Friday, May 15, 2009

Toward Jerusalem Day 5769

The Center of the World (Medieval Map)

[Remarks requested by a friend.]

It came from out of nowhere, or so it seemed, on an October day in 1967, forty two years ago. So long ago, yet I can still hear it resonating in the air. Jerusalem. ‘Would you like to come to visit Jerusalem?’ asked an aunt visiting from Israel. I’d never thought about it as a real possibility. And yet, at the very broaching of the question a wave of intense longing washed over me. I’d never felt anything like it before. Yet, there it was. I was being drawn by an irresistable force of incredible power to a place that I, a thirteen year old fourth generation American, had never seen. Overwhelmed, I begged my parents to let me go. ‘Some day, perhaps,’ was the best I could elicit in answer. I will never forget the bitter mix of keen disappointment and indescribable longing with which that visit ended.

It would be four years, before I beheld Jerusalem. Another three years would pass before I learned the words to express the force that siezed me, and then drew me to Jerusalem. As in so many other ways, it was my master and teacher, R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik זצ"ל, who enabled my mind to comprehend my soul’s quest.

At the start of Parshat Lekh Lekha, the Torah describes Abraham’s journey to the Land of Israel. In one of his unforgettable Saturday Night shiurim, the Rav observed that the Torah blankly describes Abraham as travelling, seemingly aimlessly southward, ever southward from the area of Syria through which he had entered (ויסע אברם הלוך ונסוע הנגבה). Rashi explains his behavior, that ‘At intervals. He would stay here a month or so, then travel and pitch his tent somewhere else. But, all his travels were southward going to the south of the Land of Israel, which is in the direction of Jerusalem’ (לפרקים, יושב כאן חדש או יותר ונוסע משם ונוטה אהלו במקום אחר, וכל מסעיו הנגבה ללכת לדרומה של ארץ ישראל והוא לצד ירושלים). God had given no road map to Abraham. Still, the patriarch travelled onward, ever onward to Jerusalem. He sensed, intuitively, that this was his ultimate destination.
What drove Abraham, the Rav observed, was the craving a Jew has for sanctity, for qedusha. God, of course, is the source of all holiness. However, qedusha is first made manifest in Jerusalem, and from there it radiates out to the rest of the world. Thus, the Jew has an existential bond with Jerusalem, and to Eretz Yisrael. He often doesn’t know whence it comes. It is, however, a fundamental part of his makeup. Otherwise, how else can one explain the hold that Jerusalem has upon a Jew from, say, Portland Maine; a Jew who never saw the Land of Israel, but whose heart strings reach out to a strip of land six thousand miles away? It makes no sense, unless he is drawn by a force that far transcends his own personal awareness.

Upon hearing the Rav’s words, I began to understand the full significance of that moment in the Fall of 1967, after the the great and miraculous salvation that God had wrought for His people, the previous June. Indeed, as the years went on, that awareness dimmed and deepened. In the end, it was that formative moment (and the inspiration of my soul-mate) that brought me and my family to ארץ ישראל, where I sit and write these lines.

And yet, surveying the state of my people on the eve of the forty second Yom Yerushalayim, I have cause to wonder whether these ‘mystic chords of memory’ still bind the Jew to the Holy City, and the Holy Land. Too many Jews are ready to tear the heart out of Israel and deliver it to those who wish it (and us) ill. Too many Jews can’t understand the stubborn devotion to what they scornfully describe as ‘sticks and stones.’ Too many, prima facie, Jewish leaders and thinkers delude themselves with pablums about sharing Jerusalem, with those who by dint of their own religious faith, can neither share nor acknowledge that for the Jew, Jerusalem is where the world begins and where it will be redeemed.

Yet, on the Eve of Yom Yerushalayim, I am hopeful. If the Jews of the Exile are largely unmoved, or hostile, to Jews ruling (and, in fact, sharing) Jerusalem; the Jews of Zion are not. When despair threatens to cast its shadow over me, I remember an August Night, almost nine years ago. The Israeli government was negotiating Jerusalem away at Camp David. The Jews of Israel had other ideas. Natan Sharansky, who heard Jerusalem’s cry from a Soviet prison, called for a demonstration of solidarity with Yerushalayim, against ripping out the heart of Israel, both nation and land. A half million people came. I know. I was there, below Jaffa Gate. The throngs stretched from the Old City, up Jaffa Street, Agron, Route 1, Mount Zion, and back down Derekh Hevron. They reached as far as the Central Bus Station, at the entry to the city. They came from Dan and they came from Eilat. They came from Tel Aviv and they came from Ofra. They came from Haifa and they came from Beersheva. There were secular Jews and Haredi Jews. There were Religious Zionisi Jews and Traditional Jews. There were Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Yemenites, Ethiopians, and Bnai Menashe. One tenth of the Jews of the State of Israel came to swear allegiance and pledge devotion to the city that God chose to cause His Shekhina to inhabit. And God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and the city was saved. We fought a hard and bitter war the following years, to save Jerusalem. With God’s help we emerged victorious.

In the years that followed, the Jewish soul of the Jews of Zion has grown ever stronger. The number of Jews who make a point of renewing their tie with the Holy City has grown from year to year. The miracle of mass aliyah from the West has changed the face of the country. Tragically, assimilation may yet lay waste vast swaths of the exile. The Jews of Eretz Yisrael, however, and those who still long for Zion from their exile, will persevere and prevail. Jerusalem does not forsake or abandon those who love her.

1 comment:

Josh said...

Amazing.You reached my soul.