Jerusalem of Gold, of Brass, of Light

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Based on a sicha by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Translated by Kaeren Fish

 

 

Psalm 122 A Song of ascents. Of David.

 

I rejoiced when they said to me,

"We are going to the House of the Lord."

(2) Our feet stood inside your gates, O Jerusalem,

(3) Jerusalem built up, a city knit together,

(4) To which tribes would make pilgrimage,

The tribes of the Lord,

- as was enjoined upon Israel -

to praise the name of the Lord,

(5) There the thrones of judgment stood,

thrones of the house of David.

(6) Pray for the well-being of Jerusalem;

"May those who love you be at peace.

(7) May there be well-being within your ramparts,

peace in your citadels."

(8) For the sake of my kin and friends,

I Pray for your well-being;

(9) for the sake of the house of the Lord our God,

I seek your good.

In this psalm, King David portrays several aspects of Jerusalem: Jerusalem as God's home, as the seat of justice, and as a meeting-point for the tribes of Israel. This chapter deals not only with the nature of Jerusalem itself, but also with the feelings it arouses in the hearts of the pilgrims who arrive there.

We can single out two main characteristics of Jerusalem, for it is a city with a dual nature. On the one hand, Jerusalem is the dwelling place of God. This applies not only to the site of the Temple, but to the rest of the city as well. An expression of this status is to be found in the law that certain sacrifices (kodashim kalim) may be consumed anywhere within Jerusalem. The Rambam (Hilkhot Bi'at Ha-Mikdash 3:8) goes so far as to rule that a person afflicted with "tzara'at" (impurity resembling leprosy) is punished with lashes if he enters the holy city. On the other hand, Jerusalem is the heart of the nation, a national center, the destination and gathering-point of the masses.

These two characteristics contradict one another to no small degree. The limitations on entry into the Temple precinct and into Jerusalem as a whole, which pertain to those of various degrees of ritual impurity, spoils the unity and cohesiveness of the tribes of Israel.

Chazal regarded the assembly of the nation in Jerusalem, at the time of the pilgrim festivals, as more than just the physical presence of everyone in the same place. On the conceptual level, they perceived this assembly as a unifying factor within the nation, and Jerusalem as a unifying place. In years long gone, the process of purification in preparation for the pilgrimage, as well as the sentiments of King David mentioned above, expressing the special feelings towards Jerusalem, were common to all.

Today the situation is different, and therefore one may easily be misled into focusing only on Jerusalem's status as the house of God. Such a person is likely to fight furiously on behalf of the spiritual nature of the city, with a view to purging it of any phenomenon deemed to represent a negative value, to cleanse it of any type of impurity, and to turn the city into the exclusive property of the religious public.

This approach stands in opposition to the interests of Am Yisrael as a whole – and even the interests of the most religious among us. If what we want is that at a time of political or military pressure the entire population will be steadfast in its refusal to relinquish even the tiniest corner of Jerusalem, then we must ensure that the general public feels a profound connection to Jerusalem and does not suffer from a sense of exclusion. We must ensure that Jerusalem is not only the "house of God," but at the same time also the property of all of Israel. If we claim national and spiritual responsibility, then we must ensure that the general population feels "connected" to Jerusalem of old and of the future, via their connection with Jerusalem of today.

We speak of "Jerusalem of Gold." We know that gold is a highly valued commodity, but it is not commonly found. Brass, in contrast, is less highly valued, but it is more common and features in everyday economic activity. Jerusalem of "gold" – the city of importance, value, sanctity and purity, is a superior, more select city – but less popular. Jerusalem of "brass" is more accessible, popular and acceptable precisely because of its lack of strict standards of purity and sanctity. We must accept the "Jerusalem of brass" while still aspiring to merit the "Jerusalem of gold," with the hope that the combination of both will reveal a "Jerusalem of light."

(This sicha was delivered on Yom Yerushalayim 5758 [1998].)