Behar Bechukotai 2017: Dreaming of a Redeemed Jerusalem on Yom Yerushalayim 2017

Verse 1

Avir harim tsalul k’yayin
Vereiyach oranim
Nissah beru’ach ha’arbayim
Im kol pa’amonim.

U’vtardemat ilan va’even
Shvuyah bachalomah
Ha’ir asher badad yoshevet
Uvelibah – chomah.

Verse 1

The mountain air is clear as water
The scent of pines around
Is carried on the breeze of twilight,
And tinkling bells resound.

The trees and stones there softly slumber,
A dream enfolds them all.
So solitary lies the city,
And at its heart — a wall.

Yerushalayim shel zahav
Veshel nechoshet veshel or
Halo lechol shirayich Ani kinor.
Oh, Jerusalem of gold,
and of light and of bronze,
I am the lute for all your songs.

50 years ago, this week, Naomi Shemer wrote this iconic song about Jerusalem, Yerushalayim Shel zahav. Of course, when this song was written, it reflected the anxieties of the Israeli state, a city that not only sat alone but felt isolated from the world. Unclear of its ability to be protected by itself or the supposed guarantors in the west, the Israel of May of 1967 was deep with anxiety and peril. As we fast forward a month in the Secular calendar, but this week in the Jewish calendar as we approach Yom Yerushalayim, we realize that the shift from May 1967 to June 1967 was so profound in the psyche of the Israeli public and the Jewish world, that Naomi Shemer needed to add another verse-I will get back to that in a moment.

As we get ready to approach this day, Yom Yerushalyim, the day of reunification of sorts of Jerusalem, we need to ask ourselves, how do we approach this day? Is it really a unified city? What does that mean? Who governs it? Who controls it? And is it being run like we believe it should?

Over the past several weeks I have had the privilege of confronting this question, first as I sat on the rooftops overlooking the Kotel, as I listened to one of the 3 famous Paratroppers who gave us back our wall and thought about what this wall had seen; And then I thought about this day when I listened to Yossi Klein HaLevi in Jerusalem and then again this week in NYC, as he spoke about “May 1967 Jews” and “June 1967 Jews” a fascinating distinction between 2 groups of people-

The May 1967 Jews see themselves as perpetually alone and on high alert that at any given moment the world will turn against on and the June 1967 Jews who are confident and comfortable with Israel’s power and want to understand how to use that power for stronger relationships with those in the midst, not just Jewish Israeli citizens. He raises the question of who are the powerful and the powerless, and the impact of Jerusalem reunified is something that continues to be confronted today, and will be confronted this week in Israel.

In fact, there is a question of how does one celebrate Yom Yerushalyaim. Some people march with Israeli flags through the Muslim quarter and through areas of the west bank-taunting the Palestinians and -flags or some walk through those same streets and alleyways with flowers. Now Yossi Klein HaLevi takes a clear approach. He believes that “we can celebrate the victory without celebrating humiliation, and since a self confident people don’t need to gloat, the marches that take place with flags through Muslim areas are not only offensive, they are unhelpful.”

But we of course want to celebrate this beautiful, unified city and there is much to celebrate-For anyone who has been there we know that our senses are heightened-the feel of the stones, the smell of the foods, the sounds of the children, the sights-both modern and ancient. But we need to understand the reality of what Jerusalem is, not the vision of what we think it is, in order to actually live in it, or support those who do.

Jerusalem is actually quite diverse

I recently facilitated a focus group on Jerusalem sponsored by the JPPI[1] and share the following information: From 1967 to the present, the percentage of the non-Jewish population in Jerusalem has been rising, reaching over 1/3 of the total Jerusalem population. (Much higher than the 22% out of the total population of the State of Israel).

Another way of looking at Jerusalem is just the diversity within the Jewish population:

In the years 2006-2008, the composition of the Jewish population in Jerusalem was as follows: 20% secular Jews, 33% traditional Jews (19% traditional not religious Jews, 14% traditional, religious Jews), 18% religious and 29% Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox).

In general, the Jerusalem population is one of large families, with many children, low employment levels, relatively low level of education, and a high rate of poverty – higher than the average city in Israel. This is especially true of the Arab population of East Jerusalem – where nearly 80% (!) of the families are under the poverty line. In the Jewish population of Jerusalem, many of the impoverished families are from the Haredi (ultra-orthodox) population

And…Michelle Chabin-an Israeli who is a Jerusalemite and a reporter for USA today wrote in last week’s Jewish week[2]:

As a present-day resident of Jerusalem it’s difficult for me to imagine that the city was once considered a pathetic little backwater of a place. When Mark Twain visited here in 1867, the writer noted that “a fast walker could go outside the walls of Jerusalem and walk entirely around the city in an hour. I do not know how else to make one understand how small it is.”

