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Parashat Bemidbar 5780 Yom Yerushalayim

Meir Sendor

The celebration of Yom Yerushalayim in Yerushalayim this week has been planned to take into account the need for social distancing. The municipality publicizing the events on its website tries its best to make it sound exciting. For instance, the official calendar has: “This year, the rally is coming to your home with a live broadcast!” And this attempt to drum up enthusiasm: “Celebrating into the night at home – in living rooms and apartments, with a crazy lineup of live events from Jerusalem’s favorite bars and clubs – parties, performances, stand-up comedy, workshops, open stage, poetry slam, festivals and more!” Nice try to make a night sheltering in place in front of a TV sound exciting. Even so, even with the restrictions, the day commemorating the reunification of the Old and New neighborhoods of Yerushalayim in the Six Day War is deeply meaningful and as important as ever, and it may be that this year’s subdued approach gives us an opportunity to think more deeply about what we are celebrating.

The greatness of Yerushalayim, capital city of the Jewish people, so historically rich and multidimensional, rests upon its status as encompassing the ultimate makom kadosh, the highest place of holiness of our tradition, the site of the Holy Temple. The Mishnah Kelim (1:6-9) states “there are ten levels of holiness,” ten regions of increasing holiness in the Land of Israel, each level distinguished by special activities or special restrictions that only apply in that region. The Land of Israel itself and walled cities within the Land are the first two levels, then the remaining eight higher levels of holiness are all within Yerushalayim – from the outer wall of the ancient city to the Temple Mount and on through the grounds of the Holy Temple all the way to the Holy of Holies, the most holy place on the planet. These regions correspond precisely to the regions of the encampment of the Israelites surrounding the Mishkan, in their journey through the wilderness on their way to the Land of Israel as described in this week’s parashah. When the Israelites reached the Land under the leadership of Joshua, and eventually subdued all enemies and took full possession of it under the leadership of King David and King Solomon, they mapped on to it the full structure of their wilderness encampment, the ten levels of holiness. But what, exactly, is holiness, kedushah, and how does Yerushalayim express it?

Maimonides in his Mishneh Torah notes that the kedushah of Yerushalayim is of a different order than the rest of the Land of Israel. Once it was sanctified in the time of King David and King Solomon as the place of the Mishkan and Holy Temple its holiness is permanent. Maimonides explains:

רמב”ם הלכות בית הבחירה פרק ו הלכה טז

ולמה אני אומר במקדש וירושלים קדושה ראשונה קדשה לעתיד לבוא, ובקדושת שאר א”י לענין שביעית ומעשרות וכיוצא בהן לא קדשה לעתיד לבוא, לפי שקדושת המקדש וירושלים מפני השכינה ושכינה אינה בטלה, והרי הוא אומר והשמותי את מקדשיכם ואמרו חכמים אף על פי ששוממין בקדושתן הן עומדים אבל חיוב הארץ בשביעית ובמעשרות אינו אלא מפני שהוא כבוש רבים וכיון שנלקחה הארץ מידיהם בטל הכבוש ונפטרה מן התורה ממעשרות ומשביעית שהרי אינה מן ארץ ישראל, וכיון שעלה עזרא וקדשה לא קדשה בכיבוש אלא בחזקה שהחזיקו בה ולפיכך כל מקום שהחזיקו בה עולי בבל ונתקדש בקדושת עזרא השנייה הוא מקודש היום ואף על פי שנלקח הארץ ממנו וחייב בשביעית ובמעשרות על הדרך שביארנו בהלכות תרומה


Hilkhot Beit haBehirah 6:16


Why do I say regarding the Temple and Yerushalayim that the original holiness sanctified it for [its time and for all] future time, whereas the holiness of the rest of the Land of Israel regarding the Sabbatical year and the tithes and things similar was not [at first] sanctified for all future time? Because the sanctity of the Temple and Yerushalayim is on account of the divine Presence, and the divine Presence cannot be nullified… But the obligation of the Land regarding observance of the mitzvot of the Sabbatical year and tithes was only because it had been conquered by the whole nation [of Israel]. But when it was taken from their hands the conquest was nullified, and the Land was released from [the obligations of supplying] tithes and observing the Sabbatical year since it was no longer Israelite land. Then when Ezra made Aliyah (lit. came up) and sanctified it, he did not sanctify it through conquest but by consensual presumption of ownership. Therefore every place of which those people who came up from Babylonia took possession and which was sanctified through this second sanctification performed by Ezra remains holy today, even though the Land was again taken from us…

Maimonides here describes three ways of conferring holiness on place. The first applies uniquely to Yerushalayim, dedicated as a place of the divine Presence, an endless and inalienable holiness. The second applies to the Land of Israel, first designated holy after conquest – the initial conquest of the Land by Joshua and the Israelites, a status that is conditional and can be nullified by conquest, as it was by the Babylonians. The third way of conferring holiness is by peaceful consensus: when Ezra and the Israelites returned to the Land of Israel after the Babylonian and Persian exile, they returned without violence, by consent of the Persian government that controlled the region. Rights based on violence can be lost through violence, and so too holiness. Rights based on peaceful mutual agreement are inalienable and so too holiness. All three methods have in common that holiness is conferred on place through human action. But what is holiness?

