A D’var for Shavuot (2009 / 5769)

D’var Torah – Shavuot 5769

Rabbi Maurice Harris

Shabbat shalom and gut yontiff.  As we celebrate our 2nd Shavuot in our new home, I want to ask us all to take a moment to look around.  We are so blessed.  We have now completed one full cycle of Jewish holy days and sacred seasons, one full year of the cycle of the Five Books of Moses, one full year of ups and downs, controversies and moments of serenity, one full year of mitzvot and of mistakes.  One full year of life.  There are so many people who worked so hard to make this new home possible, and we have only just begun to discover the ways we can continue to grow as a community in this amazing space.  Shavuot is a festival of offering our first fruits, the first fruits of our labor, to God.  We, as a community, now can offer one year’s worth of Jewish living to the Eternal One as an expression of our thanks and our desire to bring greater meaning and unity into our lives and into the world.

Over the last 24 hours we have engaged three different texts in our observance of Shavuot.  Last night we studied the Book of Ruth, which is traditionally chanted at Shavuot, and this morning we read the story of the giving of the 10 Commandments at Mt. Sinai in the Book of Exodus.  Then, Rabbi Yitzhak chanted the assigned reading from the books of the prophets, which happened to be from the first chapter of the Book of Ezekiel.

Ruth, the 10 Commandments, and Ezekiel.  Something I noticed about these three readings is where they take place.  The Torah reading featuring the dramatic revelation at Mt. Sinai takes place not in the land of Israel, but in the Sinai desert, in the wilderness, in an in-between place that was neither Egypt nor the Promised Land.  Ezekiel takes place in ancient Babylon, and tells the story of the visions and activities of a prophet who was sent into exile in Babylon along with the entire leadership of the ancient Israelite community some 2, 600 years ago.  That leaves the Book of Ruth.  Ruth takes place partly in the land of Moab, just to the east of the Land of Israel, and partly in the territory of Judah, which was part of ancient Israel.  It is the Book of Ruth that brings us geographically closest to Jerusalem, as Ruth ends up making her new life as a Jew by choice in Bethlehem, which is only a few kilometers away from Jerusalem.  Although the Book of Ruth never specifically mentions Jerusalem, because the city had not yet become the Israelites’ capital, the last words of the book point to Jerusalem.  As many of you may know, the Book of Ruth ends with a genealogy that shows Ruth to be the ancestor of King David, and David’s name is the final word of the book.  The Book literally points towards a Jerusalem that has not yet been realized, a Jerusalem of the future.

It is that idea – a Jerusalem that has not yet been realized, a Jerusalem of the future – that caught my attention these last days.

The city’s name, Yeru-shalayim, roughly means “they will see peace” or “the inheritance – yerushah – will be peace.”  Yet for the last 2500 years, Jerusalem has known so much war and far too little peace.  As we all know, Jews, Christians and Muslims all consider Jerusalem to be sacred, and the mythic encounters with the Divine that are so central to all three of the Abrahamic religions intimately involve Jerusalem and the Temple mount itself.  Just to illustrate this with one small example:  in Arabic Jerusalem is called al-Quds, meaning “the holy.”  This is from the same Semitic language root that forms the word kadosh in Hebrew.  It’s as if our people had named the city ha-kadosh.  And in fact, we have, as one of the city’s Jewish nicknames is Ir ha-kodesh, “the holy city.”


Some 3000 years ago, King David conquered the city from a people called the Jebusites and proclaimed it the capital of his kingdom.  It was also called the City of David.  For four centuries, it remained under Jewish rule.  Then the Babylonians, almost 2,600 years ago, sacked the holy city and took it over.  Since then, Jerusalem has been conquered and re-conquered in a seemingly endless succession of attempts by one nation or another to own it and dictate the roles of the various groups that consider it holy.

After the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, then the Persians took over.  Then it was Alexander the Great and the Greeks.  Then the Egyptians had a short run of things – yes, a Pharaoh ruled Jerusalem centuries after the Exodus, if you can imagine it!  Then came more Greek rulers from the north, the Selucids.  A bit more than 2,150 years ago the Maccabees revolted against them and Jerusalem came back into the hands of Jewish sovereignty.  That period of Jewish control lasted one century, and then General Pompey of the Roman Empire conquered the city in 63 BCE.  The Romans destroyed the Temple and the city a bit less than 2000 years ago, and they ruled it a while until the Byzantine Christians took over about 1,700 years ago.  The Persians snatched it very briefly only to lose it back to the Byzantines, and then came Muslim rule shortly after the death of the prophet Mohammed.  That lasted a few centuries until the Crusaders of 900 years ago captured Jerusalem from the Muslims.

