Jerusalem – G-d’s embassy
One of the most contentious debates provoked by President Donald Trump, is the proposal to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Israeli leadership from the very top, including the president, the prime minister and the mayor of Jerusalem, have all called for the moving of the embassy to Jerusalem.
CHIEF RABBI WARREN GOLDSTEIN
As Trump heads to Israel for his first presidential visit to the country, it is this issue, among others, that is commanding attention.
This brings to mind what Prime Minister Menachem Begin said when he was in London before meeting Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in May 1979. Yehuda Avner recorded what happened: “Are you going to ask Mrs Thatcher for her support of the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital,” fired another [journalist] in a la-di-da accent.
Frigidly the Prime Minister answered: “No sir – under no circumstances.”
“Because, sir, Jerusalem was a Jewish capital long before London was a British capital. When King David moved the capital of his kingdom from Hebron, where he reigned for seven years, to Jerusalem, where he reigned for 33 years, the civilised world had never heard of London. In fact, they had never heard of Great Britain,” and he turned on his heels toward the door where Mrs Thatcher was waiting to greet him.
The heated debates around the moving of the US embassy miss the point. Should we really be so perturbed whether President Trump moves the American embassy to Jerusalem? It is so disempowering to care so much about whether the embassy is moved to Jerusalem.
To petition Trump to do so makes the legitimacy of Jerusalem as a Jewish city dependent on who happens to occupy the White House at a particular moment in time. In the name of self-respect let us step back from this pursuit.
This week we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the Old City of Jerusalem and its reunification with the rest of Jerusalem. It is 50 years since the Six Day War, but the city of Jerusalem has been the capital of the Jewish people for more than 3 000 years since King David established it as such.
Jerusalem was the capital of Israel millennia before Washington, London, Moscow or Paris existed. It is more the capital of Israel than any one of the great capitals of the world are capitals of their own country.
Is there any capital of any country anywhere in the world that has a 3 000-year-old history? It was the site of the Temple built by King Solomon and then of the Temple built by the exiles returning from Babylon. It was under Jewish sovereignty for centuries and centuries and has had an unbroken Jewish presence in it for all of these thousands of years.
But Jerusalem is more than history. It and the values it represents, live with us every day of Jewish life. We refer to Jerusalem in our prayers three times a day and in the Grace after meals. We refer to it at every wedding and at every funeral.
There has never been a people more devoted to a city than the Jewish people is devoted to the city of Jerusalem and the ideas and principles it represents. To suggest that it is not the legitimate capital of the Jewish State is beyond belief. It so obviously is, that to even raise it as a question is an insult to thousands of years of Jewish history.
And so, to entreat President Trump to move his embassy, is to imply that Jerusalem could be anything other than the capital of Israel and the Jewish people. Surely, what is truly important is that Jerusalem is the hearts of Jews in Israel and around the world, and that it be to us, G-d’s embassy in this world, unifying us all around it.
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the reunification of the city of Jerusalem, let us take a step back and appreciate the full context of Jewish history, that this is indeed not a celebration of a 50-year milestone, but a sparkling and remarkable chapter in a 3 000-year-old saga, one which is so deeply rooted in Jewish history and in Judaism, that we can stand tall and proud in the knowledge and connection to the city of Jerusalem and everything it stands for.
It is symbolic of the Jewish mission which we have carried since G-d gave it to us at Mount Sinai more than 3 300 years ago. It symbolises our values and our heritage. It symbolises the world of holiness and morality, which flows from our Torah.
And so in this week of Yom Yerushalayim, let us take pride in that and stand tall and say to the world that wherever they may choose to place their embassies has no bearing whatsoever on the place of Jerusalem in our hearts and souls as the eternal capital of the Jewish people, and G-d’s embassy on earth.
In the brave steps of Abraham
In this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, we read about the first Jew, Avraham, who resisted the tide of paganism, idolatry, and immorality. Society had moved away from monotheism and Avraham’s beliefs were ridiculed. However, Avraham stayed the course and in spite of great personal risk and at the cost of ostracism from his family, he spread the belief in one G-d.
The portion opens with G-d giving Avraham a direct command to travel out of his homeland and away from his family in order to spread his newfound message. G-d’s command to Avraham in this verse can additionally be seen as a command to us to leave the comfort of our insular lives and venture out to the world at large to transform it into a G-dly place.
While we may be satisfied by staying within the safe confines of the Judaism that we have grown up with, it’s no recipe for growth. G-d therefore tells us that if we enter the real world, our full inner potential will be realised, and our true, best selves will come to the fore.
Fighting the prevailing attitudes of the day has never been easy, but as Jews, we can be reassured that our forefathers have travelled this path before us. The Midrash teaches that “the actions of the fathers are a signpost for the children”. Another translation of the word siman or “signpost” is “empowerment”, and the Midrash teaches us that by risking their lives to spread the belief in one G-d, our forefathers made it easier for us to follow their example.
