William Hamilton
William Hamilton

Jerusalem — the Seder’s last word

Sages debate about where the Seder storytelling should begin.  All agree about where it needs to end – Jerusalem.  Always the compass for next year’s aspirations, Jerusalem was wondrously restored 50 years ago.  This year’s Seder invites us to appreciate four dimensions of Jerusalem that are precious.

First, Jerusalem has never enjoyed more religious freedom than it does today.  Two thousand years ago – the last time Judaism was freely practiced there – Christianity and Islam had not yet developed.  Jerusalem’s diverse mosaic of religious energy has never been richer.  Occasional flareups of extremists notwithstanding, Christians, Jews, and Muslims have enjoyed sacred rights and responsibilities since her restoration in 1967.

Second, Jerusalem evokes deep emotions.  Joy.  Sorrow.  Awe.  But the most dominant emotional condition associated with Jerusalem is compassion. Our prayerbook entreats God’s compassion for a city that has endured so much and is preeminent to so many.  And compassion is what this Holy City should generate in us.  It is where people meet.  It is where strangers become familiar and old friends accidentally reconnect.  Coincidence seems baked into Jerusalem stone.

Third, Jerusalem has a prolific past, present, and future.  Jerusalem’s Jewish journey began with foundational acts of Abraham and King David.  Ever since her walls both listen and evoke.  They stirred Hezekiah, grieved Jeremiah, and were first restored by Nehemiah.  Today she is youthful.  Once retiring neighborhoods like the Machane Yehuda market-area come to life after dark.  And Jerusalem is shaping tomorrow too,  named in 2015 by Time magazine as the world’s top emerging technological hub.

Fourth, Jerusalem’s beauty – her limestone aesthetic, her orderliness, her smells and tastes – reliably transport her guests and residents.  The Talmud teaches,  “Ten measures of beauty descended to the world, nine went to Jerusalem” (Kiddushin 49b).  Sacred sites of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity stand side by side within her gates.  Her natural beauty stirs dreams. awakens callings, and inspires promise keeping.

In this week’s Torah portion we learn of the early morning responsibility of the Priest to remove the ashes left on the altar from the night before.  “And he shall take the ashes outside the camp, to a pure place” (Lev. 6:4). The word for ashes, deshen, recurs twice each Friday night in the Sabbath liturgy.  Toward the end of the Psalm for Shabbat, vigorous and fresh trees are depicted as deshainim, and we conclude the evening service rejoicing at how God’s weekly sabbatical gift makes our People brim with joy, m’dushnai oneg.  How do stale ashes produce such unanticipated yield?  Perhaps it is the reward for humble acceptance of responsibility.  The very first thing with which the Priest began his day was the quiet embrace of this unglamorous task.  Humble duty can bring transfusions of dignity.

May we bring this spirit to the promises we keep to our People and to all of humankind as we gratefully conclude our Seders with our hearts turned toward Jerusalem this year.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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