A century later Muslims re-captured Jerusalem.  Christians led by Richard the Lionhearted of England tried in vain to get it back.  After the Crusader period, Mamluks – Egyptian Muslims – took over the city and ruled for 250 years.  Then the Ottoman Turks took it over about 500 years ago, and they had a 400 year run.  World War I changed that, and the next thing you knew Jerusalem finally was British, though with British rule came the beginnings of the modern Arab-Israeli conflict as Jewish immigrants, resident Arabs, and some new Arab immigrants attracted to economic improvements the British had brought  about began to battle over who would have control of the holy land once the British left.

Fast-forward to 1948, and the birth of modern Israel, and for the first time since the Macabees part of Jerusalem was once again under Jewish rule.  The other part came under Jordanian rule.  A mere 42 years ago, following the Six Day War, all of Jerusalem came under Jewish rule, and that’s where it is today, though as we all know, there is much controversy throughout the world over who should rule Jerusalem.  Many in the Muslim world would like to see a return to Muslim sovereignty over the entire city.  Some would be happy to have sovereignty over the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem but leave the Jewish areas to the Jews.  The Vatican still teaches that it would prefer Jerusalem to be an international city with special protected status.  The United Nations and most of the world’s countries, including the United States, do not recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s official capital because of these unresolved disputes and disagreements among the various interested religious and national parties.  Most countries maintain their embassies in Tel Aviv.

It is nothing short of wondrous that today our people enjoys the blessing of the freedom to visit or live in Jerusalem, and that the streets of Jerusalem vibrate with Jewish life once again, whether it be in the form of pubs, youth culture, and the arts, or Jewish life in the form of the dozens of yeshivot and centers of Torah learning that abound in the city.  And yet, we know that Jerusalem remains the center of great strife, great suffering, great divisiveness, and great hatreds.  The modern historian, David K. Shipler writes, “Jerusalem is a festival and a lamentation. Its song is a sigh across the ages, a delicate, robust, mournful psalm at the great junction of spiritual cultures.”  Indeed.  When will the battles over Jerusalem finally stop?

The prophet Isaiah said:

לֹא-יָרֵעוּ וְלֹא-יַשְׁחִיתוּ, בְּכָל-הַר קָדְשִׁי:  כִּי-מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ, דֵּעָה אֶת-יְהוָה, כַּמַּיִם, לַיָּם מְכַסִּים

“They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Eternal, as the waters cover the sea.”  The mountain he’s referring to is the Temple Mount, symbolic of all Jerusalem.  That’s the prophetic vision, that’s the dream for Jerusalem.  How might that dream be realized?  What is to become of that idea that the end of the Book of Ruth points to – a Jerusalem that has not yet been realized, a Jerusalem of the future?  A Jerusalem that truly embraces its religious diversity and creates a culture of peace that befits the definition of its name?  I leave it to you as a question of great consequence.  It’s a question that will be on the table in the months ahead as the current Administration in Washington nudges the parties to the conflict back to the negotiating table.

You’ve probably heard the following tale about the origins of Jerusalem.  It makes the claim that the site for the Holy Temple was determined by anonymous and simultaneous acts of sharing and caring by two brothers, each concerned for the other’s well being. I’ll share a retelling of it by Eliezar Segal of the University of Calgary.  I think you might be surprised by what he discovered in his research about this tale.  He writes:

The following story is probably familiar to most of my readers. I have heard it told on innumerable occasions from the pulpits of synagogues in Israel and the Diaspora.

According to the tale, there long ago lived two brothers who shared a field whose crops they used to divide equally. One of the brothers was a bachelor, and the other a married man with many children. Once, during the harvest, each of them felt pity for the other. The bachelor was worried that his brother did not have enough to feed his household, while the bachelor had concern for his brother’s solitude. In the dark of the night each of them would carry some sheaves of produce to the other’s house, and in the morning each would be astonished to discover that their own supplies had not diminished. This went on for several days and nights until the two finally met tearfully during one of their nocturnal errands. At that point it was decreed from above that this was the place upon which it would be fitting to establish God’s Holy Temple.

The rabbis who tell this moving story … usually cite it as a Talmudic legend taken from the “midrash.” Making allowances for the limitations of my own erudition, I was always troubled that I had not encountered the story of the two brothers in any of the standard compendia of rabbinic lore. As it turns out, the same problem had troubled a more capable scholar than myself, the late Prof. Alexander Scheiber of Budapest, who devoted a number of special studies to the history of the legend.

According to Scheiber’s researches, the earliest attestation of the story appears in the writings of Alphonse de Lamartine, a noted French author with an affection for the Bible and its land. He claims to have heard it from the mouth of an Arab peasant during a journey through the Holy Land in 1832. The literary record of that journey was published in 1835.

