The Story of Jerusalem (Yom Yerushalaim)

photo: Esther Hugenholtz, 2011

Jerusalem – An Eternal Story (talk given at the Leeds Yom Yerushalaim celebration)
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz 

For a Jerusalem summer it was unseasonably hot, the mercury of the thermometer pushing past 45 degrees and it was the thick of Ramadan. I wove my way through the Arab sector of the Old City after having visited the Kotel with a friend of mine where we had offered Mincha prayers. Out of respect for the fasting – and probably very thirsty - Muslim population, I discreetly hid my water bottle. We walked past an entrepreneurial Muslim vendor who was selling limonana – the refreshing mint lemonade – to eager tourists, despite the fast. My friend decided to buy some and after friendly ‘salaams’, the vendor offered me a plastic cup for free. 

It was a simple and friendly in a city where despite her sweeping and at times difficult history, hospitality remains a core value. Despite the force of history, a Jew and a Muslim met over a cup of limonana, reminiscent of Abraham welcoming his guests in the heat of the day. 

For those of us who have spent time in Jerusalem, we all have such stories. Whether it’s the warm (and at times obnoxious!) curiosity of the taxi drivers, haggling for tchotchkes in the Old City or enjoying a gourmet dinner in the glitz of Mamilla Mall; the ancient and contemporary coexist, making Jerusalem timeless and evocative. 

Our connection and relationship with the city runs deep, from the moment the priest-king Melchitzedek blesses Abraham (then still Abram) in Genesis 14:18. Already then, amidst the war of kings, Jerusalem is associated with Divine peace. Our walk through the winding paths of Jerusalem continues all throughout Biblical history. Sometimes the road is broad and tranquil, sometimes it is narrow and fraught with difficulty. But always it leads to a beautiful vista of the City of Gold, in the words of the psalmist; ‘yafeh nof, mesos kol ha’aretz, har Tzion’ - ‘beautiful in elevation is the joy of all the earth, Mount Zion’ (Ps. 48:2). 

There’s a rabbinic concept of ‘Yerushalaim la’ma’alah’, the Supernal Jerusalem, corresponding to ‘Yerushalaim la’matah’, the earthly Jerusalem. Or, in the words of the writer Simon Sebag Montefiore, ‘Jerusalem is the house of the One God, the capital of two peoples, the temple of three religions’. He goes on to say, ‘The very fact that Jerusalem is both terrestrial and celestial means that the city can exist everywhere; new Jerusalems have been founded all over the world and everyone has their own vision of Jerusalem…’ Perhaps then, there’s a Yerushalaim bifnim – an internal Jerusalem. The Jerusalem that we carry with us; our vibrant connection to our Judaism, our love for the ancient renewed through lived experience and our appreciation of culture and diversity. 

Amidst the visions of prophets, the teaching of sages and the songs of poets, what is our ‘story’ of Jerusalem? We can shape it, write it and live it. The Rabbis taught that a possible etymology of Yerushalaim is ‘Yir’ah Shalom’ – where peace is seen. On this happy day of celebration, where even in rainy and windy Northern England, we hold Jerusalem close, the warmth of its stones cupped in our hands, let us think of all the powerful ways in which the city resonates with us. 

Jerusalem is the religious heart of the world: not only as an actual place for us to visit and fall in love with, to which the Jewish people have oriented themselves throughout the millennia, but as a powerful idea. Jerusalem calls us to be peace-makers, to rejoice in our Judaism, to heed the redemptive words of an Isaiah or Jeremiah; for us as a Jewish people, for all the citizens of that great city, Jew, Christian and Muslim and ultimately for all the world. 

As Isaiah spoke so many centuries ago: ‘For Zion's sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem's sake I will not be quiet, until her righteousness goes forth as brightness, and her salvation as a burning torch.’ (Isaiah 62:2) 
Let us ‘pray for the peace of Jerusalem’ and may we all be secure, those of us across the globe, of many faiths and backgrounds, ‘who love her’: ‘sha’alu shalom Yerushalaim, yishla’u ohavaich’ (Ps. 122:6). 

‘Ken yehi ratzon’, may this be God’s will.


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