The mountain air is as clear as wine,
And the scent of pine trees
Is carried on the evening breeze
With the sound of bells.
And in the slumber of tree and stone
Captive in her dream
Is the city that dwells alone
And in her heart, a wall.
Jerusalem of gold
And of copper and of light
Am I not, for all your songs, a harp?
During this last year, the extraordinary woman who wrote those words and the music to which they are set was called to her eternal reward. Naomi Shemer wrote a song of love and longing for Jerusalem that she was prepared to release in June of 1967. It ended on a melancholy note, not because her verse was maudlin, but because the wall in the heart of the city was inaccessible to people like Naomi Shemer and Jack Moline and you – the Jews of the world who cherished Jerusalem. In six miraculous days, a new reality settled over Israel, and a new verse was penned for the song – one that celebrated the victory of light over gloom, of joyful noise over the sounds of silence, of the shofar at the Temple Mount. "Yerushalayim shel Zahav" became an instant classic, and Naomi Shemer began more than thirty years as the harp for all the city's songs of gold and of copper and of light.
Behind me, on either side of the ark, are four pillars embraced by an artistic representation of the city of Jerusalem. You have been looking at those pillars for three years now, and they have probably become old hat to you. But to my surprise, they continue to draw me in as I stand on this bima week in and week out, perhaps because of what they inspire.
These pillars represent our Jerusalem. We may sing "Jerusalem of Gold," but these pillars are our "Jerusalem of Purple." When papercut genius Tamar Fishman began to design them, she asked me for input – what verses should she include on the four versions that would frame the ark? I thought it through, I consulted with some synagogue leaders, and I gave her four verses.
She was enormously disappointed.
Tamar had her own verses in mind, and I didn't choose any of them. But, since she had the Exacto knife, she managed to incorporate them anyway. If you look at the original, the pillar, or the reproduction on the back cover of our reflection booklet, you will find her references: House of Prayer, City of David, Faithful Town, Lion of God, Mount Zion, Joy of All the Land, Holy Mountain, Beautiful Overlook, Mount of the Seasons, City of Righteousness. You will see riding the crest of the distant mountains a verse from Psalms: Jerusalem, built as a city entirely bound together. If you know about Jerusalem in the Bible, all of the references resonate for you with the foundational history of our nation. If you know about Jerusalem in the midrash, each of the images calls to mind stories of glory and tragedy, of hope and despair, of God's presence revealed and God's lesson's taught. If you know about Jerusalem in contemporary history, you know that the verse from Psalms – "a city entirely bound together" – raises political questions, ethical questions and even questions about our very survival.
Tamar is not here to answer for herself, so I leave her choices without further comment, because my purpose today is to look at the four choices I made and what they meant to me. So I guess I should be honest.
First of all, I chose them because they were brief – just a few words.
Secondly, I chose them because I knew the people whose contributions had made those pillars possible – Elliot Stein, Hazel Charles, Helene and Norman Schrott and our synagogue board.
And thirdly, I chose them because I love Jerusalem, and I knew that when I had the chance to talk with you about these verses, I would be able to tell you why I love Jerusalem. I am no Naomi Shemer, but whatever music I can play upon my harp, I cannot help but share.
A few words about Jerusalem itself. We Jews did not found the city, nor did our Israelite ancestors, nor did their Hebrew forebears. Jerusalem was first settled 5000 years ago. Abraham visited it 2000 years later, and more than a thousand years after that David and Solomon developed it as the seat of government and, more importantly, the place where God's glory dwelled.
Its name is shrouded in a certain ambiguity that is somehow appropriate for a city of ambiguous identity. Perhaps it means "City of Peace." Perhaps it means "They Shall See Wholeness." Perhaps it was named for a local pagan god whose name in an ancient tongue sounded enough like the later Hebrew term shalom to resonate with Israelite residents. It really doesn't matter. The love affair between our people and this unlikely city has made it represent the soul of Jewish life.
Jerusalem suffered when we suffered. It wept when we wept. When we were exiled in body, Jerusalem was exiled in spirit. As much as we longed for Jerusalem, Jerusalem longed for us. We end each Yom Kippur and Pesach hoping to be next year in Jerusalem; we yearn for a renewed Jerusalem in every expression of gratitude to God for the food we eat. Three times each weekday we pray for Jerusalem. Never for a moment, as we wandered this world, did we relinquish our claim to a place we had not called our own since the year 70, for 1,935 years, since the summer of the Hebrew year 3830.
At the same time, Jerusalem rejoiced when we rejoiced. From the pageantry of Solomon's dedication through nearly a thousand years of thrice-yearly pilgrimage festivals, Jerusalem became the holidays we celebrated. Whenever two Jews married – in Jerusalem itself or in Warsaw, Fez, Shanghai or Springfield – the rabbi would assure them that the act of their marriage caused the voice of joy and gladness, of groom and bride to be heard in the streets and courtyards of Jerusalem. And every Friday night as we greet the Sabbath bride with the words of L'kha Dodi, we spend two verses extolling Shabbat and seven more reaching across the miles to the embrace of the Holy City of Jerusalem.
Jerusalem has a history that is at the center of Jewish history. But it also has a history that is significant for lots of other people as well. It may not sit at the center of Arab and Muslim sacred geography, but it is an anchor nonetheless. Christianity, which has eschewed the location of its early history as anything other than incidental to its faith, nonetheless lays claim to gardens, sepulchers, valleys and stations along a road as destinations of pilgrimage, objects of devotion and, during one memorable era, spoils of an aggressive military campaign to impose its values on the infidels who occupied it.
Today, Jerusalem is many times the size it was when it was founded, many times the size it was in 1948 when Israel became a state. The neighborhoods that have grown up within the expanded city limits were built not to house people, but to house dreams. In each neighborhood a dream is nurtured of a unified Jerusalem – one entirely ultra-religious, another a smorgasbord of culture, a third the symbol of Palestine reborn, yet another an international center for believers in Jesus. My friend Charlene Visconti once said to me, "Jerusalem is a holy place, but not a happy place." She is, of course, correct. But I am never as clear-eyed as I am when I am in Jerusalem about every matter save one – why I do not live there. And for that reason, I share with you a few words about these pillars and the Biblical verses that adorn them.
Dabru al lev yerushalem, Speak to the heart of Jerusalem.
In "Jerusalem of Gold," in her heart is a wall. But is that wall the heart of Jerusalem? I could make the case that there is a rock atop the Temple Mount, encased by a golden dome, that is the heart of Jerusalem – the place Isaac was bound. The arch of the Hurva synagogue in the Old City could be the heart. Or perhaps the neighborhood of Ein Karem, where Hadassah Hospital stands. The marketplaces – one in the Arab Quarter, one off Jaffa Road – beat with a constant rhythm. Mount Herzl, the military cemetery, and Yad Vashem, the memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, are neighbors and arguably the broken heart of Jerusalem. In fact, it was as we sat at Yad Vashem on a warm morning that Elliot Stein first told us of his own experiences as a survivor. There is a falafel stand on King George at Ben Yehuda that is quite possibly the heartburn of Jerusalem. Where shall I speak? And what shall I say?
Isaiah wants us to speak words of comfort, and there are certainly plenty of places to do that. Travel on virtually any bus – the number one from the Kotel to Meah Sh'arim, the number 18 through Jaffa Road, any of the creaky blue busses that take you to East Jerusalem – and you will find a place in need of comfort. Here there was an explosion, there a shooting, over there a car crash. A holy place, but not a happy place.
Jerusalem certainly speaks words of comfort to my heart. Perhaps if I listen more closely, I will know what they are and how I shouldrespond. And perhaps those words will lead me to the heart of the city.
Jerusalem whispers a word insistently to me. The word is "home." Those of you who have heard this whisper understand it; those of you who have not listen to me with skepticism. Your home is in the Commonwealth of Virginia, the District of Columbia, the United States of America. You are correct and you are not. I live and eat and sleep around the corner, I pay a monthly mortgage and an awful lot of property taxes on that address, I keep my stuff there. It is my destination and a place of belonging when I arrive, whether from ten minutes of minyan or an extended stay in Jerusalem. But at a deeper level, a place that seems to well up from a crusted crevice in my soul, I belong in Jerusalem. So many things are alien to me – the smells, the accents, the nationalities, even, to my dismay, the language. But unmistakably, Jerusalem is the place where, when I have to go there, it has to take me in.
A sea of human voices seems to want to make that message "come home," and indeed they should. But what Jerusalem says to my heart is not a command, but a reassurance. It is not a criticism, but an existential fact. It points not to a fault line, but to a foundation.
