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Yerushalayim - Seat of Sanctity and Royalty

Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
Text file

Based on a sicha by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Adapted by Dov Karoll


Shout, O barren one, you who bore no child; shout aloud for joy, you who did travail; for the children of the wife forlorn shall outnumber those of the espoused, said God.

Enlarge the site of your tent, let the curtains of your dwelling extend, do not stint; lengthen the ropes, and drive the tent pins firm. For you shall spread to the right and the left; your offspring shall dispossess nations, and shall people the desolate towns.

Fear not, you shall not be shamed, do not cringe, you shall not be disgraced; for you shall forget the reproach of your youth, and remember no more the shame of your widowhood. For He who made you will espouse you, His name is "The Lord of Hosts." The Holy One of Israel will redeem you; He is called "God of all the Earth." (Yeshayahu 54:1-5)

The verses do not mention who is the referent of the analogy to the barren woman. One possibility is that the barren woman is the Jewish people; this theory is substantiated by the phrase, "Your offspring shall dispossess nations, and shall people the desolate towns" (verse 3).

Alternatively, it may be more reasonable to claim that the referent is Zion or Yerushalayim. If we turn back a few chapters in Yeshayahu, we read,

Rouse, rouse yourself, arise O Jerusalem, you who from God's hand have drunk the cup of His wrath, you who have drained to the dregs the bowl, the cup of reeling.

She has none to guide her of all the sons she bore; none takes her by the hand of all the sons she reared. (51:17-18)

The phrase, "She has none to guide her," refers to Yerushalayim.

In the following chapter, we have the consolation that follows this grim state:

How welcome on the mountain are the footsteps of the herald announcing happiness, heralding good fortune, announcing victory, telling Zion, "Your God is King!" Hark; your watchmen raise their voices, as one they shout for joy; for every eye shall behold God's return to Zion. Raise a shout together, O ruins of Jerusalem; for God will comfort His people will redeem Jerusalem. (52:7-9)

Accordingly, it stands to reason that the barren woman referred to above is Yerushalayim. What is said here of Yerushalayim? There is a vision of expansion in territory as well as population; architectural growth is bestowed upon her, along with a population explosion.

A comparison between these verses and the events we have witnessed in recent decades is a cause for joy. Taking the dimensions and population of Yerushalayim from just one generation ago, as opposed to those of today, we will find the city almost unrecognizable. Once you could easily walk from one end to the other. Today, look at how far the city has spread, how much its population has radiated. This is true not only in the quantitative sense, but in qualitative terms as well.

The growth of Yerushalayim has not been limited to expanse and breadth. There are whole neighborhoods that have developed into religious areas, into focal points and centers for those loyal to the Jewish faith, who raise the flag of Torah and follow its ways. While there is still much room for improvement, in comparison to a generation ago, on the whole, the general direction seems to be one of improvement.

This development is truly gratifying. However, to a certain extent, these improvements come with new cause for concern. There is concern that, rather than expansion and development, the future will bring contraction and constriction. What is the vision described in the verse? The "enlarging of the tent" through labor and toil, occupation, building, local and urban: expanding the space of the tent, extending the curtains, lengthening the ropes, improving the tent pins, both physical and societal. This whole project, the investment of energy, the construction and development, is positive and uplifting. Yet it forces us to immerse ourselves in construction and building, confronting both physical and societal needs.

Is there any alternative? Shall we "widen the tent" without attempting to determine what is the optimal approach, both urban and societal? Heaven forefend. The prophet demands of us, demands of Yerushalayim, to work with curtains and ropes, to drive the pegs firm. All the toil that comes along with a new building project, with growth, with daily activity, including involvement in the minutiae, is all part of "Enlarge the site of your tent," of the glorious vision of Yeshayahu 54. There is no avoiding this.

Nonetheless, the fact that there is no alternative does nothing to eliminate the concerns inherent in this activity. The concern is that one can get so caught up in tents, curtains and pegs, in grappling with the topographical, economic and societal considerations related to the building, that some of the uniqueness of Yerushalayim, in both our consciousness and in reality, will be worn away. Those who work in construction and urban planning speak about the need to somehow strike the balance between the needs of the past and of the present. They wish to preserve tradition and heritage, whether in the realm of building and architecture or the preservation of historical sites, and also to provide for the immediate, eminent needs of the present. The struggle between these goals is a difficult one.

Indeed, we often hear about disagreements about where to build and where to preserve. There are those who say, "This is a living, thriving city, not merely a museum." Other claim: "A city that disregards its past has no future." This struggle is immanent, inherent, in the development of a city with a rich heritage.

