Wandering in the Wilderness of the Earthly Jerusalem

This week, in our Torah reading cycle, we embark upon a new book: Bamidbar. It's known as the Book of Numbers in English, but the Hebrew word "Bamidbar" -- meaning, "in the wilderness" -- is the more apt title, as the book describes a people wandering not only through a geographic wilderness, but seeking to find themselves and their direction in a spiritual wilderness as well. The Israelites are depicted in Bamidbar as petulant and rebellious, and constantly try the patience of both Moses and God... in other words, they are far from perfect. Sadly, this week, it is all too apparent that the city of Jerusalem, too, resides (paradoxically) "in the wilderness."

This week, in our Torah reading cycle, we embark upon a new book: Bamidbar. It's known as the Book of Numbers in English, but the Hebrew word "Bamidbar" -- meaning, "in the wilderness" -- is the more apt title, as the book describes a people wandering not only through a geographic wilderness, but seeking to find themselves and their direction in a spiritual wilderness as well. The Israelites are depicted in Bamidbar as petulant and rebellious, and constantly try the patience of both Moses and God... in other words, they are far from perfect. Sadly, this week, it is all too apparent that the city of Jerusalem, too, resides (paradoxically) "in the wilderness."

I was already planning to write this week about the contrast that the exists in classical Jewish texts between "Yerushalayim shel mala," the spiritual, heavenly Jerusalem, and "Yerushalayim shel mata," the imperfect, earthly Jerusalem, where real people struggle with deep political, religious and personal conflict. (For more on this, check out Rabbi Yochanan's statement towards the bottom of B. Talmud Taanit 5a.) What I had wanted to write about was how we, the Kavana community and other progressive American Jews, have come to understand deeply (particularly as we've moved through the last handful of years spanning the Trump presidency and its continuing aftermath) what it means to love a country and believe in its ideals, and yet still sharply critique its missteps, its leaders and its unjust policies. I wanted to share with you about how, over the past month, I've been reading regular posts from my friend Mahmoud Muna, owner of the Educational Bookshop in East Jerusalem; he has explained how the courtyard in front of the Damascus Gate -- one of the entries into the Old City from the East Jerusalem side -- has become a place of nightly protests for young Palestinians, ever since the Israeli authorities decided on the first day of Ramadan to block access to the large stairs that functioned as social hub of the neighborhood. I wanted to tell you how awful it feels to me to know that Israeli army and police forces have cracked down on Palestinian protestors violently, but have protected right-wing Jewish groups that mobilize and march through the streets chanting pleasantries like "death to Arabs." I wanted to share with you that -- in the words of my friend Yona Shem-Tov, Executive Director of Encounter -- what has been happening in Sheikh Jarrah in Jerusalem, where nearly 200 families are risking eviction from their homes, "should be a stain on the conscience of all Jews who care deeply about a flourishing Israel, a flourishing Jewish people, and the basic human dignity of all."

I had wanted to share reflections on all of these topics -- hard as it is to talk about the painful reality of what's transpiring in Jerusalem now -- because as part of the Jewish people, injustices are being perpetrated in our names each and every day that the Occupation continues. Although we live an ocean away, I believe it's our responsibility as American Jews to educate ourselves, and to act in whatever ways we can to help bring about a more just, compassion, and peaceful world, here and there.

Two days ago, though -- as Muslim worshippers gathered in the Old City to mark the final days of Ramadan, and as Jews simultaneously celebrated the Israeli national holiday of Yom Yerushalayim, commemorating the reunification of Jerusalem and the establishment of Israeli control over the Old City in the aftermath of the June 1967 Six-Day War -- all hell broke loose. Over the past couple of days, we have witnessed an explosion of violence. On Monday, I watched videos of Israeli nationalists dancing and singing in the Kotel plaza while huge flames shot up from a burning tree next to the Al Aqsa Mosque atop the Temple Mount; I read reports from Israeli friends who fell to the ground next to their cars as the first Hamas missiles rained down on Israeli civilians; I watched the news agencies' casualty numbers from Gaza tick up in the wake of Israeli airstrikes. Yesterday was even worse... mass protests in West Bank cities like Hebron, missiles falling on Ashkelon and Tel Aviv, and destructive violence that looks more akin to civil war in Lod. Videos of Israel's night sky lighting up with dozens of incoming rockets -- coupled with the little explosions of the anti-missile "Iron Dome" intercepts blocking most of those -- are shocking. On a Zoom call with colleagues in Israel this morning, they described a scary night of sirens and sleeping with their kids in the miklat (the bomb shelter). And as Israeli forces fire back into Gaza, even if the targets are Hamas strongholds, civilians are inevitably in the line of fire too. With death tolls in the dozens already and hundreds of wounded people "on both sides," between Israel and Gaza, this situation feels desperate. And so today, I'm aching for my friends and family who live in that small strip of land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, ALL of them... and feeling scared and despondent about what tomorrow may bring. Reading today's news in context is important: this explosion of violence was only possible because there was already a powder keg ready to blow.

For American Jews, Israel is a hard topic. "The matzav" (literally "the situation" - the Hebrew short-hand for talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) is complex. With shouting and digging in on both sides, it's uncomfortable to try to hold the contradictions and find the nuanced truth... and to be honest, many of us are tempted to just steer clear. But, I believe, as a Jewish community, we have a special relationship to this land and this people, and as a result, we are not free to shy away from engaging.

I urge you to read news reports and try to go behind the headlines (for example, check out this piece by Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director of T'ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights). I encourage you to seek out organizations that are working on the ground in ways you respect, and to support them financially. (This week, in honor of Yom Yerushalayim, I made a donation to Ir Amim, and organization that works "to promote Jerusalem as an equitable and sustainable city for all its residents" -- you're invited to join me in doing so, or to check out Seeds of Peace or Encounter or any of the many other organizations doing amazing work around the conflict.) If you have friends or relatives in the region, I hope you will reach out to them to offer support and comfort, and to hear what the matzav is looking like through their eyes. Someday soon, I hope we will be able to reschedule the Kavana Israel trip that was thwarted by Covid last summer, and explore these realities ourselves on the ground, meeting people from all sorts of backgrounds and hearing their stories directly... as "getting proximate" and building relationships are great ways to go deeper.

This week, as we move past the day of Yom Yerushalayim, we are reminded yet again that "Yerushalayim shel mata," the earthly Jerusalem, is really quite far from "Yerushalayim shel mala," the heavenly Jerusalem. East Jerusalem and West Jerusalem, too, are technically the same city and yet sometimes feel worlds apart from one another. Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai turns this duality into a question in one of the Jerusalem poems from his Patuach Sagur Patuach / Open Closed Open collection (page 144), asking: "Why is Yerushalayim always two, one on high and one below?... I want to live in a single 'Yerushal,' since I am just 'I' and not 'I's."  

This year, as we hold Jerusalem in our hearts and send up fervent prayers for peace, I join with Yehuda Amichai in this wish, that somehow we might move the "Jerusalem below" closer and closer to the "Jerusalem on high," until the two realities become one. Let us do whatever is in our power to make this dream a reality. For until then -- despite the fact that our people have returned to this ancient land -- we are still very much wandering through the wilderness.

With prayers that the City of Peace may yet know peace -- and wishing my friends there a Chodesh Sivan Tov and Eid Mubarak,

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum