If I Forget Thee, O Jerusalem
One of the most powerful photographs I have seen is that of a soldier praying at the Western Wall, in full military regalia, his gun slung over his shoulder, his face and chest pressed into the Wall, oblivious to anything else going on around him. The juxtaposition of a soldier, physically strong, in a vulnerable position, supplicating himself is gripping.
Yet, this photograph is compelling, beyond artistic talent. This photograph, to me, symbolizes three of the prevailing reasons why we connect to Jerusalem: spirit, history, and physical beauty.
How amazing to walk down streets that are likely to exist from biblical times! How fascinating to explore our history tangibly, by touching stones that are spoken about in biblical texts! From its ancient streets and crazy houses, to the most modern of conveniences, Jerusalem is a marvel. If you have traveled to Jerusalem, you have experienced the most profound moment, at that special time of day, when the city truly turns to gold, as the sun sets, reflecting buildings gilded with gold fortified with Jerusalem stone.
Naomi Shemer, a well-known Israel musician wrote a song in 1967 that is now a symbol for Jerusalem: Jerusalem of God. The chorus speaks to the true magic of Jerusalem's physical beauty.
Yerushalaim all of goldWhen in Jerusalem, we reconnect with the place that helped define us. Here, our history comes alive. Naomi Shemer writes:
Yerushalaim, bronze and light
Within my heart I shall treasure
Your song and sight.
As clear as wine, the wind is flying,Indeed, the stony hills recall thousands of years of our history-from our earliest times to our most recent political dramas. Jerusalem first became important as we developed our religious identity and belief system. Eventually, one specific worship space was declared for all Israelites: the Temple in Jerusalem. For the ancient Jews, God was present at the Temple, where they brought their sacrifices, their first fruits. They came in praise of God, and in search of forgiveness for sins. Jerusalem became a city of pilgrimage, a city where God could be reached.
Among the dreamy pines
As evening light is slowly dying
And a lonely bell still chimes,
So many songs, so many stories
The stony hills recall. . .
When the Temple was destroyed the first time in 586 BCE, the Jews were left in true spiritual crisis. Without a place to worship, what would happen to them? Of necessity, new rituals were developed. But Jerusalem, and the Temple, were never forgotten. It's likely, in fact, that Psalm 137 was penned during the first exile, when captors were taunting the Jews to share with them their worship, and to assimilate. Instead, they responded, “ If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand lose its' cunning.” In other words, they said to their captors: we would rather be physically incapable of performing any task, then to forget the importance of Jerusalem!
It was understood that one could pray and worship away from Jerusalem, as long as one kept it firmly planted in the forefront of their spiritual minds. Rewarded with return, and the rebuilding of the Temple, Jerusalem returned to its physical centrality, rather than metaphysical longing.
And again, when the Temple was destroyed for the second time, in 70 CE, Jews lamented for Jerusalem. Even to today, our prayers and liturgy hearken, often, to Jerusalem. Indeed, Larry Hoffman writes in his book, “The Journey Home,”: “ The Jewish story is inconceivable without the Jewish Land.” The development of the Jewish religious practice is inconceivable without Jerusalem. Jerusalem, the Temple, and then the longing for it, shaped us as a religion.
Naomi Shemer recalls Jerusalem's ancient history in her song:
Alas, the dry wells and fountains,Her lyrics recall a time of hardship, when Jerusalem's rituals and daily life were silenced.
The sound of horn from Temple's mountain
No longer calls to pray,
The rocky caves at night are haunted
By sounds of long ago
When we were going to the Jordan
By way of Jericho.
From ancient times to day, no matter the political situation-or strife-Jerusalem has continued to remain a significant symbol. When we were at our lowest times-ghettoized, traumatized-we looked to Jerusalem as a symbol of hope, of potential peace. Larry Hoffman writes, “But no matter what we think of any Israeli government, there is something about Israel the land…” When we struggle with how to support - or not support Israel - we still retain this thread of connection. That connection, I believe, is the spiritual thread that we have never been able to break.
Jerusalem is fully a part of our religious psyche. It is a significant piece of our draw to Israel. In fact in our daily prayers we offer a special benediction:
Turn in compassion to Jerusalem, Your city. Let there be peace in her gates, quietness in the hearts of her inhabitants. Let Your Torah go forth from Zion and Your Word from Jerusalem. Blessed are You, God, who gives peace to Jerusalem.
We turn to Jerusalem in traditional prayer; we specifically recall Jerusalem at the end of our Passover liturgy, with Lshana Habaah B'Yerushalayim.
We know that Jerusalem is truly larger than words, than pictures-it is truly sacred. Jerusalem is a symbol of our spirit, of our connection to God. I once heard a professor say that concentric circles of holiness emanate from Jerusalem's center.
Yet, our spiritual connection is hard to put into words. When pushed, even the most intellectual may agree that their personal experience of God, and their relationship with the Jewish people, was strengthened while visiting Jerusalem.
It is no surprise that studies have shown that teens who travel to Israel on summer programs are more likely to strongly identify with the Jewish community in college and beyond. Equally, when adults visit Jerusalem for the first time, often the most loquacious are left without words.
This year we are proud to support seven students from our congregation traveling to Israel for the summer, and one student who is there for the semester. In addition, Rabbi Block, with the Jewish Federation, will be traveling to Israel in October. If you have never experienced the magic of Jerusalem, I encourage you to go. Tonight, we end with the words of Psalm 122: Pray for the well-being of Jerusalem.