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Celebrating Jerusalem and praying for Jerusalem

I will celebrate Yom Yerushalyim on Sunday and yet I still pray to God every day in shemona esrei and birkat hamazon that He should rebuild Jerusalem.  On Yom Yerushalayim, I will celebrate one of the greatest modern miracles of our time, the re-unification of Jerusalem under Israeli rule.  But Jerusalem is not yet rebuilt.  I might argue that the city is not rebuilt because the Beit Hamikdash is not built and Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount is viewed as illegal by the international community.  To me, though, my prayer for the rebuilding of this holy city focuses on something else.

Each of the three major faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, claims that Jerusalem is its holy city, but the Jewish claim to Jerusalem is fundamentally different than that of the Christian or Muslim claim. In an article entitled, “The Meaning of Jerusalem to Jews, Christains and Muslims,” the author, Professor R. J. Zwi Werblowsky, an Israel scholar of religion and former Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at Hebrew University, wrote that the Muslim and Christian claim to Jerusalem was about holy sites.  The Koran refers to Mohammed going from the Holy Mosque to the Remote Mosque.  In 638, Khalif Omar conquered Jerusalem and built the Dome of the Rock on the site of the Beit Hamikdash.  Fifty years later, Khalif Abd al-Malik built al-Aqsa Mosque and linked this mosque to the Remote Mosque and Mohammed’s journey to heaven.  According to the Muslims, Jerusalem is holy because of a holy site that was built there based on a belief that Mohammed journeyed from there to heaven.

The Christian claim to Jerusalem is connected to many Christian sites that are associated with historical events that are central to Christian theology, such as Jesus’ birth and the events preceding it, Jesus’ childhood and manhood, his ministry and preaching, and his resurrection and ascension.  As such, Muslim and Christian association with Jerusalem is based on alleged or real historical events.

It is true that according to our tradition, many Jewish events happened in Jerusalem.  The Rambam (Hilchot Beit Habechira, 2:1-2) writes that Jerusalem is the place where the Batei Mikdash were built and where akedat Yitzchak took place.  It is also the place where Noach built an altar when he left the ark, where Kayin and Hevel offered sacrifices and where Adam Ha’Rishon offered a sacrifice when he was first created.  Moreover, Targum Yonatan ben Uziel (Breishit 2:7) states that Adam was actually created from the dust of the place of the Beit Hamikdash, which is the dust of the future city of Jerusalem.  However, Jewish association is not merely based on holy events that happened in the city. For the Jew, the city itself is holy.  Jerusalem is the city that God chose as the center and the symbol of the Jewish people.  Professor Werblowsky wrote, “When Jewish secularists say “Jerusalem,” it is mutatis mutandis, like the opening word of General de Gaulle’s famous speech after the liberation of Paris:  Paris – where Paris meant France and the French people, their history, their agony, and their liberation.  There is, of course, the not insignificant difference that “Jerusalem” has far deeper roots in the Jewish soul, and as a symbol has a certain transcendental reference, unlike anything comparable in other societies.”

The city of Jerusalem represents what it means to be a Jew in two dimensions.  Tosafot (Taanit 16b) states that the Hebrew name of Jerusalem, Yerushalayim, is a combination of two words – “yireh” and “shalem.”  First, it is “shalem,” meaning whole, symbolizing the power of Jerusalem to unify us as a nation.  King David established the city of Jerusalem as the Jewish capital 3,000 years ago.  The Malbim explains that he specifically selected Jerusalem as the capital city because the city created unity.  Once the nation was unified under King David, he wanted to ensure that the capital would not be located solely in the tribe of Yehuda, which was King David’s tribe.  He wanted the capital to be partly in the tribe of his opponent, the dynasty of Shaul, from Binyamin.  King David found the perfect capital in Jerusalem, which was home to two tribes, representing his desire to cede power to achieve unity.

This unity that is reflected in the city of Jerusalem manifests itself during the shalosh regalim, the three holidays of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot.  In ancient times, the Jews were divided into two religious classes, the chaverim, those who were careful about ritual purity and the amei ha’aretz, those who weren’t so careful.  Generally, a chaver would refrain from contact with the am ha’aretz and his property for fear of contracting ritual impurity.  However, during the shalosh regalim, these halachic restrictions were relaxed and all Jews were considered equally trustworthy in halachic matters.

But there is a second dimension to Jerusalem.  If we live up to the values of unity that the city represents, then Jerusalem can be a city of “yireh,” meaning vision or perception.  The akedah took place in the place that would be called Jerusalem, but Avraham Avinu called the place “Hashem yireh.”  It was a place where Avraham Avinu achieved greater vision in sensing God’s presence in his life.

This greater perception of the Divine was so palpable during the Six Day War.  Rabbi Chanan Porat, z”l, a member of the 55th Brigade that liberated Jerusalem, who later became one of the leaders of the Gush Emunim movement, offered this riveting account: “To us, the young men who were fighting, and I think to most everyone at the time, the war began with the shadow of the Holocaust etched in our minds. There was the sense in the air, this resolve, that there would not be another Holocaust. If 20 years before we were taken as sheep to the slaughter, it would not happen again. As the war progressed, however, something special occurred, and in response, our perspective began to change. At some point this change in perspective took place, and suddenly, we’re not fighting a war of survival, but rather, a war of redemption. We entered the war trying to protect ourselves and make out with as few casualties as possible. It was a feeling I really cannot describe in words, a sense of being part of history in the making. No, even more than that. It was a sense that we were in the middle of writing a new chapter in the Bible. As we reached the Kotel, the paratrooper next to me had grown up in an ultra-secular kibbutz. He too leaned against the Kotel and was sobbing. With a voice choked with tears he turned to me and cried, “Chanan, what should I say?” I cried back, “Say a prayer.” “But I don’t know how to pray,” he cried. “So say the Shma,” I called back. “But I don’t know how,” he screamed. “So say it with me,” I said. Fighting back tears, I began, “Shma.” And he at the top of his lungs repeated “Shma.” “Yisrael” and he cried, “Yisrael.” Hashem,” “Hashem.” “Elokeinu,” Elokeinu.” “Hashem,” “Hashem” “Echad,” “Echad.”

I will celebrate Yom Yerushalyim on Sunday and yet I still pray to God every day in shemona esrei and birkat hamazon that He should rebuild Jerusalem.  On Yom Yerushalayim, I will celebrate one of the greatest modern miracles of our time, the re-unification of Jerusalem under Israeli rule.  But Jerusalem is not yet rebuilt.  It is not yet rebuilt because the dream of King David, the dream of unity, has not yet materialized between the religious and the secular and even between the different streams of orthodox Jewry.  Unity is not just a secular value.  It is a profoundly religious value that is central to the essence of Jerusalem.  I hope and pray that our nation recognizes this so that Jerusalem can truly be built speedily and so that it can provide us with a deep sense of the Divine in our daily lives.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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