In honor of Jerusalem Reunification Day, here are some excerpts from my essay “The Cinnamon Trees of Jerusalem and Other Tales”, written in 1978. (It first appeared in my book Between Dust and Dance, and is also found in Before Our Very Eyes: Readings for a Journey Through Israel)
The “real” Israel is neither exclusively nor necessarily the Israel of the newspapers and international debates. It would be unfair to our spirit and an inauthentic understanding of our history to speak of our corner of the Middle East as only a package of security and defense problems, crises in the state’s economy, and social unrest.
It is time to review another aspect of Israel in order to restore our sense of grandeur and holiness which is the Land’s emanating gift to us. During the era of the Talmud, in Israel and in Babylonia, over the first five centuries of the secular calendar they insisted that Israel was different, a place unique, living in untimeable presences, a locale that contained Heaven and Creation and Now and All Eternity within its borders.
The Names, Images, and Phrases
Jerusalem — there could never be a holier city anywhere. The rabbis called it “Menuchah” — rest and peace of mind for God and human beings.
They said: the world is like the human eyeball — the white is the ocean that surrounds the earth; the iris, with its multifarious colors and characters, is the inhabited world. But the pupil, the power and source of seeing, that is Yerushalayim. To them, it was the city that made all Jews friends with one another.
They taught: When you arrive in the Land, plant trees. Did not God set Himself to planting when He created the world — starting with Israel (for Israel was created first, of course). So, too, you must plant when you come to the Land. Treeplanting is a mitzvah, they said. It is a true imitation of God’s ways.
And they taught: The trees of Jerusalem were cinnamon trees, and whenever fires were lit with them, the fragrance floated through the land.
While the Temple stood, no bride needed perfume on her wedding day. The incense from the altar was so ever-present, perfumes would have added nothing. The goats of Jericho, miles away to the northeast, would sneeze from the scent!
No one ever had to say to his companion, “There is no room for me to spend the night in Jerusalem.”
It was a custom in the Holy City that hosts would hang a cloth on their doors. Whenever the cloth was out, all who wished to join in the meal were welcome to come in and eat.
Nearly two thousand years later, a Jew need not bend his imagination too much to feel the passion of the words: Whoever did not see Jerusalem in her glory never saw a beautiful city.
The End Times
The time will come, says the Talmud, when the mashiach will come and establish himself in Yerushalayim, the city of cinnamon trees and friends and light. At that time, the Worthy Ones who died outside the Land will be brought back to the Holy City, some say on clouds, some say in tunnels under the earth. There, in Jerusalem, they will be brought back to life. There will be a great banquet of Leviathan, with God Himself presiding.
But which Jerusalem will that be? The Zohar, extending the images of Talmud, says that God will renew the world and bring down to earth a wholly rebuilt Jerusalem which He has prepared in Heaven — a city never to be destroyed again.
A thousand years before, a similar striking image was expounded by Rabbi Yochanan. According to one version of his words, God will make the entire East Gate of the city out of one pearl. Another explains that God has diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, and pearls, 45 feet square exquisitely engraved, which He will set in the gates of Jerusalem.
When we walk the streets of Yerushalayim and the fields of Eretz Yisrael, let us be faithful to the words of Rabbi Yochanan. It is but one of a hundred variations on a talmudic theme. Eretz Yisrael and Yerushalayim are different. Jews live and change the world by its glow.