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O Jerusalem

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither;
let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I cease to think of you,
if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour.
Psalm 137

The first time I saw Jerusalem, the city looked like it was made of gold.

It was dusk, and I only been in Israel 2 hours. Having arrived at Ben Gurion airport that afternoon as part of a High School study group, I was almost immediately swept away from the airport and onto Israel’s Highway 1 (the highway connecting Tel Aviv and Jerusalem). I watched from my bus window as flat plains turned to gentle slopes and the road began to wind its way through terraced foothills, ascending (making aliyah, so to speak, since the word literally means “ascending”) toward Jerusalem.

When you sit at Mt. Scopus and look down onto the city at dusk, the light plays off of the stone buildings in such a way that they appear to shimmer like gold. That is what I saw the first time I looked over the city. It is what generations of people have seen as they looked down upon Jerusalem. It is, in fact, the origin of the term “Jerusalem of Gold,” which only became a hit song in 1967 but has been a nickname for the city since at least the first century.

There is an aura about Jerusalem, as though the city is made not of stone but of dreams and memories. It is a city so ancient that it hides secrets that are still being discovered, but it is also the modern, sprawling capital of a thriving state (and maybe someday of two?). And it is holy to half the world’s population. Jerusalem is a “City of Peace” (Jerusalem = Ir Shalom) which sits at the centre of an ancient conflict. And it is, for Jews, both an actual, historical place and a symbol. The place: where our kings reigned and then fell, where our Temple stood and then was razed, and stood again and was again razed, where priests made sacrifices and prophets cried out to God, where freedom fighters fought and civilians lost their lives and paratroopers wept tears onto the stones. And the symbol: for God’s presence, for homeland and sovereignty, for the repair of the world, for the national aspirations of a people, for an end to exile.

The poet Yehuda Amichai wrote these words:

The air over Jerusalem is saturated with prayers
and dreams
like the air over industrial cities.
It’s hard to breathe.

 

Jerusalem is always in the news, but perhaps especially right now. Last month, a certain president south of the border made headlines by announcing a change in policy – to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Since then, the press has focused largely on the timing of the announcement and its violent aftermath – important topics for sure. Amidst all of that is a larger story, and it is now an opportune time for us to explore what Jerusalem means to us. If you haven’t been, I encourage you to read up on the current events coming out of Israel. The sands are continuing to shift there every day.

As a community, we will gather to learn and talk about Jerusalem in a class I’ll be teaching entitled “If I Forget Thee, O Jerusalem.” Please join me three Monday evenings in a row (January 15, 22, and 29 at 7:30 pm) as we explore what Jerusalem means and has meant for Jews throughout our history, delving into the history, symbolism, meaning, and significance of the Holy City.

L’shalom,

 

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

Thu, May 19 2022 18 Iyar 5782