I suppose Twain had envisioned Jerusalem as a grand city based on the number of pilgrims who traveled thousands of miles to visit it, and not a downtrodden little town. When I drive up to Jerusalem I sometimes wonder what Twain and Zionist leaders like Theodor Herzl and David Ben-Gurion would think of today’s Jerusalem, which now has 800,000 residents, 150,000 more than Boston, for example.

Would they marvel at the new high-rises that dot the creamy stone skyline, the sparkling malls and the trendy new restaurants in the suddenly hip Mahane Yehuda market? Or would they frown at the urban sprawl and the huge gap between those who live in squalor and those who spend $2 million or more for a flat they occupy only twice a year, on Passover and Sukkot.

Fascinating-this is a city in flux. But it is our beloved city. And one that we want to be a part of forever. So how do we balance what it is, and all its complexities, and what we want it to be.

We turn to this week’s parasha of Behar and Bechukotai and realize that there is wisdom in what was read earlier on this bimah. That the land, Israel, Jerusalem, is a land to be redeemed. Ever 50 years it returns to its owners. Now, I am not arguing that we give back united Jerusalem. I am not suggesting that the kotel isn’t part of Israel or that Jews don’t have a connection to the place. Of course we do. I am going beyond the human experience and to the spiritual realm. In Leviticus this week we read:

Leviticus 25:23 The land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is mine, you are a resident in it; It needs to be redeemed-

You see, it isn’t fully ours. We need Jerusalem to be a place that feels redemptive. We need to understand, as Yossi Klein HaLevi shares, that when we look at Yom Yerushalyim, the day, and Yerushalayim, the city, we do so with Gratitude and Sobriety.

Gratitude for sovereignty, safety, freedom that we have with an awareness of how that day transformed the Jewish people-

But we should also approach it with sobriety-for what the result was for others for as he said- “He doesn’t regret the defeat of the others on that day, but he is sorry for their humiliation.” And we of course must acknowledge it and talk about it.

Are we redeemed yet? No of course not.

We are a people out of balance-not a surprise. We seem to be always on the verge of apocalypse or euphoria-we literally can’t find our center and that is part of what is hard.

So what do we do? First, we can reflect on Naomi Shemer’s words in the verse that she added, which articulate what we hope for the future-hoping that there will be a sense of unity and fullness that could embrace the city.

Verse 2

Chazarnu el borot hamayim
Lashuk velakikar
Shofar koreh behar habayit
ba’ir ha’atikah.Uvme’arot asher baselah
Alfei shmashot zorchot
Nashuv nered el Yam Hemalach
B’derech Yericho
Verse 2

The wells are filled again with water,
The square with joyous crowd,
On the Temple Mount within the City,
The shofar rings out loud.

Within the caverns in the mountains
A thousand suns will glow,
We’ll take the Dead Sea road together,
That runs through Jericho.

So…what is Jerusalem today…Is it united? yes; Is it divided? Yes.

So we need to work to redeem it. As Yossi Klein HaLevi said in conclusion about Jerusalem:

We are custodians but we are not owners, we cannot ever fully possess it-but we have to govern wisely, govern generously, and we need to be the ones to keep governing.

So what does a redeemed land look like? I believe it is the following:

Justice for all its inhabitants

Compassion for all its people

Fairness and equity for each resident

Safety and security for all who walk the streets

The ability for people to get on the light rail and appreciate the variety of neighborhoods they are driving through but aren’t simultaneously concerned about an attack; the ability to pray at the Kotel as proud, egalitarian Jews, who don’t want to be called Nazis if their women wear tefillin; a city where there can be a spectrum of wealth but that poverty doesn’t persist.

A redeemed land is one that we recognize our humility-that we want the gold shine of Jerusalem to shine on all of us-a reminder that when the sun hits the stones and there is a special twinkle that we are all God’s children.

Tonight, on the eve of Yom Yerushalyim, I hope you will all be here to listen to Dan Ephron who will recall the tragic moment where Jew killed Jew. Where Yigal Amir (yimach shmo) assassinated Prime Minister Rabin. A moment where, like Cain and Abel, Rabin’s blood cried out from the land, where instead of understanding that we are our brother’s keepers, the Jewish community lost sight of what redemption can and should look like. That religious communities forgot that being religious, doesn’t mean being extremists and it doesn’t mean remaining silent in the face of hate.

Being Jewish means always looking forward with a sense of hope. That tomorrow will be better than today and that we can bring about a redeemed world together.

This past week I had the privilege of teaching the 6th graders in our Jackson Religious School. One of them asked me-who came first, God or humans. I said that traditionally, God came first and created humans. But without humanity to acknowledge and partner with God, there would be no meaning. As I look at Jerusalem and dream of a redeemed world, I dream of one where all children of God are in partnership with one another, and God, to bring about a world redeemed, that all of us deserve to live in.

Shabbat Shalom.

[1] From the Jewish People Policy Institute Seminar on Jerusalem