The heart and soul of Israel

God’s covenant with Abraham and with Jerusalem, no matter the obstacles, forever endures.

Star of david overlooking Jerusalem (photo credit: REUTERS)
Star of david overlooking Jerusalem
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Almost alone among cities, Jerusalem transcends its physical essence to reach exalted spiritual and metaphorical levels. The many faces of Jerusalem are reflected in the rich and complex personality of King David who established his sovereignty there. As the great teacher of the Bible Rabbi David Silber notes, there is the David of the Book of Samuel, the David of the Book of Psalms and the David of our liturgy. Corresponding to these three aspects of this monumental king, there is the political Jerusalem, the loving Jerusalem and the Jerusalem of eternal spiritual transcendence.
The Political Jerusalem In the Book of Samuel, David is portrayed as a strong and pragmatic political figure whose overriding mission was to unite all of Israel. In the Prophets, that unity is in part reflected through the coming together of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. This emerges from the Genesis story when Judah, in his most sublime moment, rises to tell his father Jacob that he would guarantee the safety of his brother Benjamin, his de facto rival for the birthright and sovereignty with Joseph out of the picture. And if I fail, Judah concludes with extraordinary nobility, “I will have sinned to you all of my days.”
While David of the Tribe of Judah and King Saul of the Tribe of Benjamin are at each other’s throats, David makes peace with Jonathan, Saul’s son and heir apparent. In time, David liberates Jerusalem, uniting all of Israel. He does so with mixed results. While he does fend off Sheva ben Bichri from separating out the 10 tribes, he struggles within his own family, as he quashes the rebellion of his sons, first Absalom and then, in his later years, Adonijah.
Not coincidentally, the Jerusalem that David establishes as the capital of Israel is situated between the tribes of Benjamin in the north and Judah in the south, bridging, in effect, the enmity between the House of Saul and the House of David.
The mission of Jerusalem is to turn adversaries into friends, sending the message that unity is the way to survival.
Its very name – “Yeru, the city, of “shalem,” unity – proclaims that notwithstanding our differences, we must acknowledge our oneness and learn to care deeply for one another. Like a dove that can fly only with both wings on an even plane reaching out in opposite directions, so too, only through the cooperative efforts of opposing forces – religious and nonreligious, Right and Left – can Jerusalem soar. For this reason, too, Jerusalem – unlike during its years under Jordanian rule – is open to all faith communities.
The Loving Jerusalem Beyond its practical manifestation, Jerusalem is endowed with powerful lyrical, romantic, loving qualities like those reflected in the Book of Psalms. In poem after poem, King David expresses his yearning for God’s embrace. “Though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death I fear no evil, for You O God are with me,” he declares in his “Mizmor L’David.” “Though my father and mother have left me, the Lord will gather me in,” he sings in “L’David Hashem,” articulating his limitless love for God equaled only by God’s limitless love for him.
David in the Psalms is the “sweet singer of Israel.” His very name means “beloved.” While David is compared to Joseph, the latter, as commentaries note, was despised by many, whereas David, even in times of woe and vexation, seems always to have been beloved. Strikingly, David’s Hebrew name spells out the name of God as the “daled” and “hey” are interchangeable, denoting that God forever loves us.
Jerusalem, similarly, is described in tender, protective terms – in the words of King David, “Jerusalem, hills surround it.” Like the bride who circles the groom and the groom who places a ring on his bride’s finger, the hills encircle Jerusalem like a ring that reflects God’s love and protection of the city in which He resides. Circular imagery suggests protectiveness and embrace, the intimacy of figures who cannot live without each other – an intimacy in which one loves deeply and feels deeply loved in return.
And so, under the wedding canopy we declare, “May there soon be heard in the streets of Jerusalem the sounds of joy and gladness, the voice of the groom and the voice of the bride.” Jerusalem is evoked as the city of love – God’s love for the Nation of Israel and all of humankind, as well as the most intimate love between people. Jerusalem is the emotional center, the beloved heart of our people, embracing us in the good times and bad times.
The Transcendent Jerusalem Jerusalem, much like the beloved, always remains in some measure beyond our grasp, always a metaphor to aspire to. It is a city that eternally awaits completion; it is forever in a state of becoming, of process, of spiritual transformation and transcendence, like the David of the liturgy.
And so, in the “Amida,” the prayer in our liturgy which in Jewish law is referred to as “tefilla” – the central prayer, we proclaim: “To Jerusalem, Your city, may You return in compassion... and install within it soon the throne of David.”
This is followed by “May the offshoot of Your servant David soon flower....” In these blessings, the quest for redemption centers around Jerusalem and is led by David. As the journey is continuous, never-ending for God, so, too, in the spirit of imitatio Dei – is it for us.
Eternally elusive, like a vision or dream longing for fulfillment, the holy city is not only made up of Yerushalayim shel matah, the earthly Jerusalem, but Yerushalayim shel ma’alah, the heavenly Jerusalem – inspiring all of us to always reach higher and higher, for our people, for the world redeemed.
Natan Sharansky, the famed Soviet Prisoner of Zion, said it beautifully. Standing beside his wife, Avital, at the wedding of their children (Rachel and Micha), Natan suggested that the symbolism of breaking the glass was now more challenging than under his own huppa (marriage canopy).
“Our aim was so simple and so clear. We had to win the [physical] battle [to return to Jerusalem] and nothing could deter us. Today, on the one hand you have to be builders and guardians of [the physical] Jerusalem, and at the same time guardians of the idea of Jerusalem... The power of unity and connection to the generations of our people is in heavenly Jerusalem, in Yerushalayim shel ma’ala.” At times, Jerusalem has been in great danger. The dagger of the enemy has hovered over it as Abraham’s knife hovered over his son Isaac’s neck on Mount Moriah in the heart of the city, and as the angel of death threatened the city as is recounted in the closing chapter of Samuel II, and only at the last moment did God have it lifted.
Throughout the millennia Jerusalem reflects God’s promise to remain with us. God’s covenant with Abraham and with Jerusalem, no matter the obstacles, forever endures.
The multifaceted richness of the city, its political, emotional and spiritual faces reflecting the human complexity of its founder, the majestic King David, reminds us to never despair, never give up. In the words of the psalmist incorporated into the liturgy, and reflecting the political message of the Book of Samuel – the ultimate restoration of Jerusalem in all of its tangible, tender and transcendent forms is assured: “The Lord builds Jerusalem. He gathers in the dispersed of Israel. He heals the brokenhearted, and mends their wounds.”
The author is founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat. His new book Journey to Open Orthodoxy will be released later this year.