I was just 5 years old when Jerusalem was reunified in 1967. I have no memories of the Six Day War, the great anxiety that gripped our people as the ravages of war unfolded or the euphoria that engulfed the Jewish world in its aftermath. I have a very hard time even imagining what it was like to live in a Jerusalem divided between Israel and Jordan or an old city of Jerusalem that was inaccessible to Jews. Jerusalem — old and new, East and West, Israeli and Palestinian, Jew, Muslim and Christian — is one complex and holy city to me.
I have lived in Jerusalem for extended periods three times in my life thus far, and I consider it my second home, and the place I most desire to make my home again. While on our family sabbatical 12 years ago, my children went to school there and roamed the streets with a deep sense of belonging. I took great pride when my youngest, as an 18 year old, spent the year studying and volunteering in Jerusalem, and worked as an intern in Jerusalem city hall with a Deputy Mayor who later that year became a member of the Knesset. My daughter gave a presentation in Hebrew on gender education in early childhood programs to a committee of the Jerusalem municipality. She was representing our family by giving back to the city we all loved.
This morning, the day that marks the 50th anniversary of Jerusalem’s reunification, I went to synagogue to recite Hallel, the psalms of joy and thanksgiving that we sing on special days of religious celebration. I am deeply grateful to God for living in a time in which I can live in Jerusalem and call it my home. I sang Hallel with a full heart knowing that the last 50 years have brought both joy and pain, hope and despair to so many in this city of peace. Jerusalem is a place that eludes easy answers to the deepest questions of human existence.
On Jerusalem day, I often read Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book, Israel: An Echo of Eternity, written as a reflection on Heschel’s visit to Israel and Jerusalem in July of 1967. Here is a quote that reverberates in my mind every year on this day.
The mystery of Jerusalem, the challenge that is Jerusalem! How to unite the human and the holy? How to echo the divine in the shape of words, in the form of deeds?
Now that we are at home in the city of David, what is required of us? What message does this new chapter in Jewish history hold in store?
How shall we live in Jerusalem? What does she expect of us, living in an age of spiritual obtuseness, near exhaustion? What sort of light should glow in Zion? What words, what thoughts, what vision should come out of Zion?
The challenge is staggering. Let us pray that we may not fail. Let us prepare the minds and the hearts for the vision of Isaiah concerning Judaism and Jerusalem.
It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountains of the house of the Lord
Shall be established as the highest mountains,
And shall be raised above hills;
and all the nations shall flow to it,
and many peoples shall come and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth the law,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations
and shall decide for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:2-4)
We must beware lest the place of David becomes a commonplace…
Jerusalem is more than place in space or a memorial to glories of the past.
Jerusalem is a prelude, anticipation of days to come.
I honestly don’t know if we are capable yet of understanding the profundity of these questions or responding in any adequate way to the call that echoes from Jerusalem. I certainly know we have not yet lived up to the challenge of Jerusalem, to the vision of Isaiah. But I still remain hopeful and full of yearning for what Jerusalem demands of us. And I pray today for Jerusalem and through her for all of us.
As the psalmist writes,
Pray for the well-being of Jerusalem;
“May those who love you be at peace.
May there be well-being within your ramparts
Peace in your citadels.”
For the sake of my kin and friends,
I pray for your well being
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I seek your good. (Psalms 122:6-8)
Rabbi Daniel Lehmann is President of Hebrew College in Newton Centre, MA.