Reflections on Jerusalem: A Shabbat Message from Rabbi Berkman

July 21, 2023


As we enter into Shabbat this week, I am reflecting on the themes of Tisha b’Av, which falls next week on Wednesday evening through Thursday. Because this day is one of mourning the destruction of the ancient temple in Jerusalem, I am particularly thinking about my recent experience living and learning in Jerusalem for ten days, what Jerusalem has meant and means to me, and what it can mean for our people here in the Diaspora. 

For now, I want to share some of my visceral impressions through a few words and some photographs, though I look forward to sharing more about what I have brought back with me from the time of study and connection with an international cohort of rabbis at the Shalom Hartman Institute

Jerusalem has been at the heart of our people’s story for millennia, whether physically, spiritually, or both.

Jerusalem is filled with seekers of the sacred, with communities of religious practice of countless types, with people who are not connected with religious practice or community but for whom Jerusalem is simply home; with scholars, with survivors and immigrants, with diverse cuisine, with incredible music that is ancient, contemporary, contemporary melodies for ancient words, and secular. Jerusalem is noisy like any city, and incredibly quiet and peaceful on Friday afternoons through Saturday when Shabbat envelops its inhabitants no matter their religion or their practice. At the Hartman Institute, I studied in hevruta (pairs, or small groups), wrestled with texts both ancient and modern and learned from renowned leaders in the fields of Jewish thought, history and practice, and from leaders in Israeli society and politics; the city itself was no less a “text” with which to engage and learn. The learning and reflecting sparked by Jerusalem is so visceral, so holistic. It is born not just in the head, nor the heart, but somewhere in the dance between the two…perhaps I would say the reflecting and learning take place on the soul level.

Some of the moments and experiences in which my soul was stirred awake in new ways: Witnessing the particular light and shadow playing off of the Jerusalem stone, the night sky and the incredible and improbable bursts of blooming flowers everywhere, the sights and sounds of such a diverse array of people eating, drinking, talking and laughing in cafes and restaurants even until midnight, the music pouring from synagogue windows as various communities welcomed Shabbat; a friend giving me a private tour of the profoundly moving exhibit at Beit Avichai of Anatoly Kaplan’s work, as he was a primary illustrator for the stories of Sholem Aleichem my great-great grandfather; conversations with taxi drivers and with nuns at a Christian monastery called Beit Jamal, which a group of us were able to visit, guided by the wonderful scholar Yossi Klein HaLevi who was teaching us about contemplative practice in Judaism and Christianity; attending the massive Saturday night protest for the preservation of Israeli democracy (which was then in its 27th consecutive week, in cities throughout Israel); my phone, giving me walking directions, telling me to “turn right on Sholem Aleichem street,” chanting new melodies for ancient psalms in a new community of spirituality and music that meets every Tuesday evening, attending a concert by renowned musician and actor Tzachi Halevi (known for his role in Fauda) and so much more.

On Shabbat mornings, we chant at the ark: Ki mitzion tetzei torah u’dvar Adonai mi Yerushalayim – “For from Zion Torah will come forth, and the word of God from Jerusalem.” For me, all that I experience when I am in Jerusalem is Torah for the heart and the mind. A profoundly complex well of meaning, struggle, blessing, challenge, hope, and history that demands that we “turn it and turn it” (Pirke Avot 5:24), to wonder, to find and create wisdom in it and from it, within it and with it. I hope that we will soon be able to plan a congregational trip for TOS (please let me know if you would be interested in helping with the planning, or in participating; details to come!), so that I can share this with you in person. 

This Tisha b’Av, I will reflect upon the Jerusalem that is today and renew hope for its future as a dynamic, vibrant, and sacred center for our people, even as I make space for mourning for the catastrophes that have befallen us and this precious city through the millennia. I leave you with one of my favorite poems by Yehuda Amichai, in which this greatest of Jerusalem’s “secular” poets describes the extraordinary power of this place:

by Yehuda Amichai

Visits of condolence is all we get from them.
They squat at the Holocaust Memorial,
They put on grave faces at the Wailing Wall
And they laugh behind heavy curtains
In their hotels.
They have their pictures taken
Together with our famous dead
At Rachel’s Tomb and Herzl’s Tomb
And on Ammunition Hill.
They weep over our sweet boys
And lust after our tough girls
And hang up their underwear
To dry quickly
In cool, blue bathrooms.

Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower, I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. “You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!” I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, “You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

Rabbi Audrey Marcus Berkman