The magnetic attraction to Jerusalem that continues to drive Jewish history

Even from the days of the patriarchs, Jerusalem has exerted a mysterious allure


The Book of Genesis portrays three vastly different visits to Jerusalem. Abraham first encounters this city after intervening in a raging world war. 

Years later, an acquiescent Abraham and his son voyage to the mountain to execute the divine command and perform the akedah (the binding of Isaac). Finally, Jacob flees his murderous brother and experiences his famed night-time vision on this mountain. 

Though these three visits are dramatically different and undertaken by different personalities at different historical stages, they bear one common denominator. Jerusalem had never been a predestined or prearranged destination; each guest is drawn to this mountain by some powerful and unexpected force. 

On returning from war, Abraham is suddenly embraced and hosted by the city’s reigning king, a mysterious figure who appears from nowhere. Subsequently, for his akedah mission, he travels to an “undetermined mountain”, whose identity will only be divinely revealed at some later stage. 

According to the Midrash, Jacob actually bypasses the mountain, only to be ineluctably drawn back. There is something deeply magnetising about this city and this mountain. It exerts a subliminal and primal lure on the Jewish soul, drawing would-be travellers into its precincts. Jerusalem, our city of gold, is also a city of magnets!

Fifty-two years ago, we returned to our ancient city amid the euphoria of the Six-Day War and its astounding miracles. The kinetic force of Jerusalem was, once again, unmistakable and palpable. The Six-Day War and the return to Jerusalem instantly generated a rich cultural iconography: images, sounds, and personalities forever etched on our collective imagination. 

Who can forget the iconic image of the “three soldiers”, eyes uplifted at the re-enfranchised Kotel, a wall which had occupied the Jewish imagination for two millennia? Naomi Shemer’s soulful song Yerushalayim Shel Zahav became an instant symbol of the centuries-old wistfulness for this city. Bold proclamations such as “The Temple Mount is once again under Jewish rule” (Har Habayit b’yadeinu in Hebrew) or the radio broadcast of Psalm 122 advertising “our feet are positioned in the gates of Jerusalem”, reverberate in our national memory. 

The war’s legendary generals, Ariel Sharon, Motta Gur and Moshe Dayan, became instant heroes. Interestingly, though the return to Jerusalem generated instant “icons”, the Independence War did not. There aren’t specific pictures, phrases or songs surrounding the 1948 war. 

This is due, in part, to technological advances as, by 1967, cameras and radio were more fully developed and better capable of popularising these icons. Additionally, the war of 1967 actually climaxed with the return to Jerusalem, whereas the war of 1948, which lasted a year and a half into 1949, felt anti-climactic after the celebrated Declaration of Independence. 

However, beyond these practical reasons, it seems as if, once again, the perennial magnetism of Jerusalem mesmerised our people, and through these icons deeply lodged itself within collective Jewish consciousness. 

Indeed, this magnetising force of Jerusalem wasn’t only sensed in the country of Israel. For close to 50 years, the Soviet regime had denuded millions of Jews of their heritage, their religion and even of their Jewish identity. Suddenly, the electrifying reports of the Jewish return to Jerusalem reinvigorated Jewish identity across the boulevards of Moscow and tundras of Siberia. 

The eventual emigration of millions of Russian Jews to Israel helped to radically transform Israel from a fledgling economy, constantly vulnerable to destabilising hyperinflation, into an economic superpower and technological epicentre.

As a student during the late ‘80s, I recall joining my yeshiva in Israel for a day-long “fast” in support of an unnamed Jewish Soviet dissident languishing in a jail cell. After the conclusion of the fast, we spoke to him in his Russian jail and assured him both of our support and of our expectation to one day welcome him to Israel. 

A few weeks later, Yuli Edelstein, the current speaker of the Knesset, walked into the Gush yeshiva to learn alongside me. The magnetism of Jerusalem, unleashed in 1967, had drawn him home 20 years later. Ultimately, two years afterwards, the Berlin Wall fell, thus terminating the 69-year Soviet regime. Who would have wagered that our fledgling state of Israel would outlast this empire built to last centuries? 

However, the magnetism of Jerusalem wasn’t sensed only in Israel or in Russia. Prior to 1967, Jews had firmly established themselves in Western societies, but lived on the social margins of society, wielding relatively little influence in governance and generally suppressing any outward signs of Jewish identity or religion. 

The return to Jerusalem provided a burst of national pride and a surge in Jewish confidence as Jewish enclaves across the Western world transformed into robust and vibrant Jewish communities, actively involved in all aspects of society, culture and politics. This “era of Jerusalem” sparked unprecedented religious growth as well as renewed interest in aliyah and tourism. The mysterious spell of this city continues to drive Jewish history.

King David referred to Jerusalem as “integrator city”, chubrah lah yachad (Psalm 122). Though there is healthy disagreement across the Jewish world about a range of issues, including important questions surrounding Israel, a deep consensus on Jerusalem unifies vastly different communities and ideologies. The instinctive draw to our common “city of magnets” is inalienable and eternal.

Rabbi Taragin teaches at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Gush Etzion

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