And that is what I must speak to the heart of Jerusalem as well. When Jerusalem has to come to me, I have to take it in. Jerusalem resides within me, it belongs in me. Jerusalem plucks at my heartstrings and I become its harp for songs of gold and of copper and of light. What Jerusalem brings to me is holiness, that is, intimacy with all that is sacred. It is my highest joy. What Jerusalem needs from me is happiness, and I must find a way to bring it there. This is the message I shall speak to the heart of Jerusalem: sisu et yerushalyim gilu va kol ohaveha, "make Jerusalem rejoice, put gladness within, all you who love her," to take small liberty with the Hebrew.
And Jerusalem is not happy when her children – any of her children – cannot hear her message: home.
Where is the heart of Jerusalem? For me, it sits just below what is known as Robinson's Arch, the fraction of an architectural feature that juts out of the southern end of the Western Wall. Above it sits the Mosque of Omar. Beneath it, where Israeli archeologists painstakingly excavated, sits a street paved when Hillel and Shammai strolled through the Holy City. Huge cubes of Jerusalem stone lie heaped on the road, where they landed on that summer day in 3830, pushed from the top as the Romans destroyed the Temple grounds from within. Jerusalem's tears are made of stone, and they fall as permanent reminders to all who would break her heart. It is there I stand, my hand reaching back across 1,935 years of longing, and I speak to the heart of Jerusalem.
Einekha tir'ena yerushalem; Your eyes shall behold Jerusalem.
Do you think that the chorus of Naomi Shemer's song is just beautiful poetry? It is not.
The image she appropriated was an actual object 2000 years ago. The wealthy women of Jerusalem would often be adorned with a piece of jewelry known as "yerushalayim shel zahav," a crown of gold that was made to resemble the walls of the city. Think of it as the Talmudic version of the Sisterhood donor pin.
But why was it made of gold and not of silver or of vibrant fabric? And why, if it was gold, was it Jerusalem per se, and not a forest, a mountain range, a constellation of stars?
Because there is a certain moment of every day when Jerusalem turns to gold, and to copper and to light. If you are fortunate enough to be standing atop the Mount of Olives or on the Midrachov, the panoramic overlook near Talpiyot, as the sun drops low in the sky, you will see it, and it will take your breath away, even if you have seen it a thousand times. The city that seems to be carved from the mountains that surround it suddenly lifts ever so slightly, buoyed by the golden glow that momentarily makes the Dome of the Rock and the Russian Orthodox Church unnoticeable. People talk about the quality of light in Paris in soaring terms and reverential awe. But Jerusalem's light leaves you speechless.
I can walk through any neighborhood in Jerusalem and my eyes will behold the city as it is. I am someone whose attention is easily distracted, and yet in Jerusalem my eyes feast with ravenous intensity wherever I am. The texture of the paving stones, the rainbow pallet of the spice stores, the varieties of fonts for Hebrew, Arabic and English – I stare, perhaps a little too hard, because I know there is a detail that makes an candy store in Jerusalem different from a candy store anywhere else. The texture of the faces of the people who walk the streets, the rainbow pallet of their skin, the varieties of accents of Hebrew, Arabic and English – and French and German and Japanese and Hindi – I stare, perhaps a little too hard, because I know there is a reason beyond the obvious that each person is in this city.
Maybe I don't live in Jerusalem because of this mystical tendency it stirs within me. I don't trust it. Some people succumb to its seductive urgings to look below the surface; they suffer from what is known as the Jerusalem Syndrome, wandering the streets in search of their past identity as King David, or their future mandate as King Messiah. But just because I don't trust the mystical aura of Jerusalem does not mean I don't acknowledge it. It has been so powerful for so long that our tradition posits that there are actually two Jerusalems – an earthly Jerusalem, yerushalyim shel mata, and a heavenly Jerusalem, yerushalayim shel maalah. For a time they coexisted on the same plane. That was the city our sages described as possessing nine-tenths of the world's beauty, a place of glory like no other on earth.
But when we went into exile, so, too, did Jerusalem, along with nine-tenths of the world's beauty. That glorious Jerusalem remains like a memory, a ghost, a fleeting shadow on the earth-bound city it left behind. Consider it a metropolitan Midas, only the golden touch creates a secret wealth for the people and the buildings and the busses, as difficult to see as sunshine on a cloudy day.
