Guest Columnist: Castles in the air

There are fantastical places within our imagination which hover somewhere between Heaven and Earth, well within our view yet just beyond our touch.

Magritte 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Magritte 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Our family had the pleasure this past week – along with tens of thousands of other visitors – of viewing the newly renovated and revamped Israel Museum in Jerusalem. While a number of the exhibits, in particular the flagship Dead Sea Scrolls, remain the same, the museum as a whole is an entirely new and breathtaking adventure that must be experienced by all lovers of Judaica, culture and history.
Like all great art, the pieces now on display challenge the viewers to open their minds to new ideas and unexpected possibilities, dramatically jolting us from our staid and safe world of complacency and conformity into a refreshing re-examination of right and wrong, life and death, light and darkness.
I found myself at times mystified and at times mesmerized by this $100 million, world-class beacon of inspiration, a genuine tour de force and lasting tribute to the many artists who pooled their talents in its formation, and in particular to the museum’s director and creative genius, James Snyder.
One of the artistic wing’s centerpieces is the magnificent oil on canvas Castle of the Pyrenees, painted in 1959 by Rene Magritte. It depicts a massive rock floating in the clouds above the sea, upon which rests a medieval castle. The artist, it seems to me, is suggesting that there are fantastical places within our imagination which hover somewhere between Heaven and Earth, well within our view yet just beyond our touch. Disconnected as they are from the ground we walk upon, floating above the waves, these castles represent that ideal home we yearn for, that splendid, safe and serenely spiritual haven we all crave but find elusively outside our grasp.
LATER THAT same evening, at midnight, we attended the Sound and Light show at the Citadel of David Museum along the walls of the Old City. A technological marvel for the eyes and ears to feast upon, it portrays, in music and vivid images, the history of the Holy City from its founding until today. The last scene projected upon those ancient walls, to my amazement, was a picture of the rebuilt city of Jerusalem atop that same gigantic rock, floating high above the earth.
And suddenly, in an instant, my mind connected the two images I had seen that day, and it all became clear to me.
Jerusalem, for so long and for so many, has been a Castle in the Air. An idea, an ideal. A faroff, majestic vision of a perfect, Divinely-inspired society where Man and God sublimely meet in religious harmony and bliss. A magical place where war and strife are unknown, where the great faiths sing their respective Hosannas in perfect pitch, where humanity’s potential to become “only slightly lower than the Angels” is finally realized.
Long before Jerusalem was captured by King David and constructed by his son Solomon, the Torah tantalizingly describes it as “the place where God’s name will reside.” And after its destruction and the exile of its Jewish population, the great religions lusted after it, dreamed about it and held it up as the planet’s greatest prize.
For 2000 years, Diaspora’s Jews turned to the eternal city in prayer and spoke of it with heartfelt longing at the deepest and most emotionally- charged moments of our lives: At our wedding ceremony, at the brit of our child, as the final act of the Pessah Seder and the Yom Kippur liturgy.
For us, Jerusalem was a fantasy, the gold at the end of the rainbow, the apparition that moved our souls but could be neither clutched nor cultivated.
We designated our cities of great scholarship in the exile, from the Rhineland to Vilnius, as “little Jerusalems,” never really daring to believe that we could someday actually return to and inhabit the real thing.
“Jerusalem” was more an adjective – as in “Jerusalem kugel” – than a noun.
But then a miracle occurred: We did return. We took those ancient bones of our capital and put living flesh upon them. Like the Jewish people itself, Jerusalem rose from the ashes and emerged as a living, breathing fact of history. And our renaissance was as shocking as it was spectacular. The Christians could not accept it, as it mocked their doctrine of Supercession and made their own theology of Resurrection pale in comparison. The Muslims could and would not tolerate it, for it interrupted their march to an all-Muslim Middle East, dedicated to the Sword and Crescent alone.
This saddened, but did not surprise us.
Yet ironically, in many corners of the Jewish world as well, the notion of Jerusalem as a concrete reality rather than an abstract concept was hard to swallow. The adage of “be careful what you pray for” hit us smack between those same eyes we “lifted to Zion.”
How could we live up to this awesome responsibility now placed squarely on our shoulders? How could we leave our homes, our ordered routines and local cuisines and start life anew? Yes, we had begged to return, but now that our wish had been granted, were we up to the task? Had we ever really meant to inhabit the palace, or were we more than content to gaze at it from afar?
And so we tried to chip away at the miraculous rock and dismantle it piece by piece, asking, in self-righteous tones, “Is this the Jerusalem of Gold we sought?”
We cringed at the thought of leaving our luxuries and living in the abject poverty of the fledgling state, unaware that in time its own real estate would far surpass the sub-primed stricken economies of the exile. We questioned its moral fiber, focusing on the decidedly unholy scandals afflicting our government, our leaders and the military (as if ancient Jerusalem did not have its own share of scoundrels, its own corrupt kings and Kohanim).
And we cast aspersions upon the army, fearful of our being called to serve in the nation’s defense, forgetting that even the righteous David and Solomon raised armies that fought – and died – for our survival.
We faced the truth, and its blinding light revealed all our pretensions, all our fears, all our virtues – or lack thereof.
Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) was the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine. Once, while attending a Tu Bishvat celebration in a Jerusalem school, he watched as the youngsters lovingly planted seedlings in the school yard. And then he began to weep.
“Why are you crying?” asked the teacher.
“Because no one gave me a seedling to plant!” he said. “But we thought that the great Rabbi would not want to get down on his knees and get his hands dirty.” Replied Rav Kook, “If you are going to build a land, and build this holy city, you had better be prepared to get your hands dirty!”
2000 years was long enough to salivate over an unreachable Castle in the Air. God has now blessed us with the glorious task of finally bringing the castle down to earth.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana.