Parashat Behukotai: The sanctity of Jerusalem

"Then I will give your rains in their season, and the land shall yield her produce and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit." Leviticus 26:4.

Picture from the Parasha 370 (photo credit: Israel Weiss ( http://artfram)
Picture from the Parasha 370
(photo credit: Israel Weiss ([email protected]) http://artfram)
The Hebrew month of Iyar celebrates two glorious days in modern Israeli history: Independence Day and Jerusalem Day. The first celebrates the declaration of the establishment of the State of Israel on 5 Iyar, 5708 (1948); the second, 19 years later, marks our miraculous military victory over the invading armed forces of our Arab neighbors culminating in our liberation of the holy city of Jerusalem and the sacred Temple Mount on 28 Iyar, 5727 (1967).
The State of Israel and the city of Jerusalem resonate much more deeply than just a national country and its capital city, its seat of governance.
In this commentary, I shall attempt to define Zionism and the two separate concepts that inform the nation-state of Israel as one sanctity and the sacred city Jerusalem as a qualitatively distinct sanctity.
In the Grace after Meals, there are two separate blessings” one for “the land and its nutritional sustenance” and another for “the building of Jerusalem.” In the Amida prayer, which is made up of 18 blessings, we make a request that God “bless all of our different types of agricultural produce for good, grant dew and rain on the land and satisfy us with its goodness.” This refers to the bounty of the “good land,” which is what the Bible calls the Land of Israel. Our seventh request is for God to “sound the great shofar of our liberation, to lift up the banner for the gathering of our exiles and to gather us together from the four corners of the Earth.” This refers to safe national borders that will provide a haven to all Jews.
These blessings express the most fundamental needs of a national homeland: earth to supply the nutrition and natural resources for its people’s sustenance and secure borders to grant its inhabitants physical security – a place called home where, in Robert Frost’s words, “when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
For most of our 2,000-year exile, no nation would allow us to own land or farm the produce of their country. (Conversely, the land of Israel would never yield its fruit, vegetables, grain and flowers to any of the interloping nations.) Between the horrific years of 1939-1945, all the Nazis wanted was to make Europe Judenrein; no country would take in the fleeing, desperate Jews.
No wonder Maimonides rules that the Land of Israel is only considered sacred when the People of Israel live and work in it (Laws of the Temple: 6, 11). No wonder Maimonides defines the “Land of Israel” as the land which God created for Israel, the land which responds only to Israel, the land which will guarantee Israel’s physical survival. Herein lies its sanctity: it enables the dry bones of Ezekiel to rise to new life.
The 11th blessing of the Amida entreats God to “return to His city and to build it as an eternal building.”
The 12th request is for “the sprouting of the plant-flower of David and to raise up the horn of God’s salvation” – the prayer for universal Messianic redemption.
Clearly, Israel the land and Jerusalem the city engender very different respective hopes and expectations.
Maimonides describes these separate sanctities in a unique but oblique fashion. Unlike the sanctity of the Land of Israel, which is dependent upon the presence of the People of Israel, the sanctity of Jerusalem is “an eternal sanctity, because the sanctity of Jerusalem is the sanctity of the Divine Presence, and the Divine Presence can never be nullified.”
Maimonides cannot possibly be referring to the Divine Presence as a physical entity, whose physical place is in Jerusalem. That would be preposterous, because Maimonides insists that God is wholly incorporeal.
He can be grasped neither intellectually nor physically.
So what does Maimonides mean when he says that the sanctity of Jerusalem is the sanctity of the Divine Presence? He must mean that the Divine Presence resides in the Divine Will, in the Divine Torah which will emanate from Zion, in the Divine Word which will emanate from Jerusalem to the entire world (Isaiah 2, Micah 4). This is the true mission of Israel: to attract all of the gentiles to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, where they will accept the Divine teaching to “beat their swords into ploughshares,” their nuclear weapons into atomic energy for healing purposes, “when nation shall not lift up sword against nation and humanity will not learn war anymore; for the knowledge of the Lord will fill the world as the waters cover the seas.”
The sanctity of Israel, the Land of Israel, is bound up with the presence and physical wellbeing of the People of Israel. The sanctity of Jerusalem, City of Peace (shalem), is bound up with God and His concern for the world and universal salvation.
“Zion” is a synonym for Jerusalem. Hence, the goal of Zionism is not fully fulfilled when the Jews return to and rebuild the land, the State of Israel. That is only the first level. The goals of Zionism will only be met when Israel becomes a blessing to all the families of the earth; attracting them to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and inspiring them to declare fealty to a God of compassion, morality and peace. Apparently Zionism is still a work in progress.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.