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"For the Sake of My Brothers... For the Sake of the House of the Lord"

Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
Text file

Summarized by Rav Dov Karoll

Translated by Kaeren Fish



A song, a psalm of the sons of Korach:

Great is the Lord, and highly praised, in the city of our God, the mountain of His holiness.

Of beautiful situation, the joy of the whole earth – Mount Zion; the sides of the north, the city of the great King… (Tehillim 48:1-3)


These verses highlight two aspects of Jerusalem. The first is its esthetic beauty: "Of beautiful situation, the joy of the whole earth." The other is the universal nature: Jerusalem is both ours ("the city of our God") and everybody’s ("the joy of the whole earth").


Chazal elaborate upon both aspects. Midrash Tehillim (Buber ed., ad loc.) comments as follows:


"Of beautiful situation, the joy of the whole earth" – What does the expression "of beautiful situation" mean? The sons of Korach said that it the beautiful [city] that everyone praises, and the beauty without peer.  Even though it is said of Tyre, "Tyre, you have said, I am of perfect beauty" (Yechezkel 27:3) – Tyre said this of herself, but others did not say it of her … It is not so with regard to Zion; rather, all say of her [that she is the perfection of beauty, as we see in Eikha (2:15)], "Is this is the city that they call the perfection of beauty?" – and not only that, but they also call it "the joy of the whole earth" (Eikha ibid.).


Both beauty and universality share the element of harmony. To the extent that we perceive beauty as wholeness, something beautiful reflects the harmony of its various components.  Similarly, the fact that Jerusalem is "the joy of the whole earth" shows the harmony between its national and international elements.  This, of course, finds its expression in the vision of the End of Days, as prophesied by Yishayahu and Mikha:


And it shall be, at the End of Days, that the mountain of God's House shall be established at the head of the mountains, and exalted above hills, and all the nations shall flow towards it. And many people will go and say, "Come, let us go up to God's mountain, to the House of the God of Yaakov, and He will teach us of His ways, and we shall walk in His paths. For Torah shall emerge from Tzion, and God's word from Yerushalayim." (Yishayahu 2:2-3)


It is interesting that this concept finds expression on a purely halakhic level, quite literally. The Yerushalmi (Ma'aser Sheni, end of 1:1) states that coins of all countries could be used to redeem the second tithe in Jerusalem, for the city was “the joy of the whole earth.” Although this ruling seems to reflect less a description of reality than an aspiration for the future, it highlights this important aspect of Jerusalem.


            As we have seen, the words, "of beautiful situation; the joy of the whole earth," point to internal harmony as well as harmony between this city and its surroundings.  However, only a few verses later (5-9), a completely different image is depicted:


For behold, the kings were assembled, they passed over together;

They themselves saw, they were amazed, and frightened, and they fled.

They were seized with trembling there, and pain, like a woman in labor.

You break the ships of Tarshish with an easterly wind.

As we have heard, so have we seen, in the city of the Lord of Hosts, in the city of our God; may God establish it forever, Selah.


Beforehand the psalm was describing something ceremonious and splendid. Everyone gathers together to come to Jerusalem, to bask in its glory, to take in its beauty; all is idyllic. Suddenly we hear that the nations arrive, from all corners of the earth – and what is the atmosphere of their arrival? What is it that they see, sense, experience? "They are amazed" – not unreasonable. "And frightened, and they fled; they were seized with trembling there, and pain" – so much so that they are likened to a woman in labor. These are their feelings. Where is the joy, the happiness, the wonder, the admiration?


Suddenly the atmosphere of joy and beauty is gone; we are left with a battle, a storm bringing on trembling and fear; there is an easterly wind that breaks the ships of Tarshish – the symbol of power and sophistication. Like the storm that broke over Yona, it is an easterly wind, a strong wind that shatters and breaks the ships of Tarshish.


            Moreover, in the next verse, it seems that this process of introducing trembling and pain in the kings who come to visit,  of shattering the ships of Tarshish, is not part of a broader destruction, but rather a necessary stage in the molding, building and developing of Jerusalem. "As we have heard, so we have seen, in the city of the Lord of Hosts… may God establish it forever," suggests that there is a connection between the breaking of the ships of Tarshish and the establishment and strengthening of Jerusalem.


