PARASHAT BEHAR-BEHUKOTAI: Why Jerusalem is special

Our Holy Temples were (and will be) built on Mount Moriah, Jerusalem, and from there a message of peace will spread throughout the world.

May 7, 2010 15:55
3 minute read.
kotel western wall

kotel 88. (photo credit: )

Jerusalem is completely identified with the Jewish mission; its very name, “City of Peace,” expresses our prophetic vision for the world.

When the Almighty elected Abraham, He gave him a mandate: “Through you shall be blessed all the nations of the earth” (Genesis 12:3). And Abram’s name was changed from Av Ram (exalted Father of one nation) to Avraham; Father of a multitude of nations. Abraham’s descendants will erect a Temple to which all the nations will flock to learn the Torah: “...and humanity will not learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4).

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Abraham was chosen because he alone was committed to ethical conduct: “because he commands his children and his household after him that they keep the way of the Lord, to do compassionate righteousness and moral justice” (Gen. 19:19).

Hence, the first biblical mention of Jerusalem is in the context of a meeting between Abraham – after he had defeated the four terrorist kings who captured Lot – and Melchizedek (literally the King of Righteousness), the ruler of Shalem. Our sages identify Shalem with Jerusalem and Melchizedek with Shem, son of Noah. Melchizedek brought out bread and wine – reminiscent of the showbread and wine libations of the later-to-be-built desert Sanctuary and Jerusalem Temples as well as of present-day hallot and kiddush wine. He then blessed Abraham to the Lord Most High, who delivered Abraham’s foes unto his hands. Abraham reciprocates by giving this gentile tithes (Gen. 14:18-20). The Ramban (Nahmanides) derives from this episode that Jerusalem had always maintained faith in the God who created Adam.

Our Holy Temples were (and will be) built on Mount Moriah, Jerusalem, and from there a message of peace will spread throughout the world. This is the place to which God sent Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. Abraham acquiesces, but God stays his hand – and this incident may have been to teach us that although it will sometimes be necessary to make sacrifices for our faith, God, unlike Moloch, does not want innocent human beings killed in His Name. Abraham calls the place of the binding “God shall be seen,” that is to say that from Mount Moriah the God of ethical monotheism shall be seen by all nations. Jeru, or Yeru, is a cognate of the verb to see, Ye’ra’eh, will be seen; the Bible will later teach that on the three pilgrim festivals, every Jew must go up to the Temple Mount “to be seen” by God (Deut. 16:16). And the story of the binding of Isaac concludes with a repetition of the divine mandate to Abraham: “And through your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.”

Fast forward 4,000 years. In 1978, at the end of the Camp David peace talks between Israel and Egypt, US president Jimmy Carter pressed prime minister Menachem Begin to sign a letter in which he would “merely” agree to place the final status of Jerusalem on the negotiating table. Begin refused. Emotionally, he explained that in the Middle Ages there lived a beloved rabbi: Rav Amnon of Mayence, who was pressed by the bishop to at least consider converting to Christianity. After a lengthy argument, the rabbi agreed to ponder the issue for three days.

As soon as he returned home, the rabbi was smitten by despair. Three days later, he returned to the bishop. “Punish me, oh Bishop,” he cried. “I should never have agreed to think about such an egregious act. The tongue which said I would ponder, the hand that shook yours in acquiescence, the leg that came to do your bidding – remove them from my body.”

The bishop did so. The next day, Rosh Hashana, the rabbi was brought in agony to the synagogue, where he cried out before the congregation the Unetaneh Tokef prayer he had composed the day before.

Begin told Carter: “Jerusalem is the fount of our Torah, the focus of our mission. Our Psalmist declared, ‘If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand be removed from my body, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I remember thee not….’

“Please don’t ask me to sign your letter; I would rather forfeit my right hand and my tongue. I cannot repeat Rav Amnon’s transgression….”

The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.

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