Remembering Jerusalem

Universal loss

On the night of Tisha B’Av, when the Jewish people devotes itself again to mourning for all that it has lost during its long exile; after everyone is seated on the ground and before the Kinot (lamentations) are recited, there is a custom that the prayer leader rises and proclaims to the congregation, “Today marks such-and-such many years since the destruction of our Sanctuary.”  The essence of the mourning over the great catastrophe, over the years of exile and all that they have entailed, returns to the focal point of this mourning – to the destruction of the Temple and city of Jerusalem.

The destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple is more than the destruction of our historical capital and our most sacred site.  It is not merely a memory of a tragic event that occurred long ago. Rather, it is a blow to the vital center of the Jewish people.

Moreover, the whole world is stricken and cannot return to its normal and rectified state until the city of Jerusalem and the Temple are rebuilt; for Jerusalem is the center point of the world’s existence.

The Midrash describes Jerusalem’s essential place in the world:

Abba Hanan said in the name of Samuel the Small: This world is like a person’s eyeball.  The white of the eye is the ocean surrounding the world; the iris is the inhabited world; the pupil of the eye is Jerusalem; and the face [the reflection of the observer] in the pupil is the Holy Temple.  May it be rebuilt speedily in our days.”1

Harm done to Jerusalem is therefore harm done to the apple of the world’s eye; the light of existence is diminished and obscured when the pupil of the eye is damaged.

The whole world consciously or unconsciously feels Jerusalem’s destruction.  As our Sages say: “Since the day that the Temple was destroyed, there has been no day without its curse…and the curse of each day is greater than that of the one before it.”2  “Since the day that the Temple was destroyed,” we are taught, “the sky has not appeared in its full purity, as it says: ‘I clothe the skies in darkness and make their raiment sackcloth.’”3  The mourning over Jerusalem is universal; it is a tragedy from which the whole universe suffers.

Even God Himself participates in the mourning of Jerusalem.  One of the Sages relates what he heard in a ruin in Jerusalem: “I heard a heavenly voice cooing like a dove and saying, ‘Woe to the sons because of whose sins I destroyed My House, burned My Sanctuary, and exiled them among the nations.’”4  The Sage was then told that God says: “What is there for the father who has exiled his sons, and woe to the sons who have been exiled from their father’s table.”5  Thus, “Since the day that the Temple was destroyed, God has had no laughter.”6

The destruction of Jerusalem is for us the ruin of all of existence, and ever since a curtain of sadness and darkness has covered the face of reality.  The mourning over Jerusalem is more than a one-time memorial of a once-a-year day of mourning.  All of Jewish life is continually suffused with mourning – in remembrance of the hurban (destruction).

For us, the sharply worded verses “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill; let my tongue adhere to my palate if I fail to remember you, if I do not raise Jerusalem above my highest joy”7 are not mere oratory; they are a living reality, practical and actual guidance on the path of life, in remembering Jerusalem at all times.

The memory of Jerusalem casts a shadow of eternal gloom on the Jewish people.  “One may not fill his mouth with laughter in this world”8 until the coming of the redemption, when “our mouths will be filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy.”9 Until then, everything is enveloped in sadness.  Ever since the destruction of the Temple, all profane music and singing have been prohibited.

This sorrow and loss should be recalled at all times, even in joyous moments.  When the table is set to host guests for a meal, something should be left incomplete, in remembrance of the hurban. When a house is built, it must not be completed entirely; part is left unplastered, in remembrance of the hurban.  The memory of Jerusalem should be raised at the forefront of every joyous occasion.  Even amidst the joy of a wedding, ashes are placed on the groom’s head; even under the huppa (marriage canopy), before all the celebrants, a glass is broken.  For it is impossible for us to rejoice fully, as long as Jerusalem lies in ruins.

Thus, the mourning over Jerusalem has continued for nearly two thousand years, like a thread of tears running through our lives.

The city of God

The passing of so much time has not erased from our consciousness the memory of Jerusalem; on the contrary, it has expanded and deepened this memory.

Jerusalem has become synonymous with the entire Land of Israel.  For generations, every Jew who came from the Land of Israel was called simply “a Yerushalmi (Jerusalemite).”  Although the Talmud of The Land of Israel was authored and compiled in Tiberias and Caesarea, it has remained for the generations of our people the “Jerusalem Talmud” – the Talmud Yerushalmi.  So, too, in all Jewish sources the term “the city” without specification refers to Jerusalem, “the city of God.”