The Mishnah and Gemara Berakhot describe the proper behavior required of someone who visits the Holy Temple:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף נד עמוד א

לא יקל אדם את ראשו כנגד שער המזרח, שהוא מכוון כנגד בית קדשי הקדשים. ולא יכנס להר הבית במקלו, ובמנעלו, ובפונדתו, ובאבק שעל רגליו, ולא יעשנו קפנדריא; ורקיקה – מקל וחומר. כל חותמי ברכות שבמקדש היו אומרים: עד העולם. משקלקלו הצדוקים ואמרו אין עולם אלא אחד – התקינו שיהו אומרים: מן העולם ועד העולם.


A person should not be light-headed facing the eastern gate [of the Temple], for it faces the House of the Holy of Holies. And a person should not enter the Temple Mount with his staff, with his shoes on, with his money pouch, with dust on his feet, nor should he make [the Temple Mount] a shortcut. And spitting is prohibited – all the more so…

The general point of the Mishnah is that the holiness of the Temple is perceived and honored in our state of mind and behavior. The place of holiness is not to be used as an instrument for an ulterior purpose. No walking staff is to be used to get through the Temple Mount quickly or thoughtlessly. Shoes are removed so you are fully aware of every step you take on sacred ground – as God commanded Moshe on Mount Sinai at the revelation of the burning bush:

He said ‘do not come close. Remove you shoes from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground’. (Ex. 3:5)

No money pouch for doing business, distracting from the experience of being in the Temple. And don’t make the Temple Mount a shortcut to get from one side of the city to another – it is inherently precious in itself, not something to pass through on the way to somewhere else.

I remember once, about twenty years ago, standing on the Mount of Olives overlooking the Old City of Yerushalayim. From that vantage point you could see fully into the courtyard of the Temple grounds. In the area that today lies between the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque is a large open space, and some kids were playing soccer there. This is an area that we Jews, even the Kohanim among us, are not permitted and do not permit ourselves to enter today because we appreciate that we currently lack the ritual means to purify ourselves sufficiently for the high level of holiness that area demands, and these kids were just playing ball, totally oblivious. Holiness is a relationship: a holy place is one in which a sensitive and aware human consciousness can be elevated to awareness of God’s Presence. Rabbi Soloveitchik describes this eloquently in Halakhic Man (47-48) – that God has empowered human mind and human action to dedicate finite material space for the infusion of the Infinite divine, for the experience of holiness.

Rabbi Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto addresses the nature of kedushah directly in his stirring conclusion to Mesillat Yesharim:

ספר מסילת ישרים פרק כו

והנה האיש המתקדש בקדושת בוראו אפילו מעשיו הגשמיים חוזרים להיות ענייני קדושה ממש, אך הקדוש הדבק תמיד לאלהיו, ונפשו מתהלכת בין המושכלות האמתיות באהבת בוראו ויראתו, הנה נחשב לו כאילו הוא מתהלך לפני ה’ בארצות החיים עודנו פה בעולם הזה, והנה איש כזה הוא עצמו נחשב כמשכן, כמקדש, וכמזבח, וכמאמרם זכרונם לברכה (ב”ר פפ”ב): ויעל מעליו אלהים, האבות הן הן המרכבה, וכן אמרו (רש”י בראשית ז): הצדיקים הן הן המרכבה, כי השכינה שורה עליהם כמו שהיתה שורה במקדש,


When a person sanctifies himself in the holiness of his Creator even his material actions are transformed to be actual holiness… The holy person adheres constantly to God, and his soul moves among true spiritual intelligibles in his love and reverence for his Creator. And he is considered as if he walks before HaShem in the Lands of the Living while he is yet in this world. Such a person is himself considered like the Mishkan, like the Temple, like the altar, as the Sages say (Bereshit Rabbah 82): … the patriarchs are themselves the Chariot… So, too, it is said “the righteous are themselves the Chariot.” For the divine Presence dwells upon them just as it dwelled in the Holy Temple…

Rabbi Luzzatto describes holiness as a state of elevated human awareness that fully integrates the material with the spiritual in the realization that all of reality is inherently precious, an expression of God’s revelation, God’s Glory. A person who has attained this awareness already exists in the “Lands of the Living” – the Garden of Eden existence that is our once and future destiny.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk expressed the state of mind of holiness saying

אני אף פעם לא בדרך לאנשהו. אני תמיד כבר במקום.

.I’m never on the way to somewhere else. I am always already in the place

 (.Thanks to Sivan Rahav Meir for this reference)

And we, too, with holy awareness, wherever we are, can celebrate Yom Yerushalayim this year and appreciate this precious city of holiness on earth that expresses the highest ideal of human existence

It seems that everywhere that I have walked and every path that I have passed have only been an entranceway to this house. Shai Agnon (Seen in a shop window on Rechov Hillel, Jerusalem)




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