"The Perfection of Beauty:" The Symbolism of Jerusalem and Eretz Yisrael

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Based on a sicha by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Adapted by Matan Glidai

Translated by Kaeren Fish


The book of Tehillim (48:3) describes Jerusalem as being "of panoramic beauty; the joy of the whole world." This relates to two aspects of the city. The "panoramic beauty" expresses its esthetic splendor, while the "joy" describes our experience of Jerusalem. Similarly, the book of Eikha (2:15) mentions these two aspects when lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem: "Is this the city that was called 'the perfection of beauty,' 'the joy of the whole world'?"

The beauty of Jerusalem is itself twofold. On the one hand, its beauty reflects its national status: Jerusalem is the center of the Davidic Kingdom. Royalty, of course, is related to grandeur and beauty: "Your eyes will behold the king in his beauty" (Yishayahu 33:7). On the other hand, the beauty of Jerusalem is also a reflection of its holiness, as the seat of the Shekhina. Although the Shekhina is awe-inspiring, it is also a complex symbol of beauty: "Grandeur is before Him; might and splendor are in His Temple."

The experiential aspect of Jerusalem, its being "the joy of the whole world," likewise is multifaceted. Jerusalem is the seat of happiness and joy because it is the seat of the Shekhina, as well as the center to which Am Yisrael gather. "One who has not seen the joy of Simchat Beit Ha-Shoeva (the water-drawing ceremony of Sukkot at the Temple) has never seen true joy." This joy arises both from the contact with the Shekhina, as well as from the assembly of the nation. Jerusalem, then, embodies the splendor, the light and the holiness that are the pinnacle of our lives and that draw us out of everyday routine. It adds a dimension of depth to our existence.

In listing the ten levels of holiness related to place, the Mishna in Kelim lists Jerusalem as its own category, in between the holiness of the Temple and the holiness of Eretz Yisrael. We would expect, then, that Jerusalem would embody not only its own special holiness, but also that of Eretz Yisrael - but in greater force.

In several places in the Torah, Eretz Yisrael is referred to as a "land flowing with milk and honey." Milk is a symbol of naturalness: it is a basic substance that every person imbibes at birth. Honey, in contrast, represents something more special; it is beyond routine and naturalness. Correspondingly, as noted above, Jerusalem has elements that are like honey: a deepening and enriching of our lives, an additional dimension to our everyday existence. But Jerusalem also has aspects of "milk": there is something basic and fundamental to it; we cannot describe Eretz Yisrael without Jerusalem. It is not only an addition and a deepening, but also something fundamental and indispensable. All of the prophecies and lamentations over the destruction emphasize the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple to the almost complete exclusion of the rest of the country.

Jerusalem, then, contains two contradictory themes: something fundamental and solid, and something precious and special. These two elements are able to coexist. The Gemara (Yoma 54) explains that "even ha-shetiya," the "foundation stone" upon which the Temple was built, was named thus because the world rests upon it. Thereafter the Gemara notes that the world was created from Jerusalem, as it is written: "From Zion, from the composition of beauty" means that "From Zion is the beauty of the world composed." Thus, Jerusalem represents both the foundation of the world – the fundamental existence of the world was created from it – and also the source of all the beauty and splendor of the world. Jerusalem is both the foundation and the spires of the palace that is our world.

The verse, "Honey and milk are under your tongue" (Shir ha-Shirirm 4:1), is explained by Chazal as referring to Torah, and we may relate this dual image of honey and milk to holiness in general. Holiness is both something wonderful and rich, and also a fundamental dimension that is integral to our lives. A life devoid of holiness is a life that is empty of substance and meaning. Holiness is both the basis and foundation of our life, and also the lofty height to which we strive.

Thus, this dual nature - both foundation as well as pinnacle of aspiration - characterizes Eretz Yisrael, Jerusalem, and all holiness in general. May we realize both meanings in our lives.

(This sicha was delivered on Yom Yerushalayim 5756 [1996].)