Salem for Sale

The past ten days have been quite difficult ones for Jerusalemites. A week-and-a-half ago, a terrorist plowed his car into a crowd waiting for the light rail at Ammunition Hill, immediately killing a three-month-old baby in her grandfather’s arms. Four days later, another young soul, an Ecuadoran convert who had emigrated to Israel after discovering her family’s Jewish roots, succumbed to her wounds from that horrific attack. Three days after that, Rabbi Yehudah Glick, activist for Jewish prayer rights on the Temple Mount, was shot in an attempted assassination. This is merely the culmination of months of unrest in the capital, leading us to ask: what can make Jerusalem whole (shalem) again?

In fact, Shalem (Salem) is the first name used for Jerusalem, according to Jewish tradition (Onkelos et al.), in a verse from this morning’s Torah portion, Lekh Lekha (Gen. 14:18): “And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine, and he was a priest of the Supreme God.”

0522melchezidek0010Melchizedek according to the Orthodox. I didn’t say which Orthodox.

However, this is not the only Salem in the Torah. Later in the book of Genesis (33:18), we read (following Rashbam’s rendering): “And Jacob came to Salem, city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Paddan Aram, and he encamped before the city.”

So we have Salem as an alternative name for two cities which figure prominently in Jewish history: Jerusalem and Shechem (modern-day Nablus). Indeed, the root shalem yield two important terms in biblical Hebrew: shallem (to pay) and, of course, shalom (peace).

This represents some heavy foreshadowing. Immediately after describing Jacob’s arrival in “Salem, city of Shechem,” the Torah notes (v. 19): “And he purchased the plot of land where he pitched his tent from the hands of the children of Hamor, patriarch of Shechem, for a hundred pieces of silver.” After the taking of Dinah, Hamor and his son have this to say to the citizens of Shechem: “These men are shelemim with us. Let them dwell in the land, and they will trade therein. The land is wide enough for them” (34:21). Now, shelemim here may be taken as “Salemites” or “amenable,” but what is clear that this quality indicates that despite the outrage over what has happened to Dinah, her family will forget it all for the right price.

What else is for sale in Shechem-Salem? The story of the sale of Joseph, just a few years later, begins with Jacob’s fateful proclamation (Gen. 37:13), “Aren’t your brothers shepherding in Shechem? Go, and I will send you to them.” The climax of that crime is Judah’s famous question (vv. 26-27): “What profit is there in killing our brother and covering his blood? Let us sell him to the Ishmaelites…”

Centuries later, in Shechem once again, the scion of Joseph, Jeroboam, poses a challenge to the scion of Judah, Rehoboam (I Kings 12:4): “Your father was a hard master. Lighten the harsh labor demands and heavy taxes that your father imposed on us. Then we will be your loyal subjects.” Rehoboam response is, unsurprisingly: shallem, pay up. “My father laid heavy burdens on you, but I’m going to make them even heavier! My father beat you with whips, but I will beat you with scorpions!” (v. 14) And so the other tribes desert the Davidic dynasty (and murder the man whom Rehoboam sends to collect his super-sized taxes). You would think Rehoboam, a native of Jerusalem, would know better than to head to Shechem for his coronation, considering how badly it ended for the first man who tried to buy the throne of Israel there, Abimelech (Judges 9).

In Shechem-Salem, it’s all about the almighty shekel. And it always ends badly.

But Jerusalem-Salem is supposed to be a different place. It is the city of peace, but that peace is not based on getting a piece of the action. Isaiah speaks eloquently of this time after time. “Rise from the dust, Jerusalem, sit in a place of honor… You were sold for nothing, and it is not with money that you will be redeemed” (52:2-3). With what, then? “I will restore your judges as at first, and your counselors as at the beginning. Afterwards, you will be known as the city of righteousness, faithful town. Zion will be reclaimed with justice, and its returnees with righteousness” (ibid. 1:26-27).

It is no coincidence that the king of Salem is named Melchizedek (nor that the first to carry the full title “king of Jerusalem,” in the time of Joshua, is Adonizedek). Tzedek (righteousness) is the only currency valid in Jerusalem. It is the only way to make the city whole.

That is why Melchizedek’s meeting with Abram interrupts another royal-patriarchal meeting, that of Abram with King Bera of Sodom. Abram famously declares (14:21-23), “Give me the souls, but take the possessions for yourself… I will not take a thread or a bootstrap or anything of yours, lest you say: ‘I enriched Abram.'” This comes immediately after his encounter with Melchizedek, as if to say that this priestly king, representing the City of Completion, left an impression on Abram. Decades later, of course, God himself will teach Abram another important lesson in Jerusalem, on Mt. Moriah: that He does not desire blood payment, but the pursuit of righteousness and justice.

The torrential rains of this weekend may have doused the fires in Jerusalem momentarily, but a permanent solution can only be achieved when we realize that this Salem is not for sale. It is only through justice that we can make peace here.

About the Author
Yoseif Bloch is a rabbi who has taught at Yeshivat HaKotel, Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshivat Shvilei Hatorah and served as a congregational rabbi in Canada. He currently works as an editor, translator and publisher. As a blogger and podcaster, he is known as Rabbi Joe in Jerusalem.
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