The Road to Jerusalem (Part II)
Jerusalem in the Bible
by Rav Yitzchak Levi
As noted at the end of the previous lesson, we will
continue our study by turning our attention to the entry into the Land by
Avraham, Yaakov, and Bnei Yisrael respectively, via Shekhem, Beit-El and
1. The first characteristic of Shekhem, it is the first:
- In the entry into the Land as we saw in the previous
lesson, in the stories of both Avraham and Yaakov when they come from Charan
(Bereishit 12:6; 33:18), and in Bnei Yisraels construction
of the altar at
- In the conquest of the Land the conquest of the city
- In being set aside as an inheritance in the blessing that he gives to his son Yosef, Yaakov says: "I give you one portion (shekhem echad) more than your brothers, which I took from the hand of the Emorites by my sword and by my bow" (Bereishit 48:22).
One of the interpretations offered by the commentaries here (see Rashi and Ramban ad loc) is that "shekhem" (portion) here actually means the city of Shekhem, which was given to Yosef by virtue of his birthright (as the elder of Rachel's children). Indeed, at the end of Sefer Yehoshua we read of Yosef's burial in the plot that Yaakov had purchased, and which was given to Yosef's sons as an inheritance:
The bones of Yosef,
which Bnei Yisrael had brought up from
- In the division of tribal inheritances, Shekhem represents the border for all generations between the children of Yosef Ephraim and Menasheh (Ibid. 16:6; 14:7).
- The first attempt at monarchy, which ended in utter failure, was the coronation of Avimelekh in Shekhem (Shoftim 9:6).
2. The climax of the blessing of Eretz Yisrael is found in the inheritance of the children of Yosef.
- In Yaakov's blessing to Yosef, we read:
By the God of your father, Who will help you; by the Almighty, Who will bless you with blessings of the heavens above, blessings of the depths that lie beneath; blessings of the breasts and of the womb. The blessings of your father are greater than the blessings of my ancestors, to the utmost limits of the everlasting hills; they shall be upon the head of Yosef and on the crown of the head of the one who was separated from his brothers . (Bereishit 49:25-26)
- Before Moshe dies, he repeats Yaakov's blessing to the tribes and elaborates upon it. Here the blessing concerns the inheritance of Yosef, with Shekhem as its capital:
To Yosef he said: May his land be blessed by God; for the precious things of the heavens, for the dew, and for the depths that crouch beneath, and for the precious fruits of the sun, and the precious products of the moon, and for the head of the ancient mountains, and the previous things of the primordial hills, and the previous things of the land and its fullness, and the good will of those who dwell in the bush. Let [all of] this come upon the head of Yosef, and upon the crown of the head of the one who was separated from his brothers. (Devarim 33:13-16)
- The purchase of the plot of the field in Shekhem by Yaakov (Bereishit 33:19) is the first purchase by any of the forefathers for the purposes of a dwelling place (Avraham's purchase of Ma'arat ha-Makhpela was for the purpose of burying Sara).
3. Shekhem a city of opposites
- First of all, topographically, the city sits in the
valley, a low place, with
- It is interesting that the name "Shekhem" has dual meaning On one hand, the word has the etymological meaning of "division" (in accordance with one of the ways of understanding Bereishit 48:22; see Ibn Ezra ad loc); on the other hand, it also means "togetherness," as in, "Then I shall convert the nations into a pure language, that they may all call upon the Name of God and serve Him together (shekhem echad)" (Tzefanya 3:9).
- The various events that take place in this city are a faithful reflection of its inherent contrasts: some are positive events, related to the sanctity of the place and its "first" status; others are negative.
- The fact that Shekhem is a place of Divine worship upon Jewish entry into the land is apparent as early as Avraham's time (Bereishit 12:6). God's first appearance to Avraham in Eretz Yisrael is in Shekhem, and in its wake Avraham builds an altar there.
- Yaakov, too, erects an altar in the portion of the field which he bought in the city (Ibid. 33:20).
- Upon their entry into the land, Bnei Yisrael carry out the ceremony of the blessings and the curses at Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival, with a forging of the covenant, and the building of an altar on Mount Eival upon which the Torah is inscribed (Yehoshua 8:30-35).
- At the end of Yehoshua's life a large gathering is held in Shekhem, where he makes a covenant with them and sets "a statute and an ordinance." The matter is inscribed in the Book of God's Torah, and a large stone is set up as a witness under the oak tree that was adjacent to God's Sanctuary (Yehoshua 24:25-27).
- The Sages declare that Shekhem is a "place destined for punishment" (Sanhedrin 102a) .
- In the stories of both Yaakov and Yehoshua we find that foreign gods are handed over and buried in Shekhem. Yaakov commands his household to get rid of the foreign gods among them, and he buries them under the oak tree that is adjacent to Shekhem (Bereishit 35:5). Yehoshua commands the nation at the same place to put aside the foreign gods that are among them (Yehoshua 24:23).
