In Jerusalem, the occasional but universal human sensation of dreaming without being able to interpret the dream is stronger than it is elsewhere, and all the more so since the city actually does exist. But that is how it feels to be in exile. For exile is a type of dream. When the Psalm says that, in returning, “we will be like unto them that dream” (Psalms 126:1), it means it will be as if we were awaking from a nightmare.
The feeling that we are wandering in an unexplained dream becomes increasingly strong the more frequently we dream it. Jewish Law addresses this perfectly. It says that when we see Jerusalem for the first time, out of mourning we should tear our clothes, and when we see the ruins of the Temple, we should tear them again.
For the Jerusalem of today is not the real Jerusalem of our hopes and our yearnings. We speak so often of “return” in our liturgy and our poetry because a profound crisis occurred with our exile from Jerusalem. Not only were we expelled from our home, but the shechina, the presence of God, became exiled from us. One might think that this affects only Jews; after all, it was the Jewish Temple and capital that were destroyed, first in 586 BCE and then in 70 CE. But in reality, with this exile the entire world is in crisis, because the presence of God affects everyone, as does its absence.
The absence of God – the hiddenness of God, according to Kabbalah – has profoundly destabilized the world. When God returns to Jerusalem, the entire world will regain its stability. And so our thrice-daily prayer for God to rebuild Jerusalem really means “Put the world back in place.”
A simple example expresses this concept well. We all use electronic devices. If we remove the batteries, nothing works; when we reinstall them, everything works perfectly once again. When we say, “May Jerusalem be rebuilt!” we are asking God to renew our connection – put in the batteries! – so that everything will start to work again. Returning to Zion is not a problem of geography but of connection. Reestablishing this connection will put the world back in place.
So we see that the resurrection of Jerusalem must occur on two planes – spiritual and material. With respect to streets and houses, it is easy to rebuild Jerusalem. But rebuilding it properly means body and soul – its buildings, streets, water and trees, and internally. As King Solomon said, “I have seen servants upon horses, and princes walking as servants upon the earth” (Eccles-iastes 10:7). Internal disarray is one of the definitions of the exile, and when the correct order is not respected, nothing is truly built. As real as the city may appear, it is but an imaginary construction. Hence our feelings that we are living in a dream, even when we are there.
So how can Jerusalem be truly rebuilt? Our liturgy gives us clues. First of all, we cannot speak of Jerusalem without speaking of love, in Israel’s feelings for the Holy City but also in the manner in which the return must occur. When we say in our daily prayer, “To Jerusalem, Your city, with compassion return,” we express our desire for the return to be gentle. For as Ezekiel reminds us, it could also be catastrophic – “I will rule over you with a mighty hand … and with outpoured wrath, as a storm may create a mountain.” (Ezekiel 20:33)
This is why Jerusalem is always a love story, as we see in so much of our liturgy and poetry as well. The great Spanish poet Judah Halevy calls Jerusalem “fullness of beauty” and affirms that all perfections are united in her. In another love song, his L’cha Dodi – “Come, My Beloved” – which we sing to welcome the Sabbath, Jerusalem is compared to a fiancee adorned with ornaments, awaiting our return.
Our return to Jerusalem must also be a true reunion, and not just an encounter. Jerusalem is a very sensitive city – a city of peace, but also a place seething with anger, hence the constant risk of squabbling, which unfortunately lives on to this day! This irritability stems from the city’s hypersensitivity. Jerusalem is like the place where all the nerves come together. When you touch it, everything starts trembling.
Handling any sensitive spot requires particular solicitousness. We must be careful there, with the city and with one another. Hence the Talmudic maxim: “Those who are born in Jerusalem will receive a special reward, but those who love Jerusalem will likewise receive it,” and the verse from Isaiah (66:10), “Rejoice with Jerusalem … all you who love her.”
Third, the true reconstruction of Jerusalem implies reconstruction of the Temple. There is a progression. First, God will again inhabit Jerusalem; then, we will build His house and serve Him there. Perhaps that is why Isaiah compares Jerusalem and Israel to a sad woman, abandoned by her husband: first of all, come back home! After that, we’ll see.
Then again, the abandoned woman can be us: When the abandoned wife goes out for a walk, when she is somewhere else, she feels her husband’s absence less. She feels it most strongly when she returns home. And so our yearning is greatest perhaps when we are physically in the city but the Shechinah still is not. The golden city arrayed in its incomparable light makes us yearn all the more for the light’s holy Source.
From Jacob’s dream through the present, Jerusalem has always been between Heaven and Earth, a place where the sublime is in constant contact with the mundane. On the one hand, people spit on the ground; on the other hand, they live there as if in a perpetual dream. Both aspects are real; neither tells the whole story. For now, we live in exile and pray, still and again, for return.
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz was hailed by Time magazine as a “once-in-a-millennium scholar.” More than two million copies of his Steinsaltz Talmud (Random House) have been sold worldwide. He has been a resident scholar at both Yale and Princeton, and in 1988 was awarded the Israel Prize, the country’s highest honor.