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Parashat B’har/B’hukkotai/Yom Yerushalayim
The sweetest and perhaps most famous legend told about Jerusalem is the tale of how King Solomon chose the spot to build the Temple.
Once upon a time, there lived a farmer who, upon his death, left his farm to his two sons. These two brothers lived on either side of a hill. One brother was married with many children, the other one lived contentedly on his own. One night, the married brother lay awake reflecting on his blessed circumstances, and his thoughts turned to his brother whom he loved very much. “Here I am, blessed with abundance, a beautiful family, and my brother, born of the same household, is all alone. I must share some of my bounty.” Which is exactly what he did. In the dark of night, he climbed up the hill and down the other side carrying a sheaf of wheat and left it for his brother to find when he awoke.
Unbeknownst to him, his brother also lay awake that night, thinking how much the Lord had blessed him. And he thought, “I have so much, and it is just me. My brother, born of the same household, has a family to feed, children to raise. Surely I can share some of my plenty with him. Which is exactly what he did. Up the hill he climbed that night and down the other side, leaving a sheaf of his own harvest by his brother’s farm so he would find it when he awoke.
When each brother woke up the next morning, you can imagine his surprise upon discovering that he had the same number of sheaves as he had the previous day. So the next night, up and down the hill they went – filled with a sense of kinship and gratitude for their own blessings – only to wake up, once again, to the same number of sheaves as the day before.
Unbeknownst to both of the brothers, King Solomon was also having a difficult time sleeping that week. Night after night, the King was roused from his sleep, seeking a sign as to where he should build the Holy Temple as God had commanded.
On the third night, the brothers went up the hill once again, only this time it happened that they went at exactly the same time. At the top of the hill they bumped into each other, and there they stood, face to face, each holding a bundle of wheat. They realized what was taking place, they smiled and dropped their sheaves and hugged – grateful for their blessings, most of all to have a brother filled with fraternal love and concern.
King Solomon, again unable to sleep, witnessed the entire scene from afar and knew this was the sign he was waiting for. Here – in the place where two brothers put concern for each other ahead of their own wellbeing – was where the Temple should be built. Which is exactly what he did. On that sacred spot the Temple was built and all around it – the holy city of Jerusalem.
This coming Wednesday is Yom Yerushalayim, the day marking the re-unification of Jerusalem following the Six Day War. After thousands of years of exile, decades of division, we celebrate the return of our capital city, the reclamation of where the ancient Temple stood, and the renewal of our bond with all things Jerusalem. Every Yom Yerushalayim, I make sure to tell the story of the two brothers at least once – a reminder of the ennobling sentiment that gave birth to the hallowed spiritual center binding our people together.
Truth be told, it was not without irony that I told this story to the children in the Blue Room yesterday. Earlier this week we read about the Women of the Wall pitted against the Rabbi of the Western Wall, sibling against sibling arguing over who gets what in the precincts surrounding where the Temple once stood. Who gets to pray where, when and how. A delicately brokered compromise of the past few weeks breaking apart in the past few days. And as charged and divisive as the Western Wall situation may be, as I have said repeatedly, it is actually representative of concerns of far greater consequence. Who gets to control civil marriages in Israel? How is it that the Jewish state directs government funding only to one particular expression of Judaism – Orthodoxy? Who gets to define who is and who isn’t a Jew? The gap between Jews of different stripes, between the Judaism of Israel and that of the Diaspora is growing more and more pronounced day by day. If one understands Jerusalem to be not just a place, but a promise of Jewish peoplehood, then one can not but realize how far – how very far – we are from that promise of unity. Jerusalem is a city, according to the Psalmist, she-hubra lo yahdav, that knits together the Jewish world. (Ps. 122) A city, according to the Midrash, “that makes all Israel haverim, friends.” (J. Talmud Hagigah 3:6) After thousands of years of longing, the promise of Jerusalem remains unfulfilled to this day. More than the children, I thought as I shared the tale of the two brothers, it is the so-called adults of the Jewish world who need to hear this story – hear it and internalize its message.
There is no one answer as to what makes for a sense of Jewish peoplehood – what unites us as a people, as we so desperately need today. Some say it is the inheritance of Torah that all Jews share; others, that it is a theological covenant with God dating back to Abraham. Some point to a feeling of tribal association; others, as described in the Forward this week, to a chromosomal link. If I had to put my finger on the secret ingredient, distill it down to a single sentence, it would be a pithy refrain many of us heard last week when we listened to Israel’s Minister of Finance, Yair Lapid, at the Rabin Center in Tel Aviv. Movingly, Lapid told the roomful of New Yorkers of his late father Tommy Lapid’s experience in the Holocaust, stating that his arriving in Israel and our coming to America is a “historical accident.” From this observation the younger Lapid came to the conclusion, in his words, “I could be you and you could be me.”
“I could be you and you could be me.” It is a small thing to say, but if you unpack its implications in full, it packs a punch. I think what Lapid was getting at is that the starting point for a robust sense of Jewish peoplehood begins with an awareness of the contingent nature of Jewish existence. Had my great-grandparents gotten on the boat going in that direction and not this direction, then my life would be different. The difference between any of us and a Jew living in Russia or Israel or Morocco or Argentina hangs on a decision made on the fly generations ago. Intellectually, all of us know this to be true. Had the one-year visit my British parents made to America forty-something years ago lasted only that one year, I would never have been born in the United States. And before that, had my great-grandfather in Vilna not decided to flee the Czar’s army to Wales of all places; then the Russian Koslovskys would never have become the Scottish Cosgroves, who would never have become … you get the idea. But for the grace of God and the prescient bullishness of strong-willed Jewish women from my great-grandmother to my wife, I would not be here today. I would be in Russia, in Israel, a victim of the Shoah or who knows where.