- Yaakov views the act of Shimon and Levi in Shekhem in a strongly negative light (Bereishit 34:30; 49:5-7).
- The reign of Avimelekh (Shoftim 9) was unquestionably a bad one.
- Shekhem is a place of divisiveness: first between Yosef and his brothers (Bereishit 34:13-15), then between the Kingdoms of Yisrael and Yehuda (I Melakhim 12). (In the Midrash Or Afeila  on Bereishit 35:2-4, Shekhem is referred to as the "bone of contention.")
Let us now try to consolidate the various aspects of the
city and to define its character. Our hypothesis is that Shekhem is the northern
gateway of Eretz Yisrael , the "firstborn" city of
As the "firstborn" city, Shekhem is given to Yosef the
firstborn son of Rachel, to whom Yaakov awards preference over the firstborn of
Leah (Bereishit 49:3-4; I Divrei Ha-yamim 5:1-2). The first place
is appropriate for a firstborn son, and by virtue of his status, Rachel's
firstborn son receives a double inheritance in Eretz Yisrael. The
significance of the birthright is sanctity of the body. This is the reason for
the special blessing of the Land that is found in Yosef's portion, which
highlights its connection to the firstborn of the sons through its special
fertility. It is no coincidence that "Mashiach ben Yosef" is the first
Messiah; he builds the physical, earthly dimension of the State, while
"Mashiach ben David" comes after him to build, on top of that
layer, the higher, spiritual level. Yosef the firstborn, sanctified with the
holiness of the "peter rechem," receives the fertile inheritance around
Shekhem, the "firstborn" city of
A gateway is, by definition, a place of transition
between two worlds - between that which is outside and that which is inside.
Therefore the entire Torah is written on the altar on
However, a gateway is not only a point of transition between worlds; it is also a point of meeting and contact between those inside and the world outside. This is hinted at in the separation from the nations of the Land expressed by Shimon and Levi in their war against Shekhem. It is no coincidence that Shekhem served, in later times, as the capital of the Samarians, a place where the uniqueness of Am Yisrael and the differences between them and the foreigners was made clear. In this context it is interesting to note Rav Kook's assertion concerning the uniqueness of Yosef:
The sanctity of Israel is to teach understanding to those who have gone astray, to mingle with the nations and to teach them the ways of God, as the prophet teaches: "Ephraim will intermingle among the nations" so as to bring sanctity also to the nations of the world, while Yehuda declares that the sanctity of Israel must be kept separate from the nations. (Shemu'ot Ra'aya, Parashat Vayeshev, pg. 73)
The fact that Shekhem is Yosef's capital explains this
possible role, where "Shimon and Levi were the first who put their lives at risk
for the sanctity of
But Shekhem's unique quality as a gateway separating two
worlds is expressed not only in the division between
However, there is another side to this coin. It is
specifically as a point of interface that a gateway has the potential to unify
"outside" and "inside." This potential explains why the Covenant of the Blessing
and the Curse takes place specifically in Shekhem on
In this context, the gathering that Yehoshua brings together in Shekhem at the end of his life is quite in keeping with the character of the city and has great significance. At this gathering, Yehoshua presents the nation, in very sharp terms, with a choice:
If it is bad in your eyes to serve God, then choose for yourselves today who you will serve whether it be the gods that your forefathers worshipped on the other side of the river, or the gods of the Emorites in whose land you dwell. But I and my household we shall serve God. (Yehoshua 24:15)
In other words, at this assembly in Shekhem man chooses
between God and the foreign deities. This is a sort of replica of the revelation
Yosef is Rachel's first-born son. The firstborn the
beginning holds infinite potential. Shekhem, the "firstborn" city of
B. BEIT EL 
Beit-El is characterized from the very outset, in the
stories of the forefathers, as "the" holy place. This is the place where Avraham
calls upon the Name of God for the first time in Eretz Yisrael
(Bereishit 12:5). It is interesting to note that after his journeys to
the Negev and to
However, the person who gives Beit-El its special status
is Yaakov, who stops there on his way to Charan, and who on his return journey
makes this place the Divine sanctuary of the forefathers . In this context,
attention should be paid to the fact that the city is referred to as "the place"
(ha-makom a title that occurs six times in Bereishit 28
and four times in Bereishit 35), and to the nature of the revelation
there: "This can only be the house of God, and this is the gateway to heaven!"
(Bereishit 28:17). The
In short all the elements that we have discussed the name "Beit-El," the ladder joining heaven and earth, the titles "the house of God" and "the gateway to heaven" all testify that this place was a natural "mikdash" for Avraham and Yaakov .
Once settled, Beit-El became the boundary between the tribes of Rachel's children Ephraim and Binyamin (Yehoshua 16:2; 18:13).
