The city of Jerusalem has been forever linked to a sense of Jewish identity.
Jerusalem was, is and will forever be at the center of Jewish religious, national and political life. From the earliest days of Jewish living, Jerusalem has been the focus of the Jewish soul. Our father Abraham first came to Jerusalem when it was known as Salem (Gen 14:8) and its king/priest Melchizedek greeted him with bread and wine. It was to Jerusalem’s Mount Moriah that Abraham returned, bringing his son Isaac to be sacrificed according to G-d’s instruction (Gen 22), and Jews read the “Binding of Isaac,” which represents the great paradox and mystery of the Jews, every day at morning prayer while facing toward Jerusalem.
Jews petition G-d for the restoration of Jerusalem thrice daily in the canon of the Amidah prayer and in the grace after meals. They affirm their desire to be gathered to Jerusalem twice annually, at the Passover Seder and at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
No Jewish matrimonial rite is concluded without the bridegroom stomping his foot on a glass in solemn conformity with the psalmist’s instruction (Ps 137:5) that Jerusalem be remembered above our greatest joy. “If I forget thee O Jerusalem” is an admonition amid the sublime joy of a Jewish wedding event.
Only the Jews have placed Jerusalem at the center of their identity. Christians have Rome and Istanbul, national capitals and shrines by which to commemorate their spiritual and national identities. Islam claims Mecca and Medina as the center of religious geography.
In the two millennia during which Jewish sovereignty could not be exercised over Jerusalem (and no indigenous sovereignty was exercised), the People of the Covenant did not abdicate their claim to the holy city. If they could not inhabit the City of David and the Temple Mount physically, then Jerusalem would dwell in their hearts and souls. Jews were always present in their capital city, and at the end of the 19th century, they constituted the majority population.
Celebrating Liberation and Unification
On May16 of this year, corresponding to the Hebrew calendar date of 28 Iyar, Jews marked the 40th anniversary of the liberation of Jerusalem’s Old City and the unification of all of Jerusalem in the Six Day War of 1967. The Old City was freed by the Israel Defense Forces, which reclaimed the eternal Jewish capital and the Temple Mount from the Jordanian army that had held the city since its fall in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948.
From 1948 to 1967, despite the provisions in the 1949 armistice agreement signed on Rhodes that granted Jews rights of access to Judaism’s holiest shrine, the Western Wall (ha-Kotel ha-Ma’aravi), those rights could not be exercised because of Jordanian refusal to allow Jews free access for worship. The Christian world refused to take notice of this violation of Jewish rights, and for 19 years a deafening silence prevailed on this point from all Christian quarters.
With the restoration of Israel and the establishment of Jewish sovereignty over all of Jerusalem, the psalmist’s ode (Ps 122) is realized. Jerusalem is again a united city, at least physically. The city that David conquered from the Jebusites and reigned over for 33 years (2 Sam 5:5) was raised to greater dignity and to holiness when David’s successor, his son Solomon, built the Temple there (I Kgs 5:5). The spot where Abraham had offered Isaac became the Holy of Holies.
Despite the destruction of the First and Second Temples and the exile for 20 centuries, the spiritual exile was never accomplished. Jewish prayer always included references to Jerusalem. The psalms that we pray instruct us to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, so that we may see its good (Ps 128:5).
There is still a great reticence among the nations to recognize the Jewishness of Jerusalem. All but two of the nations with whom the State of Israel has diplomatic relations have yet to move their embassies to the Jewish capital. G-d is not flattered when the city that he chose for his dwelling place (Ps 132) among the People of his Covenant is not accorded recognition of its purpose.
Next Year in Jerusalem
G-d does not repent of his gifts. The covenant of land and people is eternally valid, as is his purpose as seen in sacred history and the return of Israel to its ancient Promised Land and Holy City. The heavenly Jerusalem may not yet have land on earth, but the earthly Jerusalem develops and flourishes as the capital of Israel has been restored and Zion has been renewed. The Jewish people and the state of Israel are part and parcel of the continuing sacred reality in time and place.
On the Shabbat and on other feasts, we pray for the state of Israel with the formulary “the first germination of our redemption”—lex orandi lex credendi (our prayer is our faith). The words of the Scripture and the prayers derived from them signal our doctrines. The Jewish doctrines about Jerusalem are forever derived from our sacred texts.
This year, as we celebrate the renewal of Jewish sovereignty in the land of our patriarchs and the reunification of our eternal capital, we are also mindful of the tragedy that befell contemporary Jewry, the Shoah. All of these events are bound to the history and communal identity of the Jewish people. The promises made in the Covenant continue. Just as we have been allowed to re-establish Jewish sovereignty in our earthly Jerusalem, we continue to pray for the advent of the heavenly Jerusalem. May the city of man be transformed into the city of G-d.
Despite the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple twice within our history, Jews never despaired. We have uttered a proclamation at every milestone in Jewish liturgical and communal life and at every significant moment of Jewish celebration. This prayer has even been whispered in the darkest hours of our being. It is an anthem of faith and a promise: simply, “Next year in Jerusalem.”
We always believed that G-d in his fidelity to the promises of his covenant would restore Zion and its inhabitants. Our generation has been privileged, indeed blessed, to witness the process of the restoration of Zion. We are that generation, the first in 2,000 years, to witness and to participate with God in the fulfillment of that promise.
1967—Six Day War, Capture of East Jerusalem, unification of city.
1980—Jerusalem declared “united, eternal” capital of Israel.
1987—First Palestinian intifada (uprising) begins.
1990—Madrid Conference inaugurates multilateral peace process.
1993— Oslo Accords set the stage for bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
2000—Pope John Paul II visits Jerusalem; Camp David talks fail; second intifada begins.
2002-2006—Security wall separates East Jerusalem from the West Bank.