Becoming Builders Of Jerusalem: The Model Just Society


This week I was honored to deliver the Cape Town, South Africa, community-wide keynote address for Yom Yerushalayim. Hundreds gathered together in a powerful celebration of the liberation of Jerusalem 45 years ago (28th of Iyar 1967). I was reminded of the power of Jerusalem to unite the Jewish people.

Rav Kook taught that Zionism is the secular aspect of statehood but that Jerusalem is the soul of that movement, and they build off of one another. Jerusalem is a center in the world. For the last two years, Jerusalem has welcomed about 3.5 million tourists a year. Students flock, journalists are in abundance—the whole world is watching Jerusalem.

Even though Jerusalem does not explicitly appear in the Torah (unless Ir Shalem in the Avraham/Malkitzedek story is a reference to Jerusalem), it appears hundreds of times in the Tanach. It is our Jewish center; every day, we think about and pray for and toward Jerusalem in the Amidah and Birkat Hamazon.

Jerusalem is a place of our past, where tradition is the Akedah (the binding of Isaac happened on Mount Moriya) took place, where the temple stood, and so much of our sacred history for thousands of years occurred. However, similar to the Chanukah story, ostensibly about the past military victory and miracle, the meaning is really about Jewish survival today and celebrating our commitments. So too, Yom Yerushalayim is about the past, but is also the most true celebration of recommitting to the building and fostering of today’s Jerusalem.

We are to emulate God who is “boneh b’rachamav Yerushalayim” (Builder of Jerusalem through mercy). We are not tourists and shoppers (who just go to the kotel, a pizza shop, and buy some gifts), although our tourist money is of course very important. We are also not just advocates on the sidelines (although this is very important). We are builders of Jerusalem, each of us in our own unique way.

In the Talmud, Rabbi Yohanan notes the words of HaKadosh Baruch Hu: “I shall not dwell in the Celestial Jerusalem (Yerushalayim shel ma’alah) until I dwell in the Earthly Jerusalem (Yerushalayim shel matah).” Thus, the heavenly Jerusalem (ideal) cannot be built until the earthly Jerusalem (the pragmatic city) is built. There is the concealed (intimate home) and revealed (model in the world). The concealed Jerusalem is the reward for achieving the building of the revealed city.

Before we can deal with a spiritually ideal home, we must build an ethically sound model society—a paradigm for the world of a just city. We know there are very serious social problems in Jerusalem and broader Israel. Indeed, throughout the Western world, it has been acknowledged that the gap between rich and poor is widening. Consider the following:

·      25 percent of Israelis live in poverty

·      850,000 children and a growing number of working poor are now considered to be living below the poverty line

In comparison, Jerusalem fares even worse. As Israel Kimhi, of the Jerusalem Institute of Israel Studies, said this week: “Jerusalem continues to be the poorest city in Israel.” In the Jewish neighborhoods of West Jerusalem (East Jerusalem suffers from even worse poverty), the number living below the poverty line is sobering:

·      Nearly one-third of families

·      About 45 percent of minors

In addition, only 33 percent of Israeli 12th graders matriculate, due to the large number of ultra-Orthodox students who do not take matriculating exams.

Jerusalem is also ranked as one of the most corrupt cities in the world, and two former mayors have been charged with corruption. From dysfunctional law enforcement, denial of minimum wages, slave trafficking, torture, and other problems, Jerusalem in many ways is struggling.

These should not deflate our love and commitment to Israel—the opposite!

There is a tremendous moral and spiritual opportunity to help develop our greatest Jewish gift from G-d and the greatest Jewish project of our time. As a Jewish community, we must get on the same page. The secular culture often does not appreciate the kedushat ha’ir  (holiness of the city). The ultra-orthodox culture often does not appreciate the collective responsibility that comes with building and defending the city. The religious Zionists sometimes isolate themselves from society and become fanatical. In the Diaspora, too many Jews are not pro-Israel and too many others support Israel but are not vocal in their support.

But we also know there are many great things happening in Jerusalem today.

I am inspired to learn about the new wave of Israeli Jewish social justice organizations such as Bema'aglei Tzedek and their Tav Chevrati, MiMizrach Shemesh, Yahel, Zika, B’Tzedek, Kolot, Atzum, Atid Bamidbar, Elul, Bina, and Hillel.

I have been inspired to learn of the growing Israeli social justice culture is starting to emerge— hundreds of thousands of Israelis in the streets during last summer’s tent movement from Tel Aviv and Haifa down to Beit Shemesh and Eilat.

I am inspired to watch firsthand that after a devastating earthquake in Haiti, the Israeli medical relief team was first on the scene.

If you have lived in Jerusalem, you know it is a city of chesed—great kindnesses (almost miraculous) happen every day, and less violence than an outsider would suspect. In 2010, in Los Angeles, a city of 3.8-million people, there were 297 murders. In Jerusalem, a city of 800,000, that same year there were 9 murders. In 2011, there were only five murders.  One is too many, but it is nearly unique to have such a low number.

I am inspired by Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which states that Israel

"will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture…"

This is a world model, where we can fully embrace religion and democracy. The Midrash calls Jerusalem “Ir Shalom.” Shalom is not only a moral attribute, it is also a Name of God. Shalom is not political but a crucial Jewish value about removing physical and psychological suffering. Further, the Midrash refers to Jerusalem as “Ir tzedek,” city of righteousness, since the city should ideally serve as ohr lagoyim, a light to other nations.

We recited this morning in our Sunday morning prayers “Mi yaaleh b'har Hashem,” who is just enough to be able to confidently enter Jerusalem (Psalms 24:3-4). The only one fit to enter the Beit Hamikdash was one who could vouch that they were honest and ethical not cheating other people. The Mikdash is an intensified version of Jerusalem and thus one had to be ethical and fair in business in order to enter. A higher kedushah (holiness) demands a higher level of ethical and honest behavior. When people violated these principles and went into the Beit Hamikdash  (and into Jerusalem any way), this enraged Hashem. G-d rejected the Mikdash because it had become a den of thieves (Jeremiah, 7) and Jerusalem had been turned from a place “full of justice” to a place of murder and stealing and that Hashem found this intolerable (Isaiah, 1).

We must restore today’s Jerusalem to its true ideals: honesty, integrity, and a spiritual and intellectual center with a foundation of social justice. Jewish survival matters not for its own sake—but because Jews add value to the world. Jerusalem’s survival and liberation matters not for its own sake, but because the city can lead as a moral model in the world.  

The psalm of the day is "Ke'ir shechubra la yachdav"—"Built-up Jerusalem is like a city that was joined together" (Psalm 122:3). Today is a day of unity for Jerusalem, for our people, and for peace. We do not just look toward the past; each of us must also look to the future and commit ourselves toward furthering Jerusalem as a model state for justice.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder & CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, the Director of Jewish Life and the Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel and a 6th year doctoral candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” is now available on Amazon. In April 2012, Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the most influential rabbis in America.