In honor of Jerusalem Day, which marks the liberation and reunification of our capital city, here are a few cultural waystations in over 3,000 years in which we have remembered Jerusalem even during the depths of our exile and because of which we have always known to where we aspire to return:
1. Jerusalem is both at the beginning and end of our national and spiritual concern. Jerusalem is both an idea with a place behind it and a place with an idea behind it.
In recent months, I have been studying the Book of Samuel with my daughter. Samuel the Prophet served as the connecting link between the period of the Judges and the period of the Kings. This is our people’s book of politics: the struggles between the tribes for recognition and between the royal houses for power. After the changes of power and David’s ascent to the throne, there was a need to find a unifying capital not located within the territory of a specific tribe. Thus, the City of David was founded with the conquest of Jerusalem, which became the capital of the United Kingdom of Israel.
The following historical formula has accompanied us ever since: First, we settle throughout the land, and only after we establish ourselves does Jerusalem arrive. “Blessed is the Lord from Zion, He who dwells in Jerusalem. Hallelujah.” First Zion, and then Jerusalem. Just as in our time: the return to Jerusalem in 1967 comes after the establishment of the state in 1948. First the establishment of the national body, and after that, our spirit is revived. The historical process works in hidden ways on the national spirit, and it is important to be aware of this, to equip oneself with patience, and not to hasten the end, i.e. the redemption.
2. Our sages taught us: In remembrance lies the secret of redemption. If we remember from whence we came, we shall know where to return. People of all religions and nations bless their gods for food, but it is the Jews whose sages created a special blessing in which in the grace after meals we call on God to rebuild Jerusalem. What is the connection between food, a universal need, and our capital? Our sages apparently wanted to instill in us the understanding that just as an individual cannot live without bread, without food, so too the nation cannot survive without Jerusalem. Every day, when we say grace after meals, we remember how keenly we miss Jerusalem. This is an act that after thousands of years has become part of our identity, a component of our collective unconsciousness.
And when a couple marries, they remember Jerusalem beneath their wedding canopy. They break a glass to declare that their joy is not complete as long as our city lies in ruins. Before breaking the glass, they recite the oath of the Babylonian exiles. When the city was first destroyed in the sixth century BCE, the Babylonians exiled the social elite, the priests, the Levites, and the political and spiritual leadership. The Babylonian captors discovered among the refugees Levites who used to play in the Temple orchestra. “Sing for us one of the songs of Zion” (Psalms 137) they demanded. But the exiles had already hung their harps on the willows and lamented to their captors, “How can we sing a song of the Lord on alien soil?!” We cannot sing, and “how” did we reach such a terrible state that our captors seek to force us to play for them, and we do not have the inspiration when we are not in our homeland. To strengthen their commitment, they swore: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I remember thee not; if I set not Jerusalem above my chiefest joy.” Ever since then, we have repeated that oath.
3. At the beginning of the 12th century, from the depths of exile in Spain, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi wrote a song of longing for our capital. Here is a part of its famous opening: “Zion, behold, will you not ask after the welfare of your prisoners, who seek your welfare, and are the remnant of your flock?” Indeed, we have been prisoners of Zion throughout the exiles, and Rabbi Yehuda Halevi asks Zion as a child asks its mother if she still remembers us, and if she still cares about our well-being. For our part, we have not ceased to remember her and pray for her rebuilding. And then, like the exiles of Babylon, he associated his song with the memory of the city: “To wail for your afflictions I am like the jackals, but when I dream of the return of your captivity, I am a harp for your songs.” He tells us where his poem-prophecy stems from: from the dream of the return to Zion.
Some 850 years later, ahead of Independence Day 5727 (1967), terrifying rumors emerged about Arab armies gathering for war against us. That evening, a young female soldier named Shuli Nathan took the stage at Binyanei Hauma in Jerusalem holding a guitar and sang for the captives of Zion. She sang a modern lament for the city where a wall separated the Israeli half from the part under Jordanian control, which included the Temple Mount and the Western Wall. She recalled Rabbi Akiva’s promise to his wife at the beginning of the second century CE: “If I had the means I would place on your head a Jerusalem of Gold.” Wealthy women of the time would adorn a gold tiara with a depiction of the city of Jerusalem. But after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE, this promise also held national significance: We will not rest until we restore the ruined city to its former glory.
Naomi Shemer, who wrote the song, remembered Rabbi Yehuda Halevi and described the sources of her song as the poets of Jerusalem throughout the generations: “Behold I am a harp for all your songs.” She quotes the oath of the exiles of Babylon: “If I forget thee, Jerusalem/ Which is all gold.” Thus, in one evening, the citizens of Israel united through one song with the exiles of Babylon in the sixth century BCE and the Jews in Judea in the second century in front of the ruins of Jerusalem, and with exiles of Spain in the 12th century CE. They remembered that they too were exiles from their city, even though they were so close to it, albeit beyond a wall. Three weeks later, they reunited with liberated Jerusalem.
4. In December 1966, about eighteen months before we were reunited with our city, Shmuel Yosef Agnon was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Little Israel’s first Nobel prize. He, too, recalled the oath of the exiles of Babylon, and at the award ceremony, he made Jerusalem his chiefest joy. And thus, he declared to the world: “As a result of the historic catastrophe in which Titus of Rome destroyed Jerusalem and Israel was exiled from its land, I was born in one of the cities of the Exile. But always I regarded myself as one who was born in Jerusalem.” It is by chance that we were born in the exile of Europe or Yemen or North Africa or Persia. Only by chance, due to the disaster of the destruction that led to our dispersion into the Diaspora. There is no special significance to Jewish existence in Berlin, Rome, or New York. Jews live there by chance because, in the depth of our existence as a people, “we always regarded ourselves as having been born in Jerusalem.”
5.At the time that Italy was united and emerged as a modern state in 1861, there lived a Jewish intellectual by the name of Moses Hess, who had strayed from his people. The renaissance of Italy ignited a spark and a desire for a similar process among the Jewish people, who were then deep in national slumber. Like us, the Italians also established a state without their capital, Rome, which was still under the rule of the Church. Turin and Florence served as capitals until the liberation of Rome in 1870. Meanwhile, in 1862, Hess published his book “Rome and Jerusalem.” At the beginning of the book, he expressed a prophetic vision: “With the liberation of the Eternal City on the banks of the Tiber, begins the liberation of the Eternal City on the slopes of Moriah; the renaissance of Italy heralds the rise of Judah.”
By the time Theodor Herzl came and uttered the code words “Zion” and “Jerusalem”, the ground had already been prepared like a spring that is coiled for thousands of years. Now it was finally given the signal to break free and push our people home.