Saturday, January 25, 2020

The Book of Bereishit portrays three vastly different visits to Yerushalayim. Avraham first encounters this city after intervening in a raging world war. Years later, an acquiescent Avraham and his son voyage to the mountain to execute the Divine command and perform the akeidah. Finally, Yaakov flees his murderous brother and experiences his famed nighttime vision upon this mountain. Though these three visits are dramatically different and undertaken by different personalities at different historical stages, they bear one common denominator: Yerushalayim had never been a predestined or prearranged destination; each guest is drawn to this mountain by some powerful and unexpected force. Upon returning from war, Avraham is suddenly embraced and hosted by the city’s reigning king, a mysterious figure who appears from nowhere. Subsequently, for his akeidah mission, he travels to an “undetermined mountain” whose identity will only be Divinely revealed at some later stage. According to the Midrash, Yaakov actually bypasses the mountain, only to be ineluctably drawn back. There is something deeply “magnetizing” about this city and this mountain. It exerts a subliminal and primal lure upon the Jewish soul, drawing would-be travelers into its precincts. Yerushalayim—our city of gold—is also a city of magnets!

Fifty-two years ago we returned to our ancient city amidst the euphoria of the Six-Day War and its astounding miracles. The kinetic force of Yerushalayim was, once again, unmistakable and palpable. The Six-Day War and the return to Yerushalayim instantly generated a rich cultural iconography: images, sounds and personalities forever etched upon our collective imagination. Who can forget the iconic image of the “three soldiers,” eyes uplifted at the re-enfranchised Kotel, a wall that had occupied the Jewish imagination for two millennia? Naomi Shemer’s soulful song “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” became an instant symbol of the centuries-old wistfulness for this city. Bold proclamations such as “The Temple Mount is once again under Jewish rule” (“Har Habayit b’yadeinu” in Hebrew) or the radio broadcast of Psalms chapter 122 advertising “our feet are positioned in the gates of Yerushalayim” each reverberate in our national memory. The war’s legendary generals—Ariel Sharon, Motta Gur and Moshe Dayan—became instant national heroes. Interestingly, though the return to Yerushalayim generated instant “icons,” the Independence War did not. There aren’t specific pictures, phrases or songs surrounding the 1948 war. This is due, in part, to technological advancement, as by 1967 cameras and radio were more fully developed and better capable of popularizing these icons. Additionally, the war of 1967 actually climaxed with the return to Yerushalayim, whereas the war of 1948, which lasted a year and a half into 1949, felt anti-climactic after the celebrated Declaration of Independence. However, beyond these practical reasons, it seems as if once again the perennial magnetism of Yerushalayim mesmerized our people, and through these icons deeply lodged itself within collective Jewish consciousness. 

Indeed, this magnetizing force of Yerushalayim wasn’t only sensed in the country of Israel. For close to 50 years the Soviet regime had denuded millions of Jews of their heritage, their religion and even of their Jewish identity. Suddenly, the electrifying reports of the Jewish return to Yerushalayim reinvigorated Jewish identity across the boulevards of Moscow and tundras of Siberia. The eventual emigration of millions of Russian Jews to Israel helped radically transform Israel from a fledgling economy, constantly vulnerable to destabilizing hyperinflation, into an economic superpower and technological epicenter.

As a student during the late ‘80s, I recall joining my entire yeshiva in Israel for a day-long “fast” to demonstrate support for an unnamed Jewish Soviet dissident languishing in a jail cell. After the conclusion of the fast we spoke with him in his Russian jail and assured him both of our support and of our expectation to one day welcome him to Israel. A few weeks later, Yuli Edelstein, the current speaker of the Knesset, walked into the Gush yeshiva to learn alongside me. The magnetism of Yerushalayim, unleashed in 1967, had drawn him home 20 years later. Ultimately, two years afterward, the Berlin wall fell, thus terminating the 69-year Soviet regime. Who would have wagered that our fledgling State of Israel would outlast this empire built to last centuries? 

However, the magnetism of Yerushalayim wasn’t only sensed in Israel or in Russia. Prior to 1967, Jews had firmly established themselves in Western societies but lived on the social margins of society, wielding relatively little influence in governance and generally suppressing any outward signs of Jewish identity or religion. The return to Yerushalayim provided a burst of national pride and a surge in Jewish confidence as Jewish enclaves across the Western world transformed into robust and vibrant Jewish communities—actively involved in all aspects of society, culture and politics. This “era of Yerushalayim” sparked unprecedented religious and Torah growth as well as renewed interest in aliyah and tourism. The mysterious spell of this city continues to drive Jewish history.

Dovid Hamelech (Psalms 122) referred to Yerushalayim as an “integrator city” (chubrah lah yachdav). Though there is healthy disagreement across the Jewish world about a range of issues, including important questions surrounding the State of Israel, a deep consensus surrounding Yerushalayim unifies vastly different communities and ideologies. The instinctive draw to our common “city of magnets” is inalienable and eternal.

By Moshe Taragin


Rabbi Moshe Taragin is a rebbe at Yeshivat Har Etzion located in Gush Etzion, where he resides.

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