Achinoam “Noa” Nini, Naomi Shemer, and the Fall and Rise of Jerusalem

Fifty years ago today, the holiest parts of Jerusalem were forbidden to Jews. As if that were not enough, following its annexation of land conquered in 1949, the Kingdom of Jordan desecrated synagogues and sacred sites. The area outside the Kotel, then called the Wailing Wall, was a slum.  Just as it had for most of the previous 2,000 years, the once great city of Jerusalem laid in waste.

Looking to the May 1967 Israeli Song Festival, musician Naomi Shemer composed these words:

The mountain air is clear as wine

And the scent of pines

Is carried on the breeze of twilight

With the sound of bells.

 

And in the slumber of tree and stone

Captured in her dream

The city that sits solitary

And in its midst is a wall.

 

Jerusalem of gold,

and of bronze, and of light

Behold I am a violin

for all your songs.

 

3,000 years ago the musical warrior King David made Jerusalem the capital of a united Israel. His son, King Solomon, a man of wisdom and peace, built there the Holy Temple. It was said then that God had blessed the Earth with 10 parts of beauty, and that God placed nine of them in Jerusalem. That’s how magnificent the city was.

Some 400 years later, however, because our ancestors committed the grave sin of idol worship, the capital of the Jewish people was plowed like a field by the Babylonians, and its Jewish leadership exiled eastward. Yet we never forgot the city of gold: “By the rivers of Babylon we laid down and we wept when we remembered Zion.”

50 years later the Jewish people returned to Yerushalayim and rebuilt the Holy Temple. Fast forward another 500 years later — some 2,000 years ago. The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans. Like the destruction of the First Temple, Jewish tradition understands the destruction of the Second Temple to be our own fault. God punished us for sinat chinam: for senseless hatred of one Jew against another.  Our Temple was destroyed and our land conquered because we could not find a way to get along with one another.

Though the Temple was destroyed, the Jews by and large remained in the land. A generation or so after the Destruction of the Second Temple, some 1900 years ago, Rabbi Akiva was the leading scholar of the day. Despite being raised in poverty and with no Jewish education until the age of 40, Rabbi Akiva had trained 24,000 disciples. Yet it was during the Omer, this period between Passover and Shavuot, that plague struck. A terrible epidemic ravaged the students so that, during the seven weeks of the Omer, all 24,000 were killed. This Omer period thus became one of mourning: weddings were forbidden and men grew their beards as a sign of their sadness.

The Talmud explains that this plague was not simply a case of bad luck or poor hygiene. Rather, God allowed the 24,000 disciples of Akiva to die because of the lack of respect they showed one another. One generation after the Temple was destroyed because of senseless hatred between Jews, tragedy again befell our people because of the lack of dignity and respect shown toward each other. A house divided against itself cannot stand. A land in which its people fail to respect one another will spit those people out. A nation who inhabitants cannot find a way to respect each other on the most basic of human levels, will never remain a nation.

Not long after the plague killed the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva, he himself was murdered by the Romans. The Jews were exiled from the land, beginning a millennia-long Diaspora existence of oppression, persecution, and worse. That is, of course, until the rise of Zionism in the late 19th century and the beginning of the return. That is, of course, until 1948 and the declaration of Statehood after 2,000 years of exile. That is, of course, until the shofar blast of June 1967 that signaled Jerusalem was once again in our hands. The City of David, the City of Solomon, that City of Gold that contained 9 of the 10 parts of beauty in this world, was once again ours.

Though originally composed in May of 1967, Naomi Shemer added these words one month later, when the Six-Day-War had ended and, miraculously, we were fully and completely home.

 

We have returned to the cisterns

To the market and to the market-place

A ram’s horn (shofar) calls out

on the Temple Mount

In the Old City.

 

And in the caves in the mountain

Thousands of suns shine –

We will once again descend to the Dead Sea

By way of Jericho!

 

Jerusalem of gold,

and of bronze and of light

Behold I am a violin for all your songs.

 

Jerusalem and the First Temple were destroyed because of the sins of idolatry. Jerusalem and the Second Temple were destroyed because of the sins of senseless hatred of one Jew against another. Our people were exiled for 2,000 years because we failed to show proper respect to one another. But each time God allowed us to return. Now, I fear, however, if the state of the world remains unchanged, Jerusalem may well fall again into the hands of our enemies.

We live today in a time of great fear and tremendous anger, and it feels as if no one is truly listening to each other. The American left fears the weakening of a commitment to civil liberties in this country (i.e., the USA), and it is angry about threats to the environment and to human rights — including many of the basic assumptions upon which this country was founded. There is merit to their fears and there is credence to their anger.

The American right fears for the very existence of our country itself — for our individual safety and for our national security. It fears the changes to the traditional family structure and to the Judeo-Christian beliefs upon which this country was founded. The American right is angry about how we utilize limited tax dollars, about impediments to economic growth, as well as regulations placed on the First and Second Amendments. There is merit to their fears and there is credence to their anger.

