Jerusalem and Yerushalayim (Ideas #81)

Yom Yerushalayim seems to have lost much of its appeal in Israel today. Certainly, among the non-Orthodox majority, the territorial gains of the Six-Day War that we commemorate are viewed with growing ambivalence. The enduring widespread nostalgia for the Kotel and the Old City can only go so far  to those totally removed from the wellsprings of Judaism – no matter how special, ultimately the Old City remains just a piece of land.

Without the proper context, it is easy to see how we can come to under-appreciate Yom Yerushalayim. At the same time, a lack of proper context can actually lead to what we could describe as an over-appreciation of the day as well. The latter mistake is the result of not truly understanding what is meant by the word Yerushalayim in many of the classical sources. It is this same confusion that has led many to wonder about the relevance of still asking G-d to rebuild Jerusalem as we do in our daily prayers and to relieve the city of its desolation as we continue to request on Tisha b'Av.

As we celebrate the conquest of the Old City of Jerusalem by the modern Jewish state, we should pause to consider the nature of the Jerusalem that we have today. 

That the Jewish people have regained dominion over the site of the Beit haMikdash is certainly a good thing. Access to this site facilitates a greater awareness of what the Beit haMikdash represents, and serves as a catalyst for greater spirituality and national identification. Nonetheless, we still do not have the Beit haMikdash itself and without it, the benefits of owning the site are limited. For almost all intents and purposes, G-d has removed His presence from that once holy place.

Regarding G-d's true presence then, Jerusalem remains desolate. (It is ironic that Jerusalem may well be more physically beautiful in its present desolation than at any other time in history.) Yet it is full of holy Jews and holy batei knesset, yeshivot, chesed organizations and the like. Indeed, Jerusalem is most dear for its multitude of fascinating and inspiring Jews who live a vibrant and intense religious life. In this sense, Jerusalem has regained its splendor as the irhabira – not only the political capital city, as it is usually translated, but also as the focal point of Jewish life.

Still, in spite of the capital city's vibrancy, Yerushalayim remains desolate.  This, because the splendor of Yerushalayim per se is not of a quantitative nature, rooted in containing more good things than any other city in the world. The real splendor of Yerushalayim is based in a qualitative distinction, which ultimately makes it more than a city. The Yerushalayim that we pray for is not a physical property or a plot of land - it is a spiritual property. It is a place in the physical world that is more than physical – a place infused with an immediate and intense awareness of G-d. When this awareness is not operative, we can still say that Jerusalem needs to be rebuilt.

It is the unique nature of Yerushalayim that makes it the only place that can house the Beit haMikdash. Other cities did host the mishkan (tabernacle) before it found its permanent home in the holy city. Nonetheless, there was no intrinsic connection between these places and the mishkan and so, one can walk in these places while ritually impure. Not so Jerusalem - the mishkan is no longer there, but its intrinsic connection to the place where it once stood prevents us from going there when in such a condition.

In sum, on Yom Yerushalayim our joy cannot be complete. We should be joyful about having this very special place under Jewish control, something that for so many years was only a dream. At the same time, we must realize that until G-d's presence returns to the holy city, it is not Yerushalayim that we have, but rather a different city built on the site where Yerushalayim once stood. Indeed, this city is a wonderful place and often strives to live up to the memories of what was once here. Still, though Jerusalem may well have become the greatest city around, it is still not yet Yerushalayim.