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Sunday, May 20, 2012

Yom Yerushalayim: A Sermon

            Yom Yerushalayim – Shabbat Behar...5/18/12

Tomorrow we celebrate Yom Yerushalayim.

The day commemorates Israel’s triumph during the Six-Day War, how the I.D.F. pummeled the forces of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in less than a week;

The day recalls the conquest of the Sinai Desert, the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and most exceptionally, the eastern half of Jerusalem;

And the day celebrates the end of a 2000-year-old yearning....For Yom Yerushalayim is the day on which the City of David and Temple Mount finally returned to Jewish Sovereignty.

But if these things are the basis for Yom Yerushalayim, we should consider the following.  The Sinai desert now belongs to Egypt. Gaza is now the playground of Hamas. Numerous West Bank cities are considered autonomous zones governed by the Palestinian Authority. Moreover every major government in the world assumes that if the Israelis and Palestinians ever manage to make peace, the greater part of the West Bank will become Palestinian along with a good portion of Jerusalem as well. Ehud Barak famously offered half of Jerusalem to Yasser Arafat.  

Peace may be a pipe-dream, but the question remains: How do we celebrate the expansion of Israel’s borders after spending a good twenty years negotiating its contraction?  How does one celebrate Jerusalem’s unification, when successive Israeli governments have quietly, and not so quietly, considered its division?

Tomorrow morning, thousands of Israelis will gather at the Kotel to recite Hallel. They’ll chant an old blessing that the Cohanim once offered pilgrims. Baruch Haba B’shem Hashem, Bayrachnu-chem M’beth Hashem.Blessed is one who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you from the House of the Lord.” Well, the Kotel is not the House of the Lord. It’s not the courtyard. It is not even the front-yard. The Western Wall is a blockade that shuts Jews out.
As the Moslem Waqf—the trust that guards the site—prohibits Jews from praying there, it is not possible for a cohen to enter and recite the benediction: Bayrachnu-chem-“We bless you from the House of the Lord.”  We can’t go in.

 So what is Yom Yerushaliym?


This morning’s Torah portion begins with a fundamental contradiction. In the opening verses, God says to Moses : When you enter in the land which I give you, כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לָכֶם [...],
Six years you shall sow your field, six years you shall
prune your vineyard and collect the harvest. But in the seventh year, the land shall have complete rest. There shall be a Sabbath to God.” שבת לה'  (25:2-4)
What this means, explains the Ramban, is that for six years the property is yours—sow what you want, plant as you please—but the seventh year belongs to God.  You are not the owner. (Citing the Sifra; Cf. Rabbenu Bachaye ben Asher; Rashi)
A few verses later, we find a similar idea. If an impoverished farmer sells his ancestral land, the sale is not permanent.   וְהָאָרֶץ, לֹא תִמָּכֵר לִצְמִתֻת The new buyer can spend 10, 20, 30 years investing every last ounce of sweat and cunning to make the earth bloom....but when the Jubilee comes, the land reverts to the original seller.  Why? Because the land is Mine; and you are strangers and settlers with Me.  כִּי-לִי, הָאָרֶץ:  כִּי-גֵרִים וְתוֹשָׁבִים אַתֶּם, עִמָּדִי
What kind of ownership is this: Six years it belongs to you, but year seven it is God’s?  How can it be that for 48 years, it can belong to one farmer, then in year fifty, it is suddenly relinquished to another farmer, free of charge! Why do we need these strange laws of constantly shifting ownership?  

A number of commentators take, what we would call, “a Marxist approach” to the Sabbatical laws. A ‘just state’ needs tools to diminish poverty and inequality. Shadal, an Italian commentator, observed that the Jubilee totally “leveled society, humbling the arrogant, and reminding everyone (mostly the rich) that all human-beings are equal.”   הוא חמלה על העניים והוא משווה העשיר והעני ומשפיל גאוות העשיר ומזכיר אותו כי כל בני אדם שווים הם.

For those robbed by fate, Shmitta meant a year without begging for food.  For the truly desperate,  Yovel was something more, it was something longed for—for it promised a fresh start, a return to one’s land. God gave once, and now God gives again. כִּי-לִי, הָאָרֶץ

There is a psychological element as well. It cannot be easy to relinquish one’s property.  Nor is it easy on the conscience to seize land and produce without offering compensation. But if it is the Lord’s hand that gives and the Lord’s hand that takes, then taking isn’t thievery, and giving isn’t being fleeced.  Strangers may come and go; because the earth is the Lord’s; and everyone’s a stranger.  :  כִּי-גֵרִים וְתוֹשָׁבִים אַתֶּם, עִמָּדִי.

I want to share with you a personal recollection.

I have walked from Jaffa gate to the Kotel many, many times, through the Armenian Quarter, through the Arab shuk. It’s always a pleasure—the alleys, bazaars, the spice-carts and bookshops, yeshivot.... Yet, there is always a moment of bitterness when I glance up and see the golden Dome of the Rock overshadowing the Kotel. My heart does not like what my eyes see. It doesn’t belong.
My first instinct is to remember that ‘It is the Lord who gives and the Lord who takes.’ The Temple Mount is not ours for the moment.

But I think the deepest feeling is much like the farmer who has lost ancestral homestead. Year by year, this farmer watches the other family, the other farmer, that’s moved into his home. In the springtime, he watches from afar and mutters:  “That should be my family harvesting the earth.”  And so he counts the days, the weeks, the years, till the next Jubilee....

The miracle of Yom Yerushalayim is that for a brief moment what was in our hearts and in our hands was in perfect symmetry. The land which we longed for, and which we believe belonged to us, did in fact belong to us....from Dan to Beersheba: Yerushalayim...Hebron...Bet-Lechem...and much more.

But these last few years, every time we pick up a newspaper and read of another withdrawal, negotiation, or disengagement, another piece of earth slips through our fingers.

It’s been 45 years since that first Yom Yerushalayim in June 1967, perhaps another Yovel will come soon... but to celebrate tomorrow, we must pretend it is already here. 

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