Yet at that hour when Jerusalem becomes of gold, for a moment the heavenly Jerusalem rides the setting sun and gently kisses the earthly Jerusalem so that it should not ever forget and neither should anyone whose eyes behold Jerusalem. Larry and Hazel Charles took one look and were captivated and committed to it for the rest of their lives. When I see that moment, I am aware of everything that Jerusalem can yet become. The beauty that has been chased from this world, measure by measure, by exiles and armed conflicts, by needless hatred between siblings and needless hatred between cousins, by self-righteousness and pious posturing and exploitative corruption, by all the impurities and injuries that the dreamers inflict as they covet the holy city on their own exclusive terms – at that moment, Jerusalem of gold and of copper and of light returns to let my eyes behold Jerusalem for the once and future jewel it is.
V'nikr'a yerushalem ir ha'emet. Jerusalem shall be called the City of Truth.
As most of you know, whether you have heard it from me or from someone else, Hebrew is not always a precise language. Much of the endeavor of Biblical commentary and Talmudic discourse, not to mention midrash, is possible only because the meaning of words and phrases in Hebrew has a lot of wiggle room. Ir ha'Emet can mean two different things. It can either mean the City of Truth – that is, the city where you find truth or City of the Truth –– that is, the city made entirely of truth. Either way, it is one heck of a mandate. And if it is both, it is a mind-bending challenge.
One thing that has no wiggle room is that this particular verse, from the Book of Zechariah, is phrased in the future. In Zechariah's time, Jerusalem was not yet Ir ha'Emet. In our time, I dare say not much progress has been made. What Jerusalem demands of me is that I take the prophet's challenge seriously. What I seek within its city limits I must also seek within the limits of my being.
There are lots of people who will tell you that Jerusalem should be called City of the Truth. Ultra-nationalist Jews, those of the religious bent and those of the secular bent, will insist that Jewish sovereignty and domination in all of Jerusalem must be exclusive. They base their claim on some version of history, reading it either religiously or against the claims of contemporary nationalism. That truth on which Jerusalem is founded is a Jewish truth, forged in a promise from God or a 2000-year-old struggle to return to the place where our national identity was forged.
The most vocal and public of Muslim spokespeople – imams and mullahs and princes and prime ministers – will insist that Al-Quds has been an Arab Muslim city since there was such a thing as Islam. They will claim that Jews and Christians are interlopers, intent on polluting the purity of Muslim law and Muslim faith by imposing their values and practices where they do not belong. The truth on which Jerusalem rests is an Islamic truth, revealed by God through the last of the prophets, who ascended to heaven on a horse that leapt from the rock on which Abraham offered not Isaac, but Ishmael.
It has been almost sixty years since any group of Christians laid claim to political domination of Jerusalem, but there remain plenty of Christians – including plenty of mainline Protestant and Orthodox Christians – who will insist that Jerusalem was and will be the stage on which the triumphal rule of Jesus of Nazareth takes place. For them, the forces of light and darkness are preparing for a conflict that will provoke worldwide calamity. At that point, faithful Christians will stream to Jerusalem to be welcomed into a world perfected under a trinitarian kingdom. The truth on which Jerusalem rests is a Christian truth, articulated in the Christian Scriptures and elaborated by saints and seers to this very day.
These extreme advocates have only two things in common – a belief in the unique correctness of what they promote and an intolerance for those who disagree with them, and that includes members of their own religious communities. If Jerusalem is City of the Truth, then only one of them is right or, more likely, all of them are wrong about the nature of that truth.
On the other hand, if Jerusalem is the City of Truth, then all who come looking for it will find it there. If the Jerusalem shall be called the City of Truth, then all who sincerely search for truth will be welcomed, not excluded or divided from other seekers. It can be no other way in the place that God's glory dwelled. We affirm it every time we recite Ashrei: karov H' l'khol kor'av, l'khol asher yikra'uhu be'emet, "God is near to all who call upon God, to all who call upon God in truth." To all who call, not just to all Jews who call.
Helene and Norman Schrott know how that is. They are people of exceptional integrity who lived through Alexandria's struggle to overcome exclusivity and division. Norman will tell you how difficult that process was. He will also tell you how much his own heart opened as he realized the difference between seeking the truth and believing you already had it.
