My wife and I voluntarily gave up our elevated status as residents of the Holy City a few years ago in favor of a house with space for our kids to run around and a ten minute drive to the ocean. I am fortunate, though, to still get to visit Jerusalem once a month on average, bringing high school students from abroad to peek into the ancient history of the city and, at the same time, sometimes even in the same sentence, try to understand something of the challenges and tensions that plague it today.
During our first visit to Jerusalem, we sit together on the grass on the promenade in Armon HaNatziv and take in the inspiring panoramic view with the Old City proudly standing in its center. After pointing out and using Ir David and the Security Barrier as bookends of the city’s 3000-year old history, I make sure to tell my students the most important piece of information that I believe I can share about Jerusalem: that it was meant to be a city of peace and of prayer for the entire human race. That though it was designated by Jewish leaders to be the Jewish capital and became home to the holy Jewish Temple, one of it’s primary purposes is to serve as a spiritual center for all the nations of the world. (I eventually back all this up with proof from the Tanach, just in case my students think it’s an invention of my hippie-leaning mind.)
With this warm feeling in our hearts, we start to sing Matisyahu’s “One Day” (whose own Jewish spiritual journey was set into gear when he looked at Jerusalem from a similar vantage point) and then, with our faith in humanity a bit restored, go and eat a yummy lunch.
As my time with my students continues I notice them noticing two very divergent realities in Jerusalem. There’s the religious and spiritual be-as-Jewish-as-you-want-to-be side of Jerusalem, where you can sing “Am Yisrael Chai” with soldiers in the middle of Kabbalat Shabbat at the Kotel or sit in the center of an intersection on Yom Kippur and sing all those songs you learned in NFTY or NCSY or USY all night long without anyone bothering you. If anything, they’ll join you.
And then there’s the side of Jerusalem that is all about sides. East vs. West. This side of the Green Line and that side. Pre-’67 Jerusalem and Post-’67 Jerusalem. Arab Quarter and Jewish Quarter. Kotel and Temple Mount. And when we want to get more religo-political, we talk about where Jews can pray and where they can’t.
As their teacher, I don’t attempt to offer a solution to the complicated conflict, or even pretend that there is one. My job, as I see it, is to educate them. To open their eyes to a fuller understanding of Jerusalem than maybe they’ve been shown before. I often find myself standing at a somewhat cold and non-opinionated distance as I show them the Jerusalem beyond Ben Yehuda Street and the shuk.
But something has changed for me over the past couple of months as I’ve witnessed a brutal wave of violence erupt around my country that has left dozens of my people dead and hundreds injured.
I haven’t changed how I guide in Jerusalem and I haven’t begun to share my political opinions with my students. But, inside, something has changed. After witnessing how this latest wave of violence has erupted out of Jerusalem, more specifically because of Jerusalem, something has changed for me.
The place that we Jews face in prayer three times a day, the place we believe is the meeting point between Heaven and Earth, the place about which we say, “Ki mi’Tzion teize Torah” (from Zion comes forth the Torah) has (once again) been hijacked and distorted, perverted and twisted and used as a tool of incitement, hatred and terror-filled violence as verbal accusations against Israel and the Jews regarding Jerusalem has caused more Jewish blood to flow in the Holy City and around the Holy Land. The Jewish vision of what Jerusalem can be and is meant to be has never felt so far away.
But instead of paralyzing me with fear or even weighing me down with hatred, it has increased my passion and my desire to pray for a restored and rebuilt Jerusalem and to long for the Jerusalem of the ancient Jewish dream. To no longer walk down the steps from the Jewish Quarter and see the setting sun glinting off the golden Dome of the Rock and think, “Wow. So beautiful.” But rather feel the pain that we are living in a time when the Jews have returned to their land, have returned to their eternal capital and yet still don’t have full control over its most inner and essential part, the Temple Mount.
And I’m not even talking about Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, certainly not talking about building a synagogue there and for sure not taking the initiative to build the Third Temple there. I myself have never ascended to the Temple Mount and have no plans to do so.
What I am talking about is the control of a place that is more spiritual in nature than physical. Of a place that acts as the first interface between the realm of the divine and the earthly. Of a place through which blessing flows from above while receiving the prayers of the entire world. From this perspective, who controls that small area of land and what their goals are becomes very significant.
That is why, on this Hanukkah, I am thinking about Jerusalem more than ever before. Thinking about the real story of this holiday — the story of my people rising up against oppressive rule and returning to our holy city so that it can serve its intended purpose as a guiding light for all of humanity.
I want Jerusalem to be fully rebuilt in our days not for my or my people’s own selfish religious or political reasons. But because I know, when that day comes, it will bring unprecedented goodness and blessing to all the people of this world.