It’s always in the news. It’s locked into our prayers. It’s mythical and it’s very real. It’s a place of heartbreak and heartache, it’s a space of joy and jubilation. It’s twice on the Jewish calendar. It’s Jerusalem, ירושלים, city of old, city of gold…
It’s on our minds as we approach Tisha B’Av (or 9th Av) this coming Saturday night and Sunday. It’s on our minds as the city comes to terms with the latest tension centred on the centre, the Temple Mount,Muslim unrest and recent war.
I love the Old City with its cobbled walkways, its honeyed walls and its one majestic Wall. It enchants with its wondrous layers of civilization. I never tire of it, although its pain and tension are sometimes unbearable. Historian, Paul Johnson once called it the most edgy city in the world. In these Covid times I miss my regular visits to this city of dreams.
Jerusalem occupies a space in our souls – we’ve always directed our words and prayers towards it: It’s an elemental part of our most repeated prayer, the daily Amidah: “To Jerusalem, Your city, may you rebuild it rapidly in our days as an everlasting structure…Blessed are You, Lord, who builds Jerusalem”. It’s an intrinsic part of our yearnings encapsulated in the section of the Amidah repeated every single day of the year: “ ותחזינה עינינו. And may our eyes witness Your return to Zion”.
We are of the blessed generations to witness the return of Jews to Jerusalem, to be part of the rebuilding. There’s been a fundamental shift in Jewish identity and consciousness since 1967 and the challenge today is to ensure that the return and rebuilding of Jerusalem are done with compassion and wisdom. For some Chareidi Jews, while Jerusalem is in their souls and they may even live there, they can’t accept its political reality. Their extremists will even attack religious soldiers on the streets of Meah Shearim for wearing the uniform of the Jewish state.
A failure to recognise that thousands of years of Jewish exile have ended, that Jewish sovereignty has returned, that the city of Jerusalem is in our hands, is a failure of vision, a failure of imagination and (for me) a failure of faith.
That’s why I struggle with many of the dirges of discretion, the kinnot, that still characterise our prayers on Tisha B’Av. I have no problem with sitting on the floor and lamenting the losses that the destruction of both Temples unleashed. To remember is to ensure you don’t repeat the mistakes of the past. But I do have a problem with those laments that suggest we are still in the dark days of exile and devastation, that nothing has changed since the year 70 CE. We are, after all, a free people now with our own land, government and army! And we should insert this recognition into our observance of Tisha B’av. In addition to the kinnot we should have a ‘kinor’ (a harp song), songs of rejoicing and redemption. One rabbi who sought to do this after 1967 was Rabbi Rosenfeld when he re-wrote the נחם or comfort prayer included in our Tisha B’Av prayers. Sadly, this version has not caught on…
Some may argue that Yom Yerushalayim is the date for celebration and we shouldn’t tamper with Tisha B’Av. That is a bifurcation which doesn’t sit easily, and a dialectical approach, uniting the opposites, seems more intellectually and emotionally appropriate. This is reflected in Rabbi Akiva’s startling response to his colleagues mourning over the destruction; it is also the stuff of his acute vision, eerily prescient in its insightfulness. When his colleagues wept at the sight of the ruined city, he laughed declaring that the fact of the destruction (as prophesied) could now yield to the fate of the rebirth (as prophesied). Today our tears for Jerusalem should be diminished and our efforts should be directed to making it a hospitable and welcoming city of laughter for all its citizens – Jews, Arabs and all of its visitors.
Jerusalem moves me with its ancient majesty, its timeless tales. It excites me with the presence of its past, it moves me to poetry and song! Naomi Shemer’s well-known words still capture the reality of Jerusalem today.
“For your name burns the lips
Like the kiss of an angel
Let me not forget thee, O Jerusalem
That all of Gold
We have returned to the market,
The cistern, and the square.
The shofar calls on the Temple
Mount in the Old City
And from the caves in the rocks,
1,000 suns glow again…”