Yael Ridberg

Remembering the Ecology of Jerusalem

The devastating news and images this week of the brutal terrorist attack in Jerusalem are still fresh in my mind. I haven’t been able to pull myself away from the stories of these four learned, compassionate, community-loving men, Rabbis Aryeh Kopinsky, Avraham Shmuel Goldberg, Kalman Levine and Moshe Twersky, and the brave police officer Zidan Nahad Saif, who were murdered on Tuesday.

The conflict between Jews and Arabs over geography and religion has been in our collective DNA, it seems, since the beginning of the sacred record of time in our Torah. As my friend and colleague Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater pointed out, this conflict, this challenging and often times hateful relationship between Jews and Arabs can be seen as going back to Jacob and Esau, whose birth is remembered this week.

In Parashat Toldot, Rebecca experiences a difficult pregnancy with twins in her womb and goes to inquire of God, why she is suffering. She says, “Im ken, lamah zeh anochi?  If this is so, why am I?” (Gen. 25:22)  It is a direct question but with an existential twist. Rebecca is told there are two nations in her womb, already wrestling and vying for primacy before they are born. Jacob and Esau’s differences from the outset are clear, but the arc of the story doesn’t betray a certain outcome.

Esau is famished, so Jacob feeds him. Jacob is hungry too, but not for food, he is hungry for the birthright that Esau spurns. When their father Isaac is old and his eyes are dim, Rebecca enables Jacob to receive the blessing from his father mean for his brother Esau. When Esau later returns from the hunt with the game meant for his father and in anticipation of the blessing, he finds that Jacob has supplanted him. It is in the reaction of Isaac, that we once again experience the existential twist of the story. “Vayeherad Yitzhak harada gedolah ad me’od – And Isaac shuddered a great shudder” (27:33) because he knew that Jacob had taken the blessing for Esau, but there was nothing to be done.

As a result of this , Esau hated Jacob, and Jacob fled for his life. Twenty years later when the text anticipates their reunion, we don’t know whether they will tear each other apart or run to embrace each other when they come face to face.  We will witness Jacob’s preparations to meet his estranged brother, and we will be with him in his struggle and strivings with beings divine and human.  We will learn that it is in our striving towards a blessing when we most embody our namesake, and Jacob’s – Yisrael.  Still later we will understand that Jacob and Esau did come together to bury their father, even while they went their separate ways in peace.

In light of this week’s horrific events, and the escalation of incitement and violence of the last few weeks, we too might ask, “If suffering is reality, why must we endure it?” Are we too destined to “shudder terribly” when we look at what is happening to our people, to the land of Israel, to all inhabitants of the region, and think there is nothing to be done?  How will we yet strive towards a blessing as Jews, as Am Yisrael?  Will there be a way to come together with our historic cousins for a common purpose, if only to then depart in peace?

I have been thinking of Yehudah Amichai’s poem The Ecology of Jerusalem all week:

The air over Jerusalem is saturated with prayers and dreams

like the air over cities with heavy industry.

It’s hard to breathe.


And from time to time a new shipment of history arrives.
Houses and towers serve as packing materials
later thrown away and piled in heaps.


Sometimes candles come in place of people.
Then it’s quiet.
Sometimes people come in place of candles.
Then there’s noise.


Amid enclosed gardens, among jasmine bushes

replete with balsam, foreign consulates,

like wicked brides who were thrust aside
lie in wait for their moment.

May the memories of the fallen be for a blessing, and may we continue to strive towards wholeness and yes, even peace.

About the Author
Rabbi Yael B. Ridberg serves as the spiritual leader of Congregation Dor Hadash in San Diego, California. In addition to her congregational responsibilities, Rabbi Ridberg serves as the President of the San Diego Rabbinic Association. She lives in La Jolla with her husband and four children.
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