Why is Jerusalem special?
If you ask one who is immersed in Halachah, the answer is simple: Jerusalem obligates us with unique mitzvot. The pilgrimage of aliyah l’regel brought millions of Jews into Jerusalem for the holidays. Josephus wrote of a year when 256,500 Passover sacrifices were brought, and estimated at least 10 people shared each one, for a total of more than 2.5 million visitors to Jerusalem for Passover that year!
When you turn to the mystic, there is another answer: Jerusalem is the centre of the universe. The Midrash Tanchuma says, “The land of Israel sits in the middle of the world, and Jerusalem in the middle of the land of Israel.”
The mystical view is well-travelled and even makes its way into popular culture. Jerusalem is different because God lives there, and when visiting the Kotel, one puts in a kvitl (note of prayer). Everyone does: presidents, prime ministers, actors and rock stars. They are closet mystics who see Jerusalem as a place very close to God.
However, not everyone is a mystic. But even rationalists can appreciate Jerusalem’s story. And the historian would answer that Jerusalem is special because it has a remarkable history.
The personalities who walked the streets of this city have transformed the world. The founders of Judaism lived here: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, David and Solomon, Isaiah and Jeremiah. The list goes on and on. Jerusalem’s influence is not restricted to Judaism. The founding personalities of Christianity and Islam were inspired by Jerusalem as well.
Those who know this history are immediately affected by Jerusalem. Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas Friedman wrote of the time Neil Armstrong visited Jerusalem:
“When American astronaut Neil Armstrong, a devout Christian, visited Israel… he was taken on a tour of the Old City of Jerusalem by Israeli archeologist Meir Ben-Dov. When they got to the… Temple Mount, Armstrong asked Ben-Dov whether Jesus had stepped anywhere around there. ‘I told him, “Look, Jesus was a Jew,”’ recalled Ben-Dov. ‘These are the steps that lead to the Temple, so he must have walked here many times.’”
Later in the conversation, Armstrong asked, “So Jesus stepped right here?”
“That’s right,” answered Ben-Dov.
“I have to tell you,” Armstrong said to the Israeli archaeologist, “I am more excited stepping on these stones than I was stepping on the moon.”
If you ask a historian what is special about Jerusalem, they will tell you it is a place that has changed the world.
So here we have the answers of the halachic man, the mystic and the historian. But I believe there is one answer that exceeds them all: the answer of the simple Jew.
When I was seven, I visited Israel with my grandfather, who was 71 at the time. It was our first trip to Israel. The look Zaide had on his face upon arriving at the Kotel was the look of a man achieving his dream.
Zaide’s dream is our dream, and our dream is an ancient dream. Jews have dreamed of Jerusalem from the moment we went into exile, as it says in Psalm 137: “If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you.”
We never forgot Jerusalem. We pray about Jerusalem every day, we pray towards Jerusalem every day, we break a glass to remember Jerusalem at every wedding, and we sing “next year in Jerusalem” at the Passover seders. We do so in good times, just as we did in bad times in the Kovno and Warsaw ghettos, Syria, and the former Soviet Union.
Fifty years ago, on June 7, 1967, Jerusalem returned to Jewish sovereignty for the first time in nearly 2,000 years, and for simple Jews all over the world, it was a dream come true, another remarkable chapter in the history of a remarkable city.