“If I forget you oh Jerusalem, let my right hand forget it’s skill. Let my tongue adhere to my palate, if I fail to recall you, if I fail to elevate Jerusalem to my highest happiness. Remember, Hashem to the descendants of Edom, the day of Jerusalem; for those who say, ‘Destroy! Destroy! To it’s foundation!” –Psalm 137:5-7
“My heart is in the East, and I in the uttermost West. My food has no taste, there is no sweetness in it. How can I keep the faith while Zion lies under Edom’s foot, and I in the chains of an Arab? I would leave Spain and all it’s pleasures–I would give anything to walk just once the ruined and empty courts of the Mikdash.” –Yehudah Halevy, 12th Century Rabbi
Our roots are important.
In February 2018, I remember sitting in yeshiva and reading in the news about the Israeli Antiquities Authority discovering two ancient bullae (Stamps of a royal and/or official signature) from the First Temple era. One bullae gave solid confirmation to the kingship of Hezekiah of Judah stating, “For Chezkiyahu Hamelech,” and another in lesser quality condition, bore the name of “Yeshaya(hu) Hanav(i).” (Parentheses used to indicate the missing letters due to a break in the bullae.)
Even though I was enjoying my time in yeshiva and delving into further depths in Judaism than I’d probably ever done previously, I felt a surge of excitement and even a pull to be a part of the excavations in the City of David–the oldest part of Jerusalem, which we read about in the Tanach. To know that after our two thousand years of exile that we had truly found a seal of the greatest king in our history, and possibly the seal of the prophet Isaiah who also according to traditional narrative belonged to the royal family… there was something incredibly beautiful about it that simply made me long to be involved.
Thank G-d, later I was given the privilege of being employed full time as a site worker in the excavations.
Thus in the past year of working for the City of David’s excavation sites, I have to say that it has been a phenomenal experience. Even as I type this, it is hard to convey the feeling I have for it, and how much I believe it means to me and to the People of Israel as a nation, but I want to try.
Besides the beauty of the workplace and being able to have such fantastic coworkers, working at the City of David has literally been like a dream. I once had an archaeology professor back in the States who once said, “I’m not a religious man, but to be able to excavate in the land of Israel feels like an act of worship.” It would seem to be so much more so in the City of David. But why? What is the connection to a spiritual experience and helping in a historical/archaeological dig, or even just visiting old ruins, like in the above quote by Rav Yehudah HaLevy?
In our modern era, history and storytelling of the past has taken the backseat when compared to moving towards the future. Often times, these days, history seems to be a cheap fact to share in a bar, and not much else. And yet, no matter how much we as nations, cultures, groups, and individuals try to suppress our past while trying to “progress” forward into the future, our past is something that we are truly connected to on a very deep level. When the individual walks into the psychologist’s office, it is usually past experiences–whether they be a few ours ago or several years ago–that is talked about in how one is effected psychologically. And indeed, often times therapeutic issues require strong analysis to understand who we are and where do we as individuals “go from here.”
Whether we like it or not, our past environment with all of its victories and failures has effected us–as nations as well as individuals. Where we come from has a colossal impact on who we are, and how we see ourselves; our level of self-esteem, how we carry ourselves, whether we act bravely or timidly, whether we stand or surrender to the challenges that life throws at us. It brings us our values. It brings the answer to the question “why” behind all of our struggles. It is the foundation of our identity. It resides within ourselves in our present and future.
To quote Rav Joseph Soloveitchik on Abraham as a historical figure,
“The continuity-identity aspect of historical experience comes to the fore. Abraham projects his existence upon a historical background and introduces it into the everlasting community, into a mysterious future, reaching out beyond the confines of its natural existence. There is an act of self-transcendence. Abraham exceeds the boundary line of individual, temporal existence and reaches out into the open unlimited spaces of historical existence. Abraham immortalizes himself in the continuous historical series which he sponsored. He lives in the community and in the covenant. If I may use a mystical term, I would say that the historical covenant community is the continuous incarnation of its father. There is an ‘eternal’ migration of the charismatic soul throughout all phases of historical realization.” (Rav Joseph Soloveitchik, Emergence of the Ethical Man.)
If this is true of Abraham our father–that a historical figure can project himself into an extremely strong connection between past and present, it is so much more so with our ancient capital city, Jerusalem…That ancient Jerusalem is ingrained within our souls no matter how much we find believe we might forget.
Thus when we read Psalm 137, a Psalm about the destruction of Jerusalem of the first temple era by the Babylonian empire, we arrive at an interesting verse: “Remember, Hashem the descendants of Edom, the day of Jerusalem; for those who say, ‘Destroy! Destroy! To it’s very foundation!'” Without going too much into the historical narrative of the tense relationship between Israel and Edom, even from this verse we can see that Edom is a vicious enough enemy in this Psalm to cheer on the Babylonian army to destroy Jerusalem. And yet to take it one step further, if we analyze the desired goal of Edom in this statement, we find a very potent strategy for the destruction of a nation–to destroy it’s very foundations. If you can destroy a nation’s foundation–it’s identity, history and the historical symbols that bear witness to it’s legitimacy–it is only a matter of time before that nation disintegrates away into nothingness, like a tree that lost it’s roots.
It is thus a beautiful irony that in the entrance to Davidson’s Archaeological Park in Jerusalem near the Western (Wailing) Wall, there is printed on the wall a quote from the Be’er Chaim: “The Jerusalem stone, so resilient and supple, bows to the transient follies of humankind, bearing the testimony of a hundred witnesses, and yet, remains silent.”
While it can be easy to forget because of the work involved, we are truly in a holy extraordinary place. More than just an interesting story to tell, it is vital testimony to who we Jews are as a nation. We honor the kings, prophets, priests and warriors of our national past as we excavate and uncover. It is a testimony that we are more than Americans and Europeans and/or any other country of our diasporic residence–it shows that we are a nation. The ancient stones bear witness to the rest of the world as well as us that we are not only a diasporic subculture of our country of residence, as we’ve grown all too comfortable with–if not in our conscious, then definitely in our subconscious–but that we are a nation.
We are not American. We are not European. We are a specific nationality different from any other nation.
All Jews are truly Israelis with an ancient heritage.
More than we should identify ourselves with our past events of persecution, we should identify ourselves with our nationality of ancient past and present. To dig in the City of David honors who we are. It legitimizes who we are. It sets a historical and archaeological foundation of who we are as a people, even for the most skeptical scholar.
Though there is not much left from what once was, the City of David invites us to live the echoes of who we have been in our history. To embrace who we are at our roots. To not only be scholars, but warriors. Not only urban office workers and businessmen, but also farmers and shepherds.
Though Edom cheered for our very foundation to be destroyed, there is yet a foundation in the archaeological finds. There is still a place to see who we are, even if they be only in soft echoes…
May we all learn to open our earlids to hear more clearly the echos of our foundation.