A number of years ago I visited San Diego, California to deliver a lecture at a local synagogue. On the next day, I prevailed upon my friend and colleague, the rabbi of the synagogue to accompany me across the US-Mexican border to visit Tijuana. Ignoring the advice of the rabbi that the visit was not worth the time I insisted in doing so anyway. The rabbi was right. They usually are.
Tijuana was vastly disappointing. But on the way back, crossing into the United States from Mexico an incident occurred that has remained stamped in my memory ever since. The burly Mexican American customs officer at the border examined my passport and paused. He then asked me in awe and wonderment: “Do you really live in Jerusalem?” When I answered affirmatively he looked at me and said: “How blessed you must be to be able to live in Jerusalem.”
It was a moment of transcendent revelation to me. Truly, I should feel fortunate and blessed to live in Jerusalem. The Mexican-American customs officer confirmed a truism to me that, like other truisms in life, I sometimes tend not to remember and concentrate on.
I live in a very special place at a very special time. I have an opportunity granted to me that was denied to generations of my more worthy ancestors. I should savor and appreciate this opportunity and not treat it in a cavalier or mundane fashion. The Jewish past has an opportunity to currently live with and through me. There is responsibility carried with this opportunity.
The Talmud asks: “Why are the hot springs baths of Tiberias not located in Jerusalem?” Why are the great and tasty fruits of the Ginossar area not grown in Jerusalem?” The Talmud responds: “So that no one should ascend to Jerusalem for the sweet fruits or for the hot baths. Rather, one ascends to Jerusalem for the sake of Jerusalem itself.”
Jerusalem is its own attraction. It does not rely upon natural wonders, outstanding weather or unusual surroundings for its attraction. It is holy, mysterious, the soul of Jewish history and longing. The rabbis taught us that there is a heavenly Jerusalem perched over the earthly Jerusalem. In order to truly appreciate the earthly Jerusalem one must also be able to glimpse the heavenly Jerusalem as well.
To see Jerusalem as a piece of real estate, a place on the map, is not to see it at all, let alone appreciate its role in Judaism and Jewish life and thought.
The driving force behind Zionism, even its most secular form, was the hunger of the Jewish people for Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the emotional battery that charged the movement to return to Zion by Jews in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The earthly Jerusalem with all of its wonders and problems, greatness and shortcomings, is a product of seeing the heavenly Jerusalem through eyes of tears and
Nechemia built the walls of Jerusalem at the beginning of the Second Temple period with one hand on the sword and the second one on the building blocks. But Midrash records that his eyes were always looking heavenward at the heavenly Jerusalem.
Jerusalem and its diplomatic fate is a hot topic of conversation these days. The people who claim to represent our best interests regarding the city apparently only see the earthly Jerusalem. In their practicality they have become wildly impractical. There is no way for a body to survive once its heart has been broken asunder.
There has never been a Jewish power in our history that contemplated willingly cedeing Jerusalem or any part of it to others, especially to sworn enemies who denigrate our faith and question our right to exist. It is the complete disregard, whether out of ignorance or ideology, of the heavenly Jerusalem that brings one to compromise the very existence of the earthly Jerusalem, a Jerusalem that we should feel so blessed and appreciative to control.
A friend of mine summed up the matter when he told me this story about his aged father who had just come to Israel on aliyah in his eightieth year. The son settled the father in a very comfortable senior citizen residence in the costal part of the country. But after two months the father insisted on relocating to Jerusalem. He said: “I have not waited for eighty years to finally come to the Land of Israel and not to live in Jerusalem.”
We see the traffic jams, the torn-up streets, the problems of living in a metropolis that is still developing. That is the earthly Jerusalem. But the heavenly Jerusalem resonates in our souls and hearts and that is what makes life in the earthly Jerusalem so meaningful and important. How can it be otherwise?