            Thus, we have two conflicting moods in this mizmor.  On the one hand, there is the beauty and grandeur, the idyllic harmony of the "joy of the whole earth." On the other hand, there are storms, the winds of war, grappling and battling.


            Apparently, these two aspects are interconnected and intermingled, and this should not come as any surprise. As the acknowledgment of Jerusalem as the epitome of beauty grows, so does its desirability, the aspiration to conquer it, to rule over it. It is specifically because of the recognition that it is the "epitome of beauty" that it has historical, cultural, unique significance; it is specifically because of this recognition that the kings who "gather and pass over together" not only feel joy and gladness at the spellbinding vision of Jerusalem, but also entertain thoughts of battle, conquest, and power. Then the City of God must gird itself with strength in order to sow destruction among the ships of Tarshish, to cause trembling and pain among them. It is specifically because of the city’s desirability that the battle is aroused. Only the epitome of beauty can give rise to such fierce competition.


            This duality of beauty and strife exists on two levels. In the international arena, Jerusalem is a symbolic and meaningful location over which many nations have sought to rule. However, on the national level, Jerusalem is meant to be a symbol of unity. Jerusalem, which was not divided among the tribes, symbolizes the entire nation of Israel; it is


like a city that is all joined together;

to there the tribes ascended, the tribes of God, to give praise to God's Name;

there are set the seats of judgment, the thrones of the house of David. (Tehillim 122:3-5)


It is the national center, joining the hearts and souls of the nation together. It is this city that is referred to especially in the blessing, "May there be peace in your walls and tranquility within your palaces" (122:7). This is the same Jerusalem where David stood and declared his "Song of Ascent: behold, how good and how pleasant it is when brothers dwell together… like the dew on the Hermon… for there He commanded the blessing, life for all eternity" (133:1-3). It is clear that the central motif in this brief psalm (133) is harmony within the family, within the extended family, within the tribes, among the tribes, and throughout the nation.


            There are times when the unifying aspect of Jerusalem finds clear and exalted expression. The Six-Day War and its conclusion were certainly such a time. However, specifically out of recognition of the uniqueness, value, status and destiny of Jerusalem, the city also has become the focus of a political conflict, at whose root lies a fundamental dispute concerning the direction of the Jewish nation and of the State of Israel.


            This week I saw an article in Haaretz about "Saving Jerusalem" – saving the city from its Haredi mayor Uri Lupoliansky and Rav Elyashiv! The writer feared that a spirit of faith, of loyalty to what is sacred to our nation, of commitment to the continued growth of traditional Judaism, would soon flood the city.  Lord above! Is this what we have come to? Yet even those who adopt such a position do so out of admiration for Jerusalem. Although their lexicon does not include the concept of sanctity, they, too, regard Jerusalem as a unique place, and hence it is a source of conflict, sometimes bitter.


            Here, too, we are perplexed by the contrast between "brothers dwelling together," "peace within your walls, tranquility in your palaces," and the churning restlessness that characterizes precisely that place whose inner, essential reality is one of peace and tranquility.


            That is how the situation appears. And since the two views seem inseparably intertwined, we find ourselves in something of a dilemma – sometimes a practical one, at other times an existential one. On the one hand, we uphold the sanctity of the place, trying to maintain its character, the remnants of the actual Temple as well as the wider circles of its sanctity. Jerusalem, after all, embodies various degrees of sanctity: there is the Temple itself, the Temple Mount, the rest of the city, where offerings of lesser sanctity and ma'aser sheni may be eaten; Rambam emphasizes that this too is considered "before God." We are animated by a sense of national, historical and religious responsibility with regard to the city as a whole. And when it comes to the site of the Temple, and the obligation to guard it, our responsibility extends beyond the guarding of the Temple as a religious act. Our responsibility also includes the lesson we learn from parashat Naso:


God spoke to Moshe, saying: Command Bnei Yisrael, that they send away from the camp anyone who is struck with tzara'at, or anyone who experiences any emission, or anyone who is impure through contact with a corpse. You shall send both males and females; you shall send them outside of the camp, so that they will not defile their camps in the midst of which I dwell. And Bnei Yisrael did thus, and they sent them outside of the camp; as God had spoken to Moshe, to Bnei Yisrael did. (Bamidbar 5:1-4)


This parasha talks about the purity of the Mikdash and the maintenance of that purity, but the strongest emphasis here – in halakhic terms – is not on the personal aspect, the prohibition of a person defiling the Mikdash and the punishment of "karet" (being cut off from the nation), but rather an obligation towards the nation, an obligation on the communal level, that is carried out by the nation: "And Bnei Yisrael did thus." This commandment, then, is a communal obligation more than a personal one. We are aware of this, and we sense this obligation.


