If I Forget Thee O’ Jerusalem
This week on the 28th of Iyar (Wed, 8th May) we celebrate the 46th anniversary of the liberation of the Old City of Jerusalem from Jordanian occupation and city’s reunification during the Six Day War in 1967. The Jewish people have a special relationship with the Land of Israel, but our bond with the city of Jerusalem is as deep as the bond between mother and child. Jerusalem is first mentioned as the city of Malchizedek, the grandson of Shem, a monotheistic priest who greeted Abraham with bread and wine. It was to the mountain near that city, Mt. Moriah, that Abraham later came for the binding of Isaac. The city was originally called Shalem, which means “whole” or “peaceful” but Abraham renamed it “Yireh,” “God will see.” God combined these two names and called the city “Yerushalayim,” Jerusalem. When Jacob fled Israel to escape his brother Esau, he lay down to sleep on Mt. Moriah the night before leaving the land. There he dreamed of a ladder that extended from the earth to the heavens. The ladder symbolized the future role of Jerusalem as the site of the Holy Temple which joined together heaven and earth.
Jerusalem was the capital during both the First and Second Commonwealths (first and second Temples). It was chosen by King David with the assistance of Samuel the prophet, and King Solomon built the Temple there. The Sanhedrin, the supreme court of Israel, had its seat in Jerusalem, and Jews from all over Israel and the Diaspora would come to them for guidance. Today, Jerusalem remains the capital of the State of Israel.
Even the geography of Jerusalem reflects the role of the city. Jerusalem is situated near the trade routes connecting Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. It is in proximity to, but not part of, the civilizations of Egypt, Babylon, Greece, Phoenicia, Rome, Persia, Arabia and Assyria. Jerusalem is located on a mountain, because it is meant to be a beacon, but it is also surrounded by mountains to show that it must remain somewhat isolated and insulated from foreign influences. Jerusalem is meant to be a place where people absorb spirituality, learn morality and find a connection to the Divine. Many empires have conquered Jerusalem, many pilgrims have passed through, and Jerusalem has left an imprint on them all. As the Sages said,
“Jerusalem is the light of the world, and who is the light of Jerusalem? The Holy One, Blessed Be He.”
We who, unfortunately, live outside of Israel pray facing the Land of Israel, and those in Israel all pray facing Jerusalem. Every time we eat bread or food made of grain, we mention Jerusalem in the blessing that we say afterwards. We mention Jerusalem in every prayer, every day of the year. Numerous commandments, laws and customs relate specifically to Jerusalem. On the pilgrimage festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot, Jews from all over Israel would gather to celebrate in Jerusalem. Once in seven years, the entire Jewish people would assemble in Jerusalem, and the king would read from the Torah in their presence. The new moon was proclaimed by the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, and even today, our calendar is coordinated with the first appearance of the new moon over Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the focus of religious, national and legal events to such an extent that the Sages wrote, “Jerusalem is the city that joins together all the Jewish people.” Even today, when a Jew arrives in Jerusalem for the first time, there is a feeling of having come home to the most beautiful city in the world. As the Talmud states:
Ten measures of beauty came down to the world; nine were taken by Jerusalem, one by the rest of the world. At every Jewish wedding the groom breaks a glass under the Chupah to fulfill the ancient oath in Psalm 137 that we must never forget,
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember you, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.