From that point on, versions of the tale began to appear in several European languages, including German and Hungarian. It also found its way into Jewish writings, such as the moralistic anthologyMikveh Yisra’el by Rabbi Israel Costa of Livorno, Italy, which was published in 1851 and a collection of miracle tales (Ma’aseh Nissim) that was printed in Baghdad around 1900.

The story has become so familiar that many knowledgeable Jews are convinced that it is indeed a [midrash] or a talmudic Aggadah. Some have insisted that the Arabs might be preserving an originally Jewish tradition that for some reason was not recorded in our own literature.

The fact is that even in ancient times it was not uncommon for foreign legends and fables to find their way into the volumes of Talmudic and Midrashic teachings. Our rabbis did not live in isolation from their surroundings, and recognized that an edifying teaching is worth retelling no matter what its source. The concept of “midrash” is accordingly a dynamic one, and there is nothing inherently novel or unacceptable about receiving an Arab folk-tale into the family of Jewish legend. Indeed, the story of “the two brothers” accurately reflects the traditional reverence which Islam has always held for the site of the “Bait al-muqdasah” (the Temple) and its builder, King Solomon. The story, by the way, is still part of the living oral tradition of the Palestinian Arabs.

Finally, Eliezar Segal concludes by writing:

The main purpose of the legend was to emphasize the values of peace, compassion and brotherly love that are symbolized by Jerusalem and the Temple. Is it not therefore doubly appropriate that in admitting (or repatriating) this story into Jewish tradition we should have to express a debt of gratitude precisely to those cousins with regard to whom it has been so difficult to realize those very ideals!

Jerusalem is an amazing place.  According to one ancient sage in the collection of midrash known as Avot de Rabbi Natan, “Ten portions of Torah are in the world – nine in Jerusalem, and one in the rest of the world.”  And yet, “Ten portions of hypocrisy are in the world – nine in Jerusalem, and one in the rest of the world.”  Oy vey.  Jerusalem’s intensity radiates in all sorts of directions.  There is spiritual depth and passion that would seek to heal the world, and alongside that there is aggressive piety that would seek to impose its will on all.  And there is conflict – political, religious, and national conflict between two peoples with two narratives and three sets of holy sites all in competition for hegemony.  Again, to quote David Shipler, “Here among the constant ruins and rebuilding of civilizations lies the coexistence of diversity and intolerance.”

I am certainly grateful and proud that, of Jerusalem’s many rulers over the past 3000 years, modern Israel has been the most tolerant and respectful of the holy sites and the religious freedoms of the other religions that also treasure their connection to Jerusalem.  We should not underestimate the good that has come from that.

I’ll close by sharing a thought this Shavuot, this season of offering of first fruits and receiving of Divine enlightenment.  There is much debate in the Jewish world over whether to allow Jerusalem to become the capitals of two states as part of a peace deal.  Sometimes these proposals are described as attempts to re-divide Jerusalem.  Horrible memories of days not long passed come to the Jewish mind – images of Jews unable to go to the Kotel, the Wailing Wall, and barbed wire cutting apart neighborhoods as part of a tense armistice.  Many of us shudder at the thought of re-creating that kind of divided city.  My hope would be that any discussions about helping Jerusalem realize the vision of its own name – “they will see peace” – would focus not on models that seek to divide, but rather on models that seek to promote the idea of sacred sharing.  There is already some precedent for this in the way that Jews and Muslims have worked out a way of sharing sacred space on the Temple Mount.  It’s a cold and prickly sharing, to be sure, but it has largely held over the decades and both communities are able to gather and offer prayer at their most sacred sites without getting in each others’ way too often.

I want to ask a thought-provoking question that I won’t answer, though I’m happy to share my personal views privately with anyone who asks.  That question is this:  What would it look like if there were a bold, courageous effort to find a way to share power, to make Jerusalem the world’s model of true peacemaking, of truly recognizing one’s own religious connection to God while simultaneously recognizing someone else’s?  If that could be done without diminishing our people – the Jewish people’s – right to live, pray, work, love, be born and die in Jerusalem, have our capital and Knesset there, have our spiritual life centered there in an active and vibrant way – if sharing didn’t require sacrificing any of that, but simply made room for a new kind of thinking to prevail over this tortured city, would you support it?  What visions do you have of how Jerusalem can finally return from its spiritual exile of strife and contention, of how Jerusalem can finally return to the root of its own name and become a city of peace where people can bring offerings of joy in serenity and in love?

On Shavuot we are directed by our texts to think about not one, but two, sacred mountains – Mt. Sinai, of course, but also the Temple Mount, and the vision of redemption that King David represents as he is mentioned at the conclusion of the Book of Ruth.  May we be strengthened and blessed with the ability to seek out ways for the city that holds that second mountain, the city of Jerusalem, to flower as an expression of true religious cooperation and peace.

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