“I could be you and you could be me.” There is something incredibly humbling in the realization that it is just happenstance that we were born into one set of circumstances and not another. But there is also something else, something very important in terms of Jewish peoplehood. Like the brothers in the story, we have a feeling of kinship. Why do I care about the elderly Jewish lady in a second floor walkup on the outskirts of Moscow? Because in a not so alternative reality, that could be my grandmother. Why do I care about the Jews of Chile, or Rehovot or Kiev? Because although the geographic, linguistic, and cultural points of contact may be few, I know “I could be them, and they could be me.” The sociologist Steven Cohen writes of “historical familism,” the notion that what binds Jews together who would otherwise have nothing in common is a shared sense of collective consciousness. For those more theologically minded, Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik wrote movingly of a brit goral, a covenant of fate. You and I and Jews all around the world share a common past, a present sympathy and responsibility for one another, and ultimately a single destiny. In Hebrew, the concept is called arevut, a spiritual and ethical interconnectedness among Jews. We are one body, suggested Soloveitchik; boiling water poured on the Jew of Morocco causes the Jew of Paris or London to scream at the top of his voice. (Fate and Destiny) No different from Moses when he identified with the plight of the oppressed Hebrew slave, no different from Judah when he offered himself in the place of Benjamin, no different than any sibling staying up at night thinking about the needs of a brother or sister, it is from this feeling of arevut, that “it could have been me,” from which the bonds of peoplehood form. Arevut is what keeps us together as a people.
It is precisely this sympathetic imagination that is in such short supply in the literal and figurative Jerusalem of today. Lapid’s comment is not just about the Jews of Israel and America, Mexico and Canada. Lapid’s comment is a wake-up call to Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Haredi, secular and any other kind of Jew walking the earth today. I have members of my family – as I am sure many of you do – who, because they are either ultra-orthodox or militant secularists, would enter this building only under protest, if at all. We agree on very little, but because we are mishpacha, because we are family, we also know that had the dice rolled a different way, our roles could be reversed. In what the sociologist Robert Putnam calls the “Aunt Susan Principle,” when a beloved member of our family practices religion in a manner different from us, the love and respect we have for that person forces us to concede that though we may differ in matters of faith, he or she can’t be all bad, and by extension neither are all the people that share his or her label. The ideal Jewish future is not one in which our differences are elided, rather, it is future in which our differences are retained. The “Aunt Susans” remain, respected as humanity’s best guesses at approximating God’s will.
My fear, when it comes to the Western Wall, to Jerusalem as a city, or to the Jewish people as a whole, is that the forces of fragmentation are driving an immovable and insurmountable wedge between the varied constituencies of the Jewish world. Jews of different stripes are less and less able to pause, allow for the happenstance nature of our existence, the possibility that it could have just as easily been otherwise, and thereby allow for the choices of another. Maybe it is because we live in an age of hardening ideological lines, maybe it is because in this era of diminished historical consciousness, the prospect of articulating a common past becomes more and more difficult with every passing generation. Maybe it is for all sorts of reasons – I don’t know. What I do know, what I fear most, is that nowhere in the debates between the factions at the Western Wall or in the divisions between Jews in Israel and around the world am I hearing the humble allowance that in an alternate telling those Jews with whom we are arguing so vehemently could be us and we could be them. We need to foster that feeling in the Jewish world, support those who comport themselves with such a demeanor, and most of all, model it ourselves, filling our own conversations, debates and disputes with love and respect for that person with whom we share a common past and future.
Important as the Western Wall is, next time you are in Jerusalem, make sure you visit the steps of the Southern Wall, where if you look closely, you will see the faint outlines of the two entrances by which pilgrims entered the Temple Mount over two thousand years ago. The Talmud explains that the general populace, those offering sacrifices of thanksgiving, would arrive through the right hand gate and exit by the left hand gate, moving counterclockwise. Three groups, however, entered the other way, clockwise, coming in through the left hand gate and going out through the right. These three groups were mourners, people suffering from serious illness and those in search of a lost object. The rabbis understood that the choreography of the southern gates spoke to an ethical ideal, namely, that one could not enter the Temple without encountering someone at the opposite end of the emotional or religious spectrum. Those suffering from loss would intuit that their time for thanksgiving would eventually come. And those making offerings of thanksgiving would do so aware that they too might one day enter under altogether different circumstances. In other words, the Temple was not merely a gateway to God, but a gateway into the human experience, to an awareness of the contingent nature of all our own lives and the kinship that comes by extension.
The Temple is no longer, but its supporting walls and ideals stand firm – challenging us to this day. As we approach Yom Yerushalayim, may we be drawn closer to the ideal it represents. A city that reminds us that no matter who we are, as Jews we share a single creator and a common origin, separated only by the happenstance of history. A place that knits together all the diverse threads of the Jewish people. And that even in our differences, we are all friends, haverim, all interconnected, arevim – accountable, responsible and respectful of one another as we march forward into our shared destiny.