Thursday, May 25, 2017

Yom Yerushalayim 2017

I surprised myself this last Wednesday with the degree of emotion I found myself bringing to Yom Yerushalayim this year, the fiftieth anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem, then felt surprised by the fact that I felt surprised at all.

It would not, after all, be a stretch to refer to the capture of the Old City of Jerusalem by
Israeli troops on June 7, 1967, as the most momentous event in Jewish history since the founding of the state itself in 1948. (Jerusalem Day—Yom Yerushalayim in Hebrew—is observed on the anniversary of that day according to the Hebrew calendar, the 28th day of the month of Iyar, which fell this last Wednesday even though anniversary according to the secular calendar is still a few weeks off.) Nor, for once, does it seem exaggerated to speak about the reunification of the city in salvific, perhaps even messianic, terms: the restoration of the city, riven in two by war, to something akin to the psalmist’s vision of Jerusalem as a “unified city of tightly-knit together precincts” felt then and still feels to me now not merely like a great military victory, which it surely was as well, but as much—and perhaps even more so—like a hurdle successfully leapt over on the way to the great redemptive moment that Torah teaches will come to all humankind at the end of days. I’m not sure I can remember precisely how the ninth-grader I was then processed the events of June 1967 as they unfolded. But I am completely certain about how they feel to me a half-century later, as I look back on the Six Day War and contemplate its larger meaning.

Regular readers of my weekly letters and blog posts know that I have written at length in other many other places about my relationship to Jerusalem, sometimes focusing on my first trip there the year before the Six Day War when I was only thirteen years old (click here), sometimes about the experience of our oldest child being born in Jerusalem (click here), sometimes on the experience of acquiring a home in Jerusalem (click here), sometimes about the question of American foreign policy with respect to the status of Jerusalem (click here), and sometimes about the United Nations and its hate-filled, perverse, and deeply anti-Semitic stance with respect to the Holy City (click here or here.) In all those pieces, however, I tried to capture some aspect of my deep emotional commitment not only to the poetic idea of Jerusalem as the city of God that functions as the nexus point between heaven and earth, but to the actual city of golden stone that has existed physically and fully really at the epicenter of Jewish history since the days of King David more than three thousand years ago. Nor do I feel any need to choose between the two approaches: I am drawn to the city both as a theological concept suggestive of the deepest and most moving ideas about the world and the place of Israel among the nations and to the actual, physical city in which we are summertime residents and very happy property owners.

It’s interesting, now that I think of it, that the name Jerusalem does not appear in the Torah, where the city is invariably referenced slightly (or more than slightly) mysteriously as “the place in which God has chosen to cause the divine name to dwell.” Text historians have their own explanation for that strange detail of the biblical text, but for me it is part of a larger set of ideas regarding the nature of holiness itself.

Moses, the national hero par excellence and a man of unparalleled holiness, too is left unnamed in the Torah. The name Moses, after all, was given to him by Pharaoh’s daughter because his life was saved when he was drawn from the river, and the word for “drawn” sounds a bit like the Hebrew version of Moses’ name. But, of course, Pharaoh’s daughter would have spoken Egyptian, not Hebrew, so presumably our biblical tale is a kind of Hebrew-language retelling of how Moses got whatever his Egyptian name was, presumably one that sounded like the Egyptian word for “drawn.”  But in either event his parents must have given him a name when he was born, months before he was deposited into the Nile in a basket or drawn from the river to safety. Surely that was his “real” name, the one his parents gave him…and yet it is nowhere recorded in Scripture. So in a very real sense Moses too has no name.

Nor does the Land of Israel. Other lands are named freely: the Land of Egypt, the Land of Goshen, the Land of the Philistines, the Land of Moab, and more. The pre-Israelite version of the land has a name too, of course: it is always referenced as the Land of Canaan. But the Canaanites are destined quickly to pass from the scene…and the land’s future name, “the Land of Israel,” is not mentioned in the Torah at all. The phrase, it is true, appears elsewhere in Scripture (although in fewer than a dozen places). But in the Torah the land is only referenced either by its soon-to-be-former name or by one of a handful of handy circumlocutions: the land that God promised to your ancestors, the land that God shall cause you to inherit, the land that God is granting you as your eternal patrimony, the land God gave to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But nowhere in the Torah do we learn what the Land of Canaan will be called once the Canaanites vanish from the scene of history! So the Holy Land, surely the holiest of lands, too has no name…or at least not one in the simple sense that Laos and Ecuador do.

