Never Again

Add to Technorati Favourites
Add to
Friday, May 22, 2009

Jerusalem-Without You I am Half a Person

Posted by JewishRefugee

Rabbi Yosef Benarroch

Unbeknownst to many Jews around the world, today is a Jewish holiday and an important one at that. Throngs are converging on the city of Jerusalem to celebrate "Yom Yerushalayim" the day that marks the liberation of Jerusalem from Jordanian hands after the "Six Day War" in 1967. As a religious Jew I will recite "Hallel" today as I do on other Jewish holidays. Today I would like to dedicate my words to the city of Jerusalem and what it has meant to the Jewish people.

For one, our relationship to Jerusalem is an irrational one. I say this for a very simple reason. Notwithstanding war and oppression, the main reason why most people move has to do with economics. In today's mobile world people pick up and move because new opportunities await them. These opportunities come in the form of better jobs, more educational opportunities, and an overall improvement in their standard of living. Certainly it would be irrational to move to a new place where one would earn less money and live under greater hardship!

Yet this is precisely the story of the Jews who moved to Jerusalem before the establishment of the State of Israel, especially the Sephardim who formed the majority of Jerusalem's population after the Ottoman conquest in 1517. Thousands flocked to live in Jerusalem preferring its cramped quarters, unsanitary conditions, and lack of food, to a far more affluent life in Turkey and other places under Ottoman rule.

This message hit home for me after reading a fascinating book written by Yaacov Yehoshua, one of the foremost writers about life in Jerusalem in yesteryears. Yaacov Yehoshua was one of those Sephardic Jews who along with his family grew up in Jerusalem's Old City. In a series of books he describes the day to day life of Jerusalemites during the early 1900's. His books are worth reading but I will suffice to share with you a few quotes.

When describing the overall condition of the Jewish community he writes the following, "Jerusalem was a city that consisted almost completely of poor people." He even gives a powerful description of the vast network of organizations that existed to help the poor.

One such organization worked out of the very courtyard I am writing these words from. It is the courtyard of the Sephardic Educational Center in Jerusalem. About the courtyard he had the following to say, "The poor people of the Sephardic community would gather on Shabbat in the courtyard of the Talmud Torah there partaking of the Hamin (Shabbat stew) that was prepared for them by the righteous woman of the courtyard... For the modest ones they sent the food with messengers. These were poor people who were ashamed to show their faces with all those who came to partake of the food."

Yaacov Yehoshua sums up the situation in the following way, "How shaking it was to see the poor who gathered on Shabbat in order to merit a portion of hot food. Anyone who did not see or hear the cries of the poor of the Sephardic community in the holy city never knew what true poverty was".

I could go on with more examples but suffice it to say that most of Jerusalem's Jews lived under dire straits. There was poverty, overcrowding, disease, and much suffering. In fact the very courtyard that Yaacov Yehoshua writes about, that today is part of the SEC, was used by the Sephardic community as housing for poor widows. It was those same women who cooked for the poor.

In the courtyard each room was about the size of a modern day storage room no more than ten feet by ten feet. In each room lived a woman with her children. In some cases five or six people lived in one room. It was a far cry from the lavish homes most of us are presently accustomed to. But herein is the secret of the Jews who lived in Jerusalem. To them it was a palace. They preferred that small room, with little food, over a far more comfortable life elsewhere. They felt privileged to be living in Jerusalem, and they were not prepared to trade their lives for any other place in the world. They chose to live in poverty when a far richer life awaited them in Constantinople, Salonica, Izmir and many other places. In their eyes their ten by ten room was far more luxurious that a mansion in Istanbul. They woke up every day and raised their eyes to the heavens thanking G-d for the great privilege they were given to live in Jerusalem.

Why did these Jews voluntarily choose such a life? Why did they move to a city where poverty and disease were rampant? What was behind such irrational behavior? Why throughout millennia have Jews flocked to Jerusalem no matter the conditions?

Dear Friends, the answer is a simple one.

Without a heart the body cannot survive. Jerusalem is the heart of the Jewish people. It is our eternal capital, the place where all of our hopes and dreams emanate from. Without Jerusalem a Jew, no matter where they are in the world, is only half a person. This idea is expressed beautifully in a Rabbinic statement that is associated with the first mention of Jerusalem in the Torah.

The first mention of Jerusalem in the Torah is in an episode where Abraham defeats a number of Kings in order to free his relative Lot who was in captivity. After that battle we are told the following, "And Malki Zedek the king of Shalem greeted him with bread and wine and he was a priest of G-d" (Genesis 14:18).

The city "Shalem" is one and the same as Jerusalem. This is the first time the city is ever mentioned in the Torah. But our Rabbis were troubled by the discrepancy in the Torah's name (Shalem) and in the commonly used name (Jerusalem). The common name adds the prefix of "Jeru" (in Hebrew Yeru) to the last part of "Shalem" (in Hebrew Salem). Why not, they ask, just keep the original name of "Shalem"?

The Midrash (Beresheet Raba 56) answers this discrepancy. The Midrash explains that the city actually had two names. Abraham gave it the name "Yeru" when he called it "Hashem Yireh" which means G-d will see. "Malki Zedek" on the other hand called it "Shalem" as the Torah mentions. The Midrash explains that G-d had a dilemma in choosing which of the two names to use. On the one hand it was written as "Shalem" in the Torah. But on the other hand the righteous Abraham gave it the name "Yeru", how could one overlook the righteous Abraham? In the end the Midrash explains that a compromise was reached and the two names were combined to form "Jerusalem" (Yeru-Shalem).

The message of this Midrash is significant because the combination of the two words describes the real inner essence of Jerusalem. The two names go hand in hand. The word "Shalem" means whole, while the word "Yeru" means G-d will see or we will see how awesome G-d is. Because only in Jerusalem are we whole, and only in Jerusalem is our relationship with G-d whole. Indeed without Jerusalem we are only half a person and half a nation. Jerusalem is our lifeline, it is the heart that beats and nourishes the souls of every Jew no matter where they are. It is for this reason that Jerusalem must always remain united. The city that makes us whole can never be divided. The Sephardic Jews who lived here knew this message all too well. To the modern eye it may have seemed irrational. But then again, when is love ever rational?

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom and a Happy Yom Yerushalayim

Rabbi Yosef Benarroch

Bookmark and Share


Post a Comment