            Hence, we do not feel that we wish to – nor that we would be entitled to – give up this territory. We would not want to give up Hadera, either, but Jerusalem is special. And so we find ourselves forced to fight for it. We will not easily relinquish guardianship of the uniqueness of Jerusalem. At the same time, however, we feel – and must feel – not only that aspect of Jerusalem in which the ships of Tarshish collide, on the national and international level. We must sense the Jerusalem of "peace within your walls and tranquility in your palaces," the Jerusalem that is "of beautiful situation, the joy of the whole earth." We must maintain our sense of Jerusalem as symbolizing and representing, in terms of its ultimate destiny, that which is beautiful, esthetic, perfect - both outwardly and inwardly. It is very easy to be drawn, in our enthusiasm, to the use of coercion and aggression in order to protect the "earthly" Jerusalem, while thereby allowing our consciousness of the "heavenly" Jerusalem to be eroded.


            We find ourselves facing challenges that require emotional as well as practical stamina. We must aspire to connect the two verses from Tehillim 122:


For the sake of my brothers and friends, I will now say: Peace be within you.

For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good. (v. 8-9)


However, sometimes it seems – and sometimes it really is the case – that these two aspirations are on a collision course. Concern for our brothers, neighbors and friends may contradict our concern for the welfare and destiny of the House of the Lord our God. Occasionally, these are two separate factors, each pulling in a different direction. Yet even if we are required at times to fight to fulfill the Divine imperative of "Command Bnei Yisrael" in parashat Naso, this must be done not out of a desire for control, but because a difficult reality forces the responsibility upon us. And if this happens, we must not let it erode our consciousness of the inner connection between the good of our brothers and friends, and the good of the House of the Lord our God. We must ensure that we do not lose the "heavenly Jerusalem" in our struggles for the "earthly Jerusalem."


            Central to Yerushalyim, originally called Shalem, is the idea of shalom, peace. This peace cannot be taken for granted; we must seek it. Just as we must seek the good of "the house of the Lord our God," so we must seek the good of "our brothers and friends." Malki-tzedek, king of Shalem, brought out bread and wine to Avraham, and perhaps we should compare this with the two foods that characterize Eretz Yisrael, "a land flowing with milk and honey." Each of these pairs contains basic, elementary foods (bread and milk), as well as delicacies (wine and honey). However, the foods of Eretz Yisrael are natural (milk and honey), while the foods of Yerushalayim are produced through human effort (bread and wine). It is with regard to the latter that Rabbi Akiva told the wicked Turnus Rufus that the work of human hands is, sometimes, more beautiful than the work of God. A city of bread and wine, a city that requires that we labor on its behalf, for its advancement, for its completion, for the perpetuation of its vision, a city that combines the aspirations of "For the sake of my brothers and friends… for the sake of the house of the Lord our God"; that must guide us for all time.


            Sometimes, indeed, it is difficult. The prophet Yishayahu promises, in God's Name:


Behold, I shall extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of nations like a flowing stream, and you shall suckle; you shall be carried upon her side, and be dandled upon her knees; as a person is comforted by his mother, so I shall comfort you, and you shall be comforted in Jerusalem. (66:12-13)


Yet in the very next verse we read:


When you see this, your heart will rejoice, and your bones will flourish like grass, and the hand of God will be known to His servants, and His anger to His enemies.


            The vision of bread and wine, symbolizing the necessity of human effort in achieving the peace and sanctity of Jerusalem, must illuminate our path, with anticipation of the day when "the offering of Yehuda and Yerushalayim will be sweet to God, as in the days of old and in former years" (Malakhi 3:4).


(This sicha was delivered on Yom Yerushalayim 5763 [2003].)

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