And when it comes to Israel, the fear and the anger are multiplied. Those who perceive themselves leftwing on Israel fear that, since 1948 in general and 1967 in particular, the Jewish people has forgotten the lessons of 2,000 years of Diaspora living; they fear that with regard to the plight of the Palestinians and of the Arab Israelis, we have forgotten how it feels to be strangers in a strange land. The left-wingers are angry about the failure of the peace process and they are angry about the Orthodox control of State religion.

Those who perceive themselves rightwing on Israel, fear for Israel’s very existence. With missiles pointed at it by Hezbollah, the perpetual threat of Palestinian terrorism, and the persistent risk of a nuclear Iran, right-wingers fear that some 72 years after the end of the Holocaust that we will once again see a catastrophic loss of Jewish life, and of our land as well. Moreover, those who see themselves on the right wing with regard to Israel are angry about a previous American presidential administration’s weakening of the American-Israeli alliance, as well as how it had dealt – or not dealt – with Iran and with the Palestinians’ reluctance to come to the negotiating table.

To add fuel to the fire, the left is angry about how the right has spoken about the left, and the right is angry about how the left has spoken about the right. To sum it up, it feels today like everyone is angry and, whether they admit it or not, everyone is afraid.

In recent months, the anger and fear have manifested themselves through threats and intimidation, by one side trying to force the other side to stop speaking. Ann Coulter’s visit to Berkley was cancelled because of threats from the left. Just recently, the Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos, was invited to speak at a University graduation. Agree with her or disagree with her, it is abhorrent that our country’s Secretary of Education was heckled and booed by University graduates, and some of those in attendance even turned their backs toward her.

Just as the leftwing of this country has forgotten how to show common decency and respect, so too has it has forgotten about the importance of the exchange of ideas and the significance of the First Amendment especially when we do not agree with what one has to say. The right is equally guilty. Last week, Adat Shalom Synagogue cancelled its scheduled concert of the Israel singer Noa. I know that Adat Shalom’s goal was to create an Israel experience for its members and for the community. The goal was, in my beliefs, a good one. However, the singer scheduled to come – Noa – is, in my words, on the far left of Israeli society, though she does consider herself a Zionist and she is publicly opposed to BDS. Personally, I disagree with a lot of what I have heard her say. Regardless, Adat Shalom was, for all intents and purposes, forced to cancel its concert because of incredibly threatening language communicated to the Synagogue, its leadership and clergy.

Though I disagree with Noa’s political stances, my heart breaks for my friends at Adat Shalom. No matter where one stands on the political spectrum, it is never acceptable to threaten another person or to threaten a synagogue. And it is not acceptable even to turn our heads when others make such threats, even if support for those threats manifest themselves as mere clicks on a Facebook page. As Albert Einstein taught us, “The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”

The way fear and anger are manifesting themselves in this country is evil. What’s worse is that good people like you and me are doing nothing about it. Whether we find ourselves to the left or to the right in American politics; whether we find ourselves to the right or to the left on Israeli politics; we cannot stand idly by. We must never forget that Jerusalem was destroyed because of sinat-chinam: senseless hatred of one Jew against another. We must never forget that even the disciples of Akiva were killed and our people exiled from the Land of Israel because of a lack of respect shown by one person toward another.

Today we marked lag b’Omer: a day in the midst of the Omer period that is cause for celebration. On this day some 1900 years ago, the plague against Akiva’s students was lifted. And this coming Wednesday, on Yom Yerushalyim, we will mark 50 years since the Jewish people fully returned to our home in Zion. We cannot – we must not – let Jerusalem fall because of our sins. We cannot tolerate threats to the free exchange of ideas from either side of the political spectrum. And we must not allow senseless hatred and wanton disrespect to dominate human interaction. We cannot stand idly by and we must not remain silent. In this week of Lag B’Omer and Yom Yerushalayim, may we begin working toward the day when a sense of gratitude toward God, obligation toward our fellow man, and joy in being alive today conquer our base instincts of fear and anger.

In June of 1967, following the miracle that was the Six Day War, Naomi Shemer concluded her song of hope with these words:

 

But as I come to sing to you today,

And to adorn crowns to you

I am the smallest of the youngest

of your children

And of the last poet.

 

For your name scorches the lips

Like the kiss of a seraph

If I forget thee, Jerusalem,

Which is all gold…

 

May we never forget that which caused Jerusalem to fall, and may we always remember that which allowed her to rise again.

About the Author
Aaron Starr is a rabbi at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Michigan. A member of the Conservative Movement's Rabbinical Assembly and the Michigan Board of Rabbis, Rabbi Starr is a past president of the Rabbinical Assembly-Michigan Region and the Metropolitan Detroit's Board of Jewish Educators. Rabbi Starr is the author of the book, "Taste of Hebrew," and the article in Conservative Judaism, "Tradition vs. Modernity: The CJLS and Conservative Halakhah."
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