Hollywood is home to most actors, producers and film moguls. Silicon Valley (and Israel) is where most tech startups are located, Texas is where most energy and natural resources corporations are based, whereas New York (Wall Street) and London are where a disproportionate number of financial services firms are headquartered.
The Talmud describes Jerusalem’s erstwhile uniqueness much as we relate to these business hubs. Absent any indication of a different hometown, one may assume that a prophet originates in Yerushalayim (Megillah 15B).
Where else would a man or woman achieve the uber-sophisticated spiritual development necessary to enter the ranks of prophecy? Which, according to Maimonides, demands deep wisdom, razor-sharp self-control, far-reaching intellectual capacity and decisive disengagement from any worldly interests?
The character of Yerushalayim and the inspiration that it instills in visitors is the basis for the Biblical mitzvah of aliyah la’regel, the thrice annual, nation-wide visitation to Jerusalem and the Temple which a verse in this week’s parshah powerfully describes as “appear[ing] before the Master, the LORD.”
Although we can only assume that its impact pales in comparison to a pilgrimage to the ancient city, a visit to contemporary Yerushayalim does not disappoint.
I visited most recently one year ago, and I was astounded by the number of major construction projects, infrastructure upgrades and residential building going on throughout the city. Its recently completed light rail system is packed with passengers and major expansions and extensions to additional neighborhoods are underway. The highway from southern Yerushalayim to Gush Etzion is undergoing a major widening project. A new, fast, low-cost train takes travelers to and from Ben Gurion Airport to a stunning modern Jerusalem train station. Not far from the city entrance, a towering apartment building is under construction that will be the tallest in the city, and there are dozens of major renovation projects in progress in each of its many neighborhoods.
The city’s parallel spiritual growth continues at least a pace with its physical expansion, with its multitudes of Gemara-lugging yeshiva students, its throngs of Kohanim (descendant of the sons of Aaron who served as priests in the Temple in Jerusalem) overflowing and spilling out of the Kotel Plaza on Pesach and Sukkos, and its endless, head-spinning variety of shuls.
Few experiences can inspire more than a visit to one of its loud, crowded yeshivas, an Erev Shabbos (Friday) trip to the Machane Yehuda open market with its thousands and thousands of Jews of all stripes and types bustling through its packed alleyways, or a few quiet moments of prayer at the Kotel.
Notwithstanding other cities that claim or boast special religious status, Yerushalayim remains the spiritual capital of the universe.
The symbolic significance of Yerushalayim spirituality has come up regarding the debate over the results of the recent Israeli elections which reflect a politically divided electorate. One major issue is the role of religion in the state.
“This is the struggle, if you will,” wrote Elliot Abrams, “between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, between those who go to the beach on Shabbat and those who go to synagogue.” The former is concerned that the democratic foundation of the country is at stake, while the latter, the growing majority, fears an ambivalence or hostility to the state’s Jewishness and “they see no point in an Israel that is just another liberal democracy like Canada or Norway or the United States.”
As Yossi Klein Halevi put it, “an Israel stripped of its Jewishness would lose its reason for being, its internal cohesion and the vitality that has enabled it to survive against the odds.” Let’s hope that these factions can meet in the middle, and both appreciate that a healthy, vibrant Israel needs the economic heft of Tel Aviv but is bereft of purpose without the spiritual lodestar of Jerusalem. JN
Rabbi Yisroel Isaacs is director of the Greater Phoenix Vaad Hakashruth, rabbi at Beth Joseph Congregation and director of the Jewish Enrichment Center.