At this time of year, when we have hopefully been inspired by a month of festivals and are thinking about moving forward in our Judaism, we can be confident that we are following the advice of tried and tested authorities all the way back to Avraham.
My kind of hero
The world loves a hero. Every season, Hollywood invents new superheroes to fill the box-office coffers. Today, we even have a Jewish girl as the latest superhero. Now, superheroes are fantastic, but you’ve got to admit, they’re over the top, rather otherworldly and, realistically speaking, out of touch and out of reach. We can fantasise about flying through the skies in our capes, climbing skyscrapers with our webs, saving the world, or rescuing damsels in distress, but at the end of the day, it’s nothing more than wistful daydreaming. What bearing does it have on me and my life, me and my problems? Not much.
That’s why Noah always appealed to me. He comes across as a real-life hero, real in the sense of being human rather than superhuman and therefore realistically possible to emulate.
Rashi describes Noah as a man of small faith who had doubts whether the flood would really happen. He didn’t enter the Ark until the rains started and the floodwaters pushed him in. That explains why some people look down on Noah, especially when they compare him to other Biblical giants, like Abraham or Moses.
Personally, this is what makes Noah my kind of hero. He’s real. He’s human. He has doubts, just like you and me. Noah is a regular guy, plagued by doubts, and struggles with his faith. Which is precisely what makes him a hero. Because the fact is that, at the end of the day, his personal uncertainties notwithstanding, Noah does the job. He has faults and foibles, but he builds the Ark, shleps in all the animals, saves civilisation, and goes on to rebuild a shattered world. Doubts, shmouts, he did what had to be done!
Noah could easily be the guy next door. He is one of us. His greatness is, therefore, achievable. It’s not “pie in the sky”. His heroism can be emulated. If Abraham and Moses seem the superhero types too far-fetched for us ordinary mortals to see as practical role models, then Noah resonates with realism. After all, he had his doubts too, just like you and me.
There is an old Yiddish proverb that nobody died from an unanswered question. We can live with unanswered questions. It’s not the end of the world. The main thing isn’t to allow ourselves to become paralysed by our doubts. We can still do what must be done, in spite of our doubts.
Noah, the reluctant hero, reminds us that you don’t have to be fearless to get involved. You don’t have to be a tzaddik to do a mitzvah. You don’t have to be holy to keep kosher, nor do you have to be a professor to come to a shiur.
His faith may have been shaky. Perhaps he was a bit wobbly in the knees. But the bottom line is, he got the job done. My hero.
Learning to fall teaches us to fly
“As an eagle that stirs up its nest, hovering over its young”
Rashi, one of our greatest commentators, explains that Hashem is compared to an eagle since eagles are so different to other birds. He says that they are the kings of all birds, and soar very high. Afraid only of man’s bow and arrow, the eagle carries its young on its back. Other birds are afraid of the eagle, and have no choice but to choose the lesser of two evils and carry their babies underneath them in their talons.
This Rashi is problematic:
Humans carry their babies in their arms. A monkey holds its young in much the same way. And a dog or cat picks up its offspring with its mouth. But what about birds? Do they ever carry their young on their backs?
Surprisingly, some birds do carry their offspring from one place to another, either to get them away from danger or to move them about as part of their daily care. Aquatic birds let their chicks ride on their backs while they are swimming. Sometimes when the parent dives, the little one is carried underwater. And when the parent flies, the chick gets its first taste of being airborne without even using its own wings.
But, eagles? They just don’t do this. So what’s Rashi talking about?
Maybe our translation of nesher is incorrect. There’s the opinion that a nesher is a vulture, but no vultures carry their young on their backs either, so what’s going on? With respect to previous generations in Torah thought, we are never so arrogant as to say that we have superior knowledge. The further we move away from the Sinai experience, the more humble we become regarding the Torah knowledge of previous generations. Rashi lived almost a thousand years ago, and was a giant of Torah. So the best we can do is humbly admit that we don’t understand this Rashi.
One possible answer is brought by Rabbi Slifkin, who explains that when an eagle is teaching its eaglets to fly, it throws them from the nest and dives below to catch them on its back, ensuring that it breaks their fall before it breaks their neck. Perhaps this is what Rashi witnessed and wanted to use to describe Hashem’s relationship with each one of us.
Not only did Hashem take us out of Egypt on the “wings of eagles”, and not only will we be taken to the land of Israel when Moshiach comes on the “wings of eagles”. But every single day, Hashem gentle nudges us out of our comfort zone and while we are flailing and wondering how we’ll cope, Hashem is ready to swoop down and catch us. It’s that fall that teaches us how to soar!
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