Three years ago Koren Publishers released a unique liturgical work dedicated to Yom Ha’atzma’ut and Yom Yerushalayim. Among its essays, one written by Rabbi Berel Wein, titled simply “Yom Yerushalayim,” explores the holiness and historic significance of the events that occurred 51 years ago on this day.
To mark Yom Yerushalayim, I present Rabbi Wein’s essay on the sacred role that Jerusalem has played as the center of Jewish faith and as the national center of Jewish governance.
By Rabbi Berel Wein
It is strange for this elderly Jew to have to write an article about the importance and meaning of Jerusalem. If there ever was anything in Jewish life that was self-understood — axiomatic and integral to Jewish societal and personal life and consciousness — it was the centrality of Jerusalem to the Jewish soul. “Next year in Jerusalem!” was not simply an expression of hope, prayer, and longing, but a symbol of Jewish defiance and continuity.
In Jewish thought and society, Jerusalem, not Rome, is the Eternal City; Jerusalem, not Paris, is the City of Lights. The great Rabbi Meir Simĥa HaCohen of Dvinsk, at the beginning of the 20th century, wrote prophetically: “Woe to those who somehow think that Berlin is Jerusalem!”
Jerusalem may have had many imitators, but it had no replacements. Jerusalem remained the heart of the Jewish people just as Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi of 12th-century Spain insisted that the people of Israel was the heart of all humanity — the strongest of all human organs and the most vulnerable of all the organs of the body. The metaphor that all of the lifeblood of Jewish life is pumped throughout the Jewish world by the heart of Jerusalem was self-understood in past Jewish generations. It needed no explanation or repetition, no reinforcement or defensive justification.
When the Jewish people as a whole were physically and politically separated from Jerusalem, Jerusalem was not just a memory or nostalgia; it remained a real and an imposing presence in Jewish life and thought. If to some individual Jews it became just another imaginary place because of its distant location and unattractive reality — an old, poverty-ridden, dilapidated, small, and backwater city buried in the expanse of the Ottoman Empire — in the core Jewish soul, the reality of the city lived and thrived.
Over the past three centuries, Jews slowly have made their way back home to Jerusalem. Under terrible physical trials of privation, persecution, and derision, the Jewish community in Jerusalem grew. By the middle of the 19th century, Jews constituted the majority population in the city. They began to settle outside of the walls of the Old City and establish new neighborhoods. The ancient mother city responded to the return of its children to its holy precincts, and Jerusalem became alive again.
After the restoration of Jewish sovereignty in parts of the Land of Israel, Jerusalem became the capital of the State of Israel. Its population grew exponentially, and the building cranes became ubiquitous all over the areas of the city’s expanded boundaries.
After the Six-Day War, it was united, and again the Western Wall and its adjacent Temple Mount became the center of the Jewish world. A new special day was added to the Jewish calendar to mark the rebirth of the physical Jerusalem in Jewish life and prayer. The Jewish population grew, and the building of the infrastructure of the city continued apace. The mixed blessings of automobile traffic and constant construction projects affect all Jerusalemites, but they only serve to highlight the unimagined change in the face of the city that occurred over the last century. Jerusalem reborn is the miracle of our times.
But much of the world resents Jerusalem’s revival. The United Nations wants it to become an “international city,” though the rebuilding of the city worked, and there never has been such successful city management in all of human history. No one really seemed to notice the hard fortunes of the city until the Jews began to remake history there.
The Muslim world especially, little concerned with the fate and fortunes of the city until the Jews began to arrive and rebuild it, wants it to be exclusively Muslim dominated and populated. The United States State Department does not recognize united Jerusalem as being part of Israel, let alone as its capital city. And all of the latent and obvious anti-Semitism that still poisons the Western world is directed against Israel and Jerusalem.
In their frustration, jealousy, and misplaced religious fervor, Muslims encourage and perpetrate violence in Jerusalem and publicly celebrate the killing of its innocent inhabitants. The attitude seems to be, “Better no Jerusalem than a Jewish Jerusalem.” Jerusalem has always been a flash point as its key place in history and faiths make it a sensitive issue. Today, to a great extent, Jerusalem is the one issue that drives the world’s thoughts and policies.
Jerusalem possesses the eternal quality of focusing human attention to think about holiness, closeness, and the struggle for faith. This view of what Jerusalem is all about makes the celebration of Yom Yerushalayim the necessary Jewish response to the opposition and enmity of the world to Jerusalem — to a Jewish Jerusalem.
Yom Yerushalayim is the proper response of Jews to everything that is currently going on in the world. Rejoice in the fact that our generations have lived to see Jerusalem rebuilt in body and spirit, beauty and strength. Walk its streets and breathe its air, see its visions and bask in its memories. Appreciate the gifts that the Lord has granted us, and express one’s thanks for living in such a momentous and historic time.
That is what Yom Yerushalayim represents. That is why it is so special and sacred. That is why it is worthy of commemoration and celebration.