Even the great desert sanctuary to which the Torah devotes so many endless columns of relentless detail—and which houses not only the sanctum called “the Holy Place” but also the inmost sanctum called the Holy of Holies (that is, the holiest of holy places)—too has no name, not really: it is referenced merely as a mishkan, a slightly obscure term that denotes the resting- or dwelling-place of something or someone. And so the great sanctuary is called the mishkan of God, the mishkan of God’s glory, the mishkan of the testimony (i.e., of the tablets of the law that were preserved in the inmost sanctum), the mishkan of the Tent of Meeting (i.e., the tent that functioned within the holy precincts as its most sacred space), etc. But other than being reference as the dwelling of God or the resting place of some specific thing…it too has no “real” name at all.

In its own premodern way, Scripture nods to the almost ineffable sanctity of certain things by leaving then unnamed. The idea is clear enough—that, since human language is rooted in human experience and the quality of holiness derives from a realm completely outside the boundaries of the human experience, the most honest thing anyone can say about anything truly suffused with holiness would be to say nothing at all, a point made most famously of all by the author of the 65th psalm, who opened his poem with the bald assertion that, with respect to God, the Holy One of Israel, “the only [true] praise is silence itself.”

And so it is with Jerusalem itself, now and for many centuries named and called by its name, but still characterized by an aura of innate holiness that can surely be felt and vaguely described, but never fully defined.

I was, as I never seem to tire of relating, a boy when I first entered Jerusalem. To say I was naïve and untried in the ways of the world is to say almost nothing at all. I was, in every sense, a junior high schooler (this was the summer before ninth grade, almost a year before the Six Day War). I had only the rudimentary Hebrew of a Hebrew School student and no knowledge at all, let alone any sort of sophisticated understanding, of Jewish history or Jewish philosophy. I was me, obviously. But I was still a golem in every meaningful way, something akin to the block of marble in which David was imprisoned until Michelangelo set him free by chipping away the part that didn’t look like David. I was in there somewhere! (How can I not have been?) I obviously had no idea what the future would or could bring, but at that stage I wasn’t even sure what I wanted it to bring. But something in the place spoke to me even then, even without me being able to understand even a fraction of what it might have had to say. As I stood at the Mandelbaum Gate and attempted to take some snapshots with my Instamatic of the Old City’s walls looming tall behind the Jordanian soldiers glaring at me from just beyond the barricade, I felt a kind of kinship with the past and the future…and with the history and destiny of the people Israel and the Land of Israel that stays with me still.

A half-century plus a year has passed since I stood in that place. A year later, the Mandelbaum Gate came down and the city was freed from Jordanian occupation. Six years later, in 1973, I arrived back in Jerusalem, this time as a counselor on an AZYF teen trip to Israel, and it was then that I entered Jerusalem—or at least Old Jerusalem—for the first time. In a real sense, I haven’t ever left. The notion that Jerusalem is or ever could be anything other than the eternal capital city of the Jewish people doesn’t mean that we cannot or shouldn’t share it with others who too find holiness in its sacred precincts. But no accommodation to any sort of political reality can affect the bond between the Jewish people and its eternal capital city, a bond that exists not only outside of time, but also outside of language. The psalmist composed a simple prayer, and it is those words that have been in my mind all week. Shaalu shalom yerushalayim yish’layu ohavayikh, he wrote, addressing himself to the House of Israel: “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem so that those who love the city may too only know tranquility.” That is our prayer too, of course, and this as well: May God grant that Jerusalem always be the capital of a strong, proud Israel, and may the city itself soon serve as the House of Prayer for all peoples of which the prophet wrote all those many centuries ago.

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