I have known that I would spend a gap year in Israel since the beginning of my high school years. Growing up in a community where spending a year or two between high school and college in Israel was the norm gave me very little reason to desire some other kind of experience. That is why last year, when I sang לשנה הבאה בירושלים at the end of the Pesach seder, it meant so much more to me than all the years before. I had always known that I would be going to Israel, but knowing that not only would I be in Israel but also in the center of the Old City of ירושלים ? That was a dream come true.
While ירושלים is mentioned over 600 times throughout תנך , it is not mentioned even a single time in the Torah. Why is this? If ירושלים is so significant to us, why this absence of mentioning it outright? The Rambam in his Moreh Nevuchim gives three possible answers but I want to focus on the first one. His first answer is to stop the other nations of the world from recognizing the city’s potential and thereby taking control of it in order to stop the Jews from having access to their holiest site. The Rambam understood this concept very well, as he was living in a time when Jews did not have control over ירושלים or Israel itself. He was living in the reality of not having a home to go to , and this possibly influenced him when he wrote about Israel.
One of the Ramban’s greatest challenges against the Rambam is that he never mentioned a mitzvah to live in Israel. A response to that challenge is that the Rambam felt that it was such an overarching mitzvah, so critically important to Jewish life, that it would not be doing the mitzvah justice to mention it alone. The Mitzvah of settling Israel infuses everything we do, enhances every mitzvah we observe, and therefore cannot be mentioned without mentioning everything else. This is why it is not mentioned as one of his 613 mitzvot. The Rambam is not the only one to believe this strongly about the great importance of Israel. The Ramban himself counts the settling of Israel as one of his mitzvot and quotes a midrash that living in Israel is so important that the mitzvot are only obligated in Israel itself. According to the Ramban, observing the mitzvot outside of Israel is practice for when you eventually do live there.
The importance of Israel to Judaism comes hand in hand with the importance of .ירושלים This city is the physical and spiritual center of Israel and is the point from which all of the spirituality emanates, starting in the בית המקדש . This is clear from the Gemara in Berachot that details the direction that Jews must face when they pray. If they are outside of Israel they must face Israel, but if they are in Israel itself they can’t just pray in whatever direction they choose.
They must pray towards ירושלים , the spiritual heart of the nation.
Recently, when meeting with Rav Yosef Tzvi Rimon, the senior rabbinical advisor of the Yeshivat Hakotel Bergman Family Leadership Program, he told our group, “if you connect to ירושלים , Hashem becomes the center of your life.” If you can connect to the heart of spirituality, the heart of our connection to Hashem, there is no doubt that Hashem will become the center of your life as well.
This opportunity that Yeshivat Hakotel has given me and my peers, the ability to feel at home in this incredible city, is one that cannot be understated. When I walk through Jaffa Gate, I no longer experience the same emotions as all the tourists walking with me. I no longer gasp at the size of the stone walls, I do not look with curiosity at the children running and laughing through the streets, and I do not stop when I enter an empty street and gaze in wonder at its beauty. These experiences have become normal for me. Instead, as I walk through Jaffa Gate, I sigh the sigh of relief of one who has finally made his way back home. I stop, smile, and give a tourist directions to the Western Wall. I give a high-five to my young cousin as he runs by with some of his friends. As I walk through the streets I smile and say hello to shop owners who recognize me from my many trips to their stores. This city is no longer a tourist destination for me. This city is my home.