Following the episode of the "concubine in Giva," all of Bnei Yisrael gathered to wage war against Binyamin. We read:
They arose and went up to Beit-El, and they asked of God, and Bnei Yisrael said: Who shall go up first among us in war against the children of Binyamin? And God said, Yehuda first So all of Bnei Yisrael went up, and all the people, and the came to Beit-El, and they cried, and sat there before God and fasted on that day until the evening, and they offered up burnt offerings and peace offerings before God. Then Bnei Yisrael asked of God, for the Ark of God's covenant was there in those days. (Shoftim 20:18, 26-27)
What is the meaning of this gathering in Beit-El, and
why was the
It would seem that the primal sanctity of the city did not dissipate after the period of the forefathers, and Bnei Yisrael who were well aware of the holiness and uniqueness of that place chose to go there to ask of God, to cry, and to "sit there before God," to fast, and to offer sacrifices. And so it was to this place that the Ark of God's covenant was brought for that period of time. The place remained as holy as ever.
During Shmuel's time, too after the destruction of the Mishkan in Shilo the sanctity and uniqueness of Beit-El were preserved, as we understand from one of the signs that Shmuel gives Shaul on the day that he anoints him as king:
You will be met there by three men going up to God at Beit-El; one carrying three goat kids, one carrying three loaves of bread, and one carrying a bottle of wine. (I Shmuel 10:3)
During this period, too, then, Beit-El retained its uniqueness as a site for pilgrimage where people brought animals, bread, and wine.
Following the splitting of the kingdom, Yeravam who
rules over the Kingdom of Israel from Shekhem decides to separate the seat of
his reign from the place of worship , and places the two golden calves in
Dan and Beit-El (I Melakhim 12:29). The installment of the calves in Dan
and Beit-El is unquestionably related to the fact that these are border cities.
Yeravam establishes important centers of worship at the borders of the kingdom,
"border temples," as it were the northern one in Dan, the southern one in
Beit-El . But it is not by chance that specifically these two border towns
were chosen. Yeravam proposes, as it were, a religious alternative to
Various prophets addressed this religious worship in
Beit-El, especially Amos and Hoshea the latter regarding it as outright
idolatry and a betrayal of the covenant between God and
Beit-El's special status is maintained up until the end
In this shiur we have examined Shekhem and
Beit-El. In the next shiur we hope to address
 The spiritual significance of the expression, "a place destined (mezuman) for punishment" is itself an interesting subject. It appears that Chazal understand that a place has a certain character and essence in this case, one of bad things happening. This sits well with the assumption with which we introduced the first shiur that places in Eretz Yisrael each have their own character and essence. The scope of this shiur does not allow for further elaboration.
 Quoted in Rav Kasher's Torah Sheleima, Vayishlach 35, note 24.
 Obviously, by this we do not mean that Shekhem was an official, formal border. It was not neither in the Canaanite period (the period of the forefathers, during which the Land was inhabited in different region-states, each with its capital city); nor during the period of conquest and settlement; nor during the First Temple period, when the northern border of the northernmost tribes reached up to southern Lebanon of today. Our intention, rather, is mainly to characterize the place as a primal site through which the forefathers pass, thereby making everything north of it into an area that is of little significance in their lives. It is in this sense that Shekhem is indeed the northernmost point a sort of gateway.
 This clarifies the internal connection between
 In his commentary on Devarim 24:4-8, Rav
David Tzvi Hoffman writes that the Torah commands that the altar be built on the
northern mountain, just as the slaughter of the sacrifices for the Holy of
Holies in the Mishkan and in the
 This idea is discussed in a wonderful booklet by Rav Yisrael Leibowitz, "Tavor ha-Aretz," published by Yeshivat Od Yosef Chai, Shevat 5748, pp. 14-19.
 Rechavam's move to Shekhem may have been a concealed
aspiration for unity. As we read there: "For it was to Shekhem that all of
 While in Avraham's journeys reference is always made to the station "between Beit-El and Ai," in the stories of Yaakov the text speaks of Beit-El alone. After Yehoshua's time Ai disappeared as a place of any significance, and for all subsequent generations only Beit-El remains as an important site.
 It is no coincidence that despite the revelation at
the time of the Akeida, Yaakov does not choose
 Chazal identify the revelation at Beit-El as
taking place upon
It is interesting to note that Yitzchak does not visit Beit-El at all. As we saw in the previous shiur, Yaakov follows in many senses the route set out by Avraham, while Yitzchak has an independent route. The scope of this shiur does not allow for elaboration.
 Unlike David and Shlomo, who chose to unite the
place of their reign
 Obviously, one of the major objectives in
presenting a golden calf in Beit-El was to prevent pilgrims from visiting
 Dan, too, has significance that relates to the forefathers: this is the place that Avraham reached in his pursuit of the four kings (Bereishit 14:14).
 See, for example, Hoshea 4:15; 5:8; 8:5; 10:5-16; 13:2.
Translated by Kaeren Fish