However, we, as supporters and devotees of the holiness and uniqueness of Yerushalayim, must also remain aware of a second concern. Aside from the concern for the loss of the past in dealing with the present, there is also concern for the loss of the future while negotiating the present. With all the attention paid to enlarging tents, extending curtains, lengthening ropes and driving pegs firm, we are at risk, slowly but surely, of relating to Yerushalayim, viewing its problems, as if we were speaking of Melbourne or London. When it comes to Yerushalayim, great caution is needed, not by avoiding the enlarging of the tent, but, rather, by investing great energy in that project, while maintaining in our consciousness the singularity and destiny of Yerushalayim.

Some seek to balance these needs by distinguishing between "Yerushalayim shel ma'ala," the heavenly city of Yerushalayim, and "Yerushalayim shel matta," the earthly city of Yerushalayim. This provides a partial solution, with the maintenance of an ethereal city regardless of what takes place in the earthly one. Nonetheless, our charge is to maintain this balance on earth, not to maintain a metaphysical balance. As such, we are called upon to ensure awareness of the significance of Yerushalayim within the city itself.

In this context, we should take note of two central motifs regarding Yerushalayim. Yerushalayim is both a city of kedusha, of holiness, and a city of royalty. This dual notion is captured in Tehillim 122:

A song of ascents, of David.

I rejoiced when they said to me, "We are going to the House of God."

Our feet stood inside your gates, O Jerusalem. Jerusalem built up, a city knit together, to which tribes would make pilgrimage, the tribes of God, an appointed practice for Israel, to praise the name of God.

There the thrones of judgment stood, thrones of the house of David.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; may those who love you prosper.

May there be peace within your ramparts, prosperity within your palaces.

For the sake of my kin and friends, I will now say, "Peace be within you." For the sake of the Lord our God, I seek your good.

There are two motifs here. At the beginning and end of the chapter, it speaks of the house of God. In this sense, Yerushalayim is nmerely the city in which the house of God resides; rather, the city itself is, in certain contexts, considered wholly the house of God. On the other hand, Yerushalayim is the seat of royalty, the capitol city. The tribes of Israel rose there to praise God, and the thrones of the house of David sat there. If we strive to preserve that singularity, that unique destiny of Yerushalayim, we must be cognizant of protecting both motifs, royalty along with sanctity.

In this context, there are two different threats that need to be countered. One is a threat to the motif of royalty, while the other is a threat to the city's sanctity.

What threatens the motif of royalty? I mentioned earlier, and I believe this is indeed the case, that we are very proud of the achievements of Yerushalayim's religious community. Yerushalayim is bustling with Torah, synagogues and batei midrash flourish, new religious neighborhoods emerge on an ongoing basis, and we, the observant community, have reason to be proud.

However, if we are satisfied with this achievement alone, an aspect of the unique nature of Yerushalayim has been eroded. Woe unto us if Yerushalayim should become, either in reality or in our consciousness, reduced to an island for the religious community, a stronghold for the religious, while negating the existence or consciousness of the rest of the Jewish community. The "thrones of the house of David" are the thrones of the entire Jewish people. The "kin and friends" whose peace we seek are all our brethren from the Jewish nation.

If we overly emphasize the religious aspect, out of pride in the great achievements in this realm, we may end up downplaying the significance of the city's aspect of royalty. The city may cease to house "the thrones of the house of David," cease to be the national focal point, no longer be the capitol for the entire Jewish people, but rather become a city with a very defined, one-dimensional character. In terms of the message and substantive role of Yerushalayim, this would not be an expansion of its role, but rather a contraction and constriction. This would be a threat to the national role of Yerushalayim.

On the other hand, one can conceive of a threat to the uniqueness and destiny of Yerushalayim from the religious perspective. King Shlomo, in his prayer at the inauguration of the Temple, speaks of the goals of the Temple, the populace it was meant to serve, and under what circumstances they should turn to it. Among other things, he mentions:

When the foreigner, who is not of Your people Israel, comes from a distant land for the sake of Your name - for they shall hear about Your great name and Your mighty hand and Your outstretched arm - when he comes to pray at this house, hear, in Your heavenly abode, and grant all that the foreigner asks of You. Thus all the peoples of the earth will know Your name and revere You, as does Your people Israel; and they will recognize that Your name is called upon this house that I have built. (Melakhim I 8:41-43)

Shlomo states here explicitly that one aspect of the Temple's destiny is universal: "When the foreigner, who is not of Your people Israel…" And if this is true regarding the Temple, it is true regarding Yerushalayim as well. The city is to serve as a religious stronghold, but not only in the narrow, national, Jewish sense; rather, it is a focal point of international proportions.

