Tell tales that carry love

Illustration by Forest Byrd

One of the oldest cities on earth, Jerusalem is a holy place for three of the modern world’s greatest religions. The Torah tells of how King David made Jerusalem the capital of Israel and of how his son Solomon built the First Temple there. The New Testament tells of how Christ was crucified in Jerusalem. According to Islamic tradition, Mohammad made his Night Journey there to the first Qibla, the focal point of Muslim prayer.

This week, we chose a scene of Jerusalem for the cover of our holiday special section. The photograph was taken by our Hilltown reporter, Zach Simeone, who recently returned from a tour of Israel.

The scene is dominated by the Dome of the Rock — brilliant gold against a blue sky. Over the centuries, the dome has been topped with a Christian cross, a golden crescent and, very briefly, an Israeli flag.

The rock beneath the dome is where, according to Sunni Islamic belief, the Angel Gabriel took Mohammad to pray with Moses, Abraham, and Jesus, and it is from the rock that Mohammad ascended to heaven.

In 689 CE, Muslims built the Dome of the Rock where the Second Jewish Temple stood before the Romans destroyed it in their siege of Jerusalem. In Jewish tradition, the Foundation Stone is where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac. Jews pray towards the Foundation Stone as the holiest site in Judaism.

Mark Twain, in his 1860’s travelogue, Innocents Abroad, gave a lighthearted account of the rock. At the time Twain wrote about the Dome of the Rock, Christians had just recently been allowed to tour the site. Jews were prohibited.

“Mahomet was well acquainted with this stone,” wrote Twain. “From it he ascended to heaven. The stone tried to follow him, and, if the angel Gabriel had not happened by the merest good luck to be there to seize it, it would have done it. Very few people have a grip like Gabriel — the prints of his monstrous fingers, two inches deep, are to be seen in that rock to-day. This rock, large as it is, is suspended in the air. It does not touch any thing at all. The guide said so. This is very wonderful. In the place on it where Mahomet stood, he left his footprints in the solid stone. I should judge that he wore about eighteens.”

Christianity, too, has its place in the Dome. One original inscription reads, “In the name of One God (Allah), pray for your prophet and servant Jesus, son of Mary.”

Then, during the crusades, the Augustinians turned the Dome of the Rock into a church. The Knights Templar, who believed the Dome of the Rock was the place where the Temple of Solomon had stood, were headquartered next to the Dome in the 12th Century.

After Saladin led the Muslims against the crusaders, the Dome of the Rock in 1187 returned to its origins of centuries before; it was reconsecrated as a Muslim sanctuary.

We believe it is fitting at a time when many in our country will be celebrating the holiday that marks the birth of Jesus of Nazareth to be aware of some of the commonalities of the three Abrahamic religions. While the Holy Land itself is bitterly divided, we live in America — a country that was founded on the principles of religious freedom and tolerance.

Last week, for the fifth year in a row, members of the Interfaith Story Circle of the Tri-City Area met to tell stories of Jerusalem. We were part of the circle in 2007, when the sacred Muslim month of Ramadan and the Jewish lunar month of Tishrei, which includes the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, coincided.

“Storytelling is really about sharing our narratives,” said Audrey Seidmen who helped organize that story circle along with the one last week. Dr. Mussarat Chaudhry and Nancy Payne were the other facilitators.

Seidman was inspired by Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s book, The Tent of Abraham. “Abraham opened his tent to all four sides,” said Seidman. She cited Waskow’s example of the parallel stories of Abraham’s family in the Jewish Torah and the Muslim Koran, with the important difference of which son was sacrificed.

“There are so many similarities within our differences,” said Seidman. “I have much to learn.”

So do we all.

In recent months we’ve been saddened and disheartened by acts of hatred in America against Muslims.

We recall with such warmth and gratitude the story told in that earlier story circle by Sharifa Din. She spoke in a soft voice of 2001 when the terrorists’ struck. “Right after September 11, we had to close our school for about a week,” said Din, referring to the Annur School, a small Muslim school in Schenectady.

Other Muslim schools had received death threats, she said, as some in the circle nodded agreement.

“When we came back the first day, we were very nervous,” said Din. “The school’s answering machine was filled with messages. “We kind of panicked,” she recalled. “Were they going to be death threats?”

The first message was from a local church, saying, “We know you’re going through a hard time. If you need men to guard your door, call us.”

The next message was from a local synagogue. “We hope the children are safe,” it said. “We know you’re not part of this,” it went on, referring to the terrorists’ attacks.

All of the messages were like that, said Din. “It was amazing.”

We need to hear and tell stories like Din’s. Why? Because it teaches us to look beyond stereotypes; because it teaches us not to judge all of those who follow one religion by the acts of a horrible few; and because it places value on knowing and caring for people who may be different than ourselves.

Too often, the stories our children hear are driven by greed and violence. Most of them are delivered in electronic form rather than from the mouths of people the children know and trust.

Particularly in a season that has become rife with consumerism, where corporate America has defined worth and happiness in terms of possessions, it is good to hear a different kind of story about giving.

At the Interfaith Story Circle, a bearded man told a tale that was spare in detail but deep in allegorical meaning.

Two brothers shared a field, he said. One was married with many children; the other was a bachelor.

They worked very hard and split their produce evenly.

One day, the married brother thought it was not fair. His brother had no children to care for him in old age. So he put an extra bag of grain in his brother’s barn.

At the same time, the other brother, too, decided it was not fair. His brother had many more mouths to feed, so he put an extra bag of grain into his brother’s barn.

As the brothers continued to do this, they would be surprised every morning as they found they had the same amount of grain as before.

One day, they passed each other on the road, each carrying a sack of grain for the other. God looked down from heaven, and said, “This is a holy place…the place where two people meet in love.”

The Temple of Solomon was built on that place. So ended the bearded man’s story.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editorAnd so we have ended in the place where we started, with the Dome of the Rock — a place sacred to three religions. We wish it could be, indeed, a place where people meet in love.

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