Through conceptualization, Jerusalem and Zion became more than place-names, more than a city or spiritual center. Jerusalem became the symbol of the Shekhina (Divine Presence), the point of Malkhut (Kingship), the point of contact and connection at which the Infinite touches the finite, at which time and place touch what transcends time and place.  Jerusalem, as the point of Malkhut, is the point at which the silver cord of divine influence is connected to the reality of the world.

Lekha Dodi – Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz’s mystically attuned song of longing, which has become an inseparable part of the Kabbalat Shabbat service in all Jewish communities – is essentially a song about Jerusalem.  The song weaves together all of the world’s yearnings and all of Israel’s longings for redemption with the essential point – Jerusalem.  During the exile Jerusalem became the image of the Jewish people in the Diaspora, the symbol of the Shekhina in exile, of the entire world in its suffering and distress.  The destroyed city, abandoned by its children, awaits its redemption, and its rebuilding is the symbol of the Jewish People’s resurgence and the renewal of the ancient covenant with it and with the entire world.

Spiritual, symbolic Jerusalem has not made us lose sight of the geographic, this-worldly city of Jerusalem.  Throughout all the generations, even in the darkest years of oppression and persecution when no Jew was permitted to dwell in it, this city has been the Jewish People’s center and capital.  There is no other all-embracing Jewish center besides Jerusalem.

The Halakha’s institutions lack full authority until the Jewish People’s lawmakers once again sit in the midst of the city of Jerusalem.  Only in the unique and irreplaceable city of Jerusalem will the Halakha’s laws and regulations reassume their full authority.

Facing Jerusalem

In the meantime, all turn toward Jerusalem.  All the synagogues throughout the world, in all their various shapes and styles, face one direction: toward Jerusalem.  And wherever a Jew may be, when he stands up to pray, he turns his face to the place to which all Jews turn – to Jerusalem.

Many Jewish customs express the yearning and longing for Jerusalem.  At the end of the Passover Seder, when we experience the joy of freedom and the joy of family unity more than on any other holiday, we conclude with the wish: “Next year in Jerusalem.”

In many places, the practice was that in every marriage agreement, they would write that the wedding will take place, with God’s help, on such-and-such a date in Jerusalem, and they would add that if by then redemption has still not come, the wedding will take place in another specified place.  This practice expressed, in its innocence, the hope and the ideal that the place where one ought to be is none other than the city of Jerusalem.

The aspiration of every Jew is to be in Jerusalem, to live in its midst.  Indeed, according to the halakha, aliya to the Land of Israel – and within the Land of Israel, to Jerusalem – overrides all other considerations.  Even a slave can compel his master to either move with him to the Land of Israel or release him.10

Although in most generations this aliya was not actually possible, the hope was ever present.

On high and down below

Jerusalem is a twofold city – “like a city joined together.”11  Jerusalem below, earthly Jerusalem, which is now in ruins, is parallel to Jerusalem on high, in which there is a glorious Divine Temple, where all the majesty of the supernal world is found.  This celestial Jerusalem is hovers over earthly Jerusalem.  Moreover, celestial Jerusalem depends on and springs from earthly Jerusalem. “The Holy One, blessed be He, said: ‘I will not enter Jerusalem on high until I enter Jerusalem down below.'”12

These two cities, which face each other, do not reach their completion until the people of Israel returns to its one and only capital, to re-encounter the reality beyond: “Jerusalem built up, like the sister city to which it is joined. For there the tribes ascended, the tribes of God, a testimony for Israel, to give thanks to the name of God.”13

Derekh Eretz Zuta 9, end.
Sota 48a, 49a.
Berakhot 59a citing Isaiah 50:3.
Ibid., 3a.
Avoda Zara 3b.
Psalms 137:5-6.
Berakhot 31a.
Psalms 126:2.
10 Ketubot 110a-b.
11 Psalms 122:3.
12 Ta’anit 5a.
13 Psalms 122:3-4

Excerpted from Change and Renewal: The Essence of the Jewish Holidays, Festivals & Days of Remembrance