and Kabbalah.’ His latest book, ‘Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheism’.
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