This message resonates, not only in Shlomo's vision in his prayer at the Temple's inauguration, but also in the prophecies of Yeshayahu and Mikha.

In the end of days, the mountain of the house of God shall stand firm above the mountains, and tower above the hills; and all the nations shall flow unto it. And the many peoples shall go and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of God, to the house of the God of Ya'akov, that He may instruct us in His ways, and that we may walk in His paths," for the Torah shall come forth from Zion, and the word of God from Yerushalayim. (Yeshayahu 2:2-3)

The implication of these verses is that the Torah that emerges from Zion is capable of showing the way, the path of life, even for the nations of the world. The word of God that sets forth from Yerushalayim is meant to enlighten not merely the Jewish people everywhere, but also to enlighten "many peoples."

Herein lies the second danger of constriction: the tent that we enlarge, the pegs we strengthen, the curtains we extend - for whom do we extend them? Whose presence is meant to be secured in the Yerushalayim described there? The gentile who comes from a far-away land? For us, Yerushalayim is the capitol of Israel alone; it is ours and our heritage. However, to the extent that we involve ourselves in expanding the tents, as we must, we run the risk of limiting Yerushalayim to being our capitol, and only our capitol. While such a city is unique and holy, it lacks the dimension of "and all the nations shall flow unto it."

In sum, there are two risks of limiting Yerushalayim. In terms of the motif of royalty, it can be limited to the religious community alone, rather than being the center of the entire Jewish people. In terms of the motif of sanctity, there is a risk of seeing the city as meant, ultimately, only for the Jewish people.

To some extent, there is a conflict between these motifs. Our relationship to Yerushalayim is dual, as we saw in Tehilim 122, containing both a national and a religious element. However, it seems that developing the national aspect can undermine the development of the religious one. To emphasize the national aspect is to demand the exclusive rights of the Jewish people to Yerushalayim. However, to emphasize the religious aspect ("the word of God shall go forth from Yerushalayim") is to open up the gates, to see the city as a beacon of light that is to be beamed throughout the entire world. Indeed, maintaining this dual awareness is no simple task, for the two themes pull in opposite directions.

Yet, we also have a means for overcoming this conflict. While it is true that there is an international aspect to the sanctity of Yerushalayim, this does not negate the unique Jewish aspect thereof. The verse states,

"I will bring them to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in My house of prayer;

their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon My altar;

for My house shall be called a house of prayer to all the nations." (Yeshayahu 56:7)

This verse clearly speaks of the Temple as being "a house of prayer to all the nations," just as it sounds. However, in the earlier prophecy of Yeshayahu that speaks of the turning of all nations to Yerushalayim (chapter 2), it is clear this universalistic motif is accompanied by a recognition on the part of the nations that they are coming to the "house of the God of Jacob." There is a light that emanates to the entire world from Yerushalayim, but that light stems from the "house of the God of Jacob."

We aspire that at the end of days the Temple, Yerushalayim, and the land of Israel will bear religious significance to the entire world. However, this significance will not be universalistic or pantheistic, but rather a recognition of the God of Ya'akov, the God of Yisrael.

This, too, is the message that the rabbis embedded in the prayer we recite on Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur:

Reign over the whole universe in Your glory, and in Your splendor be exalted over all the earth. Shine forth in the majesty of Your triumphant strength over all the inhabitants of Your world, that every form may know that You have formed it, and every creature understand that You created it, and that all that has breath in its nostrils may say, "The Lord God of Israel is King, and His dominion rules over all."

The faith that is meant to be spread throughout the world, that emanates from Yerushalayim to every creature, is not some universal faith, but rather faith that "The Lord God of Israel is King." And herein lies, at the objective plane, the ultimate, grandiose integration of the national and religious aspects. This is, as we said, part of the vision for the future.

At present, we are dealing with and with streets, with curtains and with structures. Some may say: "Your vision is messianic. While it part of our dream for the future, it is not relevant to our situation today. Today, given the situation we are in, we must block the gates, and state, over and over again, 'This is ours, and only ours; we stand, rooted, here, and no one else shall pass through.' The gates will be reopened only at the end of days." But this approach is mistaken. The danger of constricting Yerushalayim is not a danger only when looking toward the future; it is a current, tangible one. For it does not relate only to what will be actualized in the future, which is for God to determine, but rather relates to our own existential and experiential relationship, to the inner significance of what Yerushalayim means to us, today.

Even when we must work to strengthen and fortify the city, to expand and enlarge it, we must take care to view this through the perspective of the future. We must always keep in sight our ultimate goal of integrating sanctity and royalty, in their fullest expressions.

[The sicha was delivered on Yom Yerushalayim 5762 (2002).]



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