For me, that is the challenge of Jerusalem. For me, Jerusalem challenges me to be truthful – truthful about the multiplicity of claims to this heavenly city on earth, and equally truthful about my own wishful thinking and liberal values. To be worthy to be in the City of Truth, I must be a person of truth.
L'ma'an yerushalem lo eshkot. For the sake of Jerusalem, I will not be silent.
The pillar that bears this verse was dedicated by the Board of Directors of the congregation. Members of our staff participated as well. They spoke up when it was important. The verse also gives the board a reason not to be silent; any of you who have attended our board meetings will be able to confirm that they have lived up to this mandate.
For us as Jews, Jerusalem is the very center of the world. My heart is in the east, my eyes are directed there in prayer, my integrity demands that I recognize the extraordinary qualities of the place. From the center of the center of our world, the mandates to speak with my heart, to see with my eyes, to seek the truth with my life emanates outward, radiating like the ripples from a pebble tossed into a still pond. Throughout Israel, throughout the Middle East, throughout the world, throughout our lives, the intersection of heaven and earth, of holiness and happiness means that for the sake of Jerusalem, I will not be silent.
I will speak for Jerusalem's benefit wherever I can. In just a few months, AIPAC will launch a program to engage local synagogues in advocacy on behalf of Israel. I hope we will have the wisdom to be among the very first. But you do not have to wait to get connected. AIPAC and many other advocacy groups with a variety of political perspectives will welcome your individual involvement.
But it is not just as a member of activist groups that I will not be silent. You may not know that stepped down from the Alexandria Interfaith Association presidency a few years ago so that I could advocate in interfaith circles on a more partisan basis. I did not feel I needed to be neutral with Presbyterians and Episcopalians, nor with so-called Christian Zionists. I am a voice for reconciliation when I meet among my many circles of colleagues in the interfaith world. But I have no generosity of spirit when my partners in dialogue associate themselves with language or policies that threaten Jerusalem and what it represents.
I will speak for Jerusalem's benefit whenever I can. This past summer I spent two wonderful weeks with 20 wonderful members of this congregation, first among them Brianna Zuckerman, where we witnessed the frustration of our fellow Conservative Jews who find themselves struggling just to maintain the congregations and institutions that you and I presume exist in every center of Jewish life. They need our direct support, and they need our votes through MERCAZ in the upcoming World Zionist Congress elections, information on which is in the reflection booklet.
I will speak for Jerusalem's benefit whenever I can. No religious tradition holds an exclusive patent on the righteousness. How much the more so does no political or governmental group. For that matter, neither do I and neither do you. Jerusalem demands that we seek peace and wholeness, and peace and wholeness mean justice. When I speak out on matters of conscience – and when you speak out on behalf of your convictions, on behalf of the oppressed, on behalf of the suffering, on behalf of what is right and good – for the sake of Jerusalem, we are not silent. The work we do for community is sacred, like the board of this congregation that dedicated this pillar, like each of you who work with philanthropies, advocacy groups and community service organizations.
I do not have a good answer about why I cannot live in Jerusalem. But at the very least, I can affirm that Jerusalem lives in me. I have no plan to recommend to you to solve its dilemmas, but neither am I willing to resign myself to them. What it represents on the ground and what it represents in the heavens are greater than the parcel of land on which it sits or the location on a map on which it is found. The heart of Jerusalem may bring me comfort. The eyes of Jerusalem may bring me light. The truth of Jerusalem may bring me challenge, and each may cause me to reflect in silent awe. But only for a moment.
For what the heart feels, what the eyes see, what the truth demands cannot be stilled.
On the last night of our trip to Israel, we attended the opening night of the Maccabi games. Among the many performers that night was a middle-aged singer named Shuly Natan. It was she, an 18-year-old soldier and singer, who took to the stage for the Independence Day Song Festival in 1967 and sang Naomi Shemer's new song. Almost forty years later, she stood before tens of thousands of Jewish sports fans from around the world and hushed them with these words:
Akh b'vo'i hayom lashir lakh, v'lakh likshor k'tarim...
Now when I come to sing to you
And weave you crowns of praise
I am less than your youngest children
And the least skilled of your poets
For your very name sears my lips
Like an angel's kiss
"If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,"
whose every part is gold.