“How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel! ” (Numbers 24:5)
I arrived in Jerusalem Sunday evening as the sun was setting on the first day of the week. I found again a city filled with life and vitality.
The rabbis suggest that the world was granted ten measures of beauty, but nine were given to Jerusalem. I have read this Talmudic text many times. Often I have found it to be exaggerated. I have been privileged to see many beautiful cities. I love San Francisco with its hills and jagged Pacific coastline. I hear that Paris is an extraordinarily beautiful city and Venice a lover’s paradise. There are even days when the beauty of our very own Long Island is stunning.
Yet when I am here I feel the rabbis’ sentiment. I believe that this city of Jerusalem does indeed hold nine measures of beauty. It is difficult to fathom when we sit in New York reading of Israel’s struggles and Jerusalem’s conflicts. We see only problems and difficulties. From afar the city’s beauty is obscured. From near it is stunning and beautiful. And so on that day when I returned to my beloved Jerusalem I beheld only nine measures of beauty.
Those who know me well must ask: how could I love a city where I am so far from the ocean and the sea? Yehuda Amichai responds: “And there are days here when everything is sails and more sails, even though there’s no sea in Jerusalem, not even a river.” In another poem he even calls Jerusalem the Venice of God, describing it as a “port city on the shore of eternity.” Even though there is no sea here one nonetheless senses the ocean’s waves.
I have long sought the words to describe my swelling emotions when I visit this city. I reach to the poet. I set out upon the city’s streets to find the words.
Soon after arriving, on the second afternoon when I had my first break from classes, I walked the streets of Jerusalem. I traveled from my rented apartment on trendy Emek Refaim to the Tayelet overlooking the city, through the Old City’s Zion Gate to the Western Wall and through the Arab shuk back to the apartment, by way of Jaffa Gate and King David Street. Despite the fact that I touched the very stones that generations of Jews had only hoped to feel and that beneath my feet I imagined Abraham walking with his son Isaac and David planning the building of the Temple, the view that took my breath away was that from the Tayelet, the promenade overlooking the Southern walls of the Old City.
There I saw the golden dome of the Dome of the Rock, the top of the Church of Holy Sepulchre peering above the city’s buildings and the Hurva synagogue, destroyed decades ago by the Jordanians but now rebuilt. I looked to the left of the Old City’s walls and saw the windmill of Yemin Moshe, the first neighborhood built outside the Old City’s walls. And to the left of this was the expanse of the ever growing new city of West Jerusalem.
And it is actually this view of the cranes building the new city that always makes my heart swell. It is not the ancient but in fact the new. It is that we have returned to this place that for generations we only dreamed of, and spoke about, and sang to, and prayed for. It is not only the political success of modern Israel or its many achievements here in Jerusalem. It is instead that here, even on an ordinary bustling street, I see the Torah’s words of this week’s portion: “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!”
Here our dreams have become real. Here we are not only rebuilding our ancient city. We are also constructing our very dreams. No city is perfect of course. The reality is not yet the ideal.
Still there is always a moment here when I see only nine measures of beauty and believe that I am once again privileged to return to the port city on the shore of eternity.