There has never been a love story like it in all of history. The love of this people for that city.
Jerusalem is mentioned something like 660 times in Tanach.
And even though the Temple was destroyed twice and even though the city has been besieged 23 times and captured and reconquered 44 times, Jews never ceased to pray for Jerusalem, about Jerusalem, and facing Jerusalem.
Somehow it was where every Jewish prayer met and ascended to heaven. And there’s been nothing like it. Other cities, other faiths, they hold Jerusalem holy but they have holier places. Rome, Constantinople, Mecca, Medina. Jews only had this one city, a tiny city but somehow it was the place, said Maimonides, from which the Divine Presence was never exiled.
In those critical and tense weeks before the Six Day War, I was just coming towards the end of my first undergraduate year at Cambridge University.
And for the three weeks beforehand, we all felt that something terrible was going to happen, after all the troops were massed on the Egyptian and Syrian borders. And all of my generation born after the Holocaust feared that we were about to witness a second holocaust.
All the Jewish students, vast numbers of them, turned up in the little shul in Thompsons Lane to pray. I’ve never seen so many people there before or since. The atmosphere was absolutely intense. And for me it was life-changing.
As soon as we saw the paratroopers, as soon as we heard the words “Har Habayit b’yadeinu” (“The Temple Mount is in our hands”), I knew I had to go there and see it for myself. I went there, and looking down from Mount Scopus, down on the Old City, I suddenly realised that I was standing at the very place that the Mishnah and Gemara talk about, when Rabbi Akiva and three of his rabbinical colleagues are standing looking down on the ruins of the Temple. And the other rabbis are weeping, and Rabbi Akiva is smiling.
And he says, “Why are you weeping?”
And they say, “Look the Holy of Holies, it’s all in ruins, a fox is walking through there! The place that only the holiest man, the High Priest, could enter, only on the holiest day, and now it’s ruins. Of course we’re weeping. Why are you not weeping?”
And Rabbi Akiva said, “Because there were two prophets who gave prophecies. One, Micah, saw the city in its destruction and another one, Zechariah, saw it rebuilt, and saw it as a place where ‘old men and women would sit in the streets of Jerusalem, and the streets would be filled with the sounds of children playing.’
“So if I have seen the fulfilment of the prophecy of destruction, am I not convinced that there will one day come true the prophecy of rebuilding and restoration?”
A picture taken from the Mount of Olives showing the Old City of Jerusalem with the Dome of the Rock in the centre (Getty Images)
And as I stood where Rabbi Akiva stood 2,000 years earlier, I said to myself, “If he had only known how long it would take, would he still have believed?”
And then I suddenly realised, of course he would still have believed, because Jews would never give up hope of Jerusalem. We never allowed it to escape our minds. In any of our prayers, at our weddings, we remember Jerusalem.
Jews were a circumference whose centre was Jerusalem. And I realised that a people that could never forget this holy city would one day come back.
And as I stood there, soon after the Six Day War, I suddenly realised that faith brought back Jews to Jerusalem, and will one day rebuild its ruins. That is the most powerful testimony of faith I know.
What’s special about Jerusalem today is that despite all the tensions, which are real, nonetheless it’s a place that is the holy of holies still to Jews. But also on the Temple Mount are two mosques. It’s a place of prayer for Muslims. There, in the Old City, are some of the holiest churches in the whole of Christendom.
So it is nonetheless a city of peace. One of the very few places in the Middle East, one of the very few places in the world, holy to three distinct faiths where those faiths pray together in freedom and in peace.
Somebody once said about Israel, and you could certainly say this about Jerusalem, that it’s not that long and it’s not that wide, but it’s very deep. Jerusalem is very deep. And somehow within its relatively narrow confines it contains, in Walt Whitman’s phrase, “multitudes”.
The other incredible thing about Jerusalem is that, somehow, magic happens with our sense of time.
So, for instance, the walls of Jerusalem were destroyed by every conqueror and then rebuilt using the stones from the previous wall. If you look at the stones of the walls around Jerusalem, they come from all the eras.
Somehow past and present, the old and the new, are all jumbled together. And then you think of this city, the oldest of the old, and yet Time magazine listed Jerusalem as one of the top five in the world that is an emerging centre of high tech.
So it’s the oldest of the old and it’s the newest of the new. It is the living symbol of what Theodor Herzl titled his book about the return to Zion: Altneuland, “the old new land”, the old new city, for the old and renewed people.
Rabbi Sacks’s writings can be read on the Rabbi Sacks Legacy website rabbisacks.org