A Nice Place to Visit, But…

October 1, 2014Rabbi Marc J. Rosenstein

There are people with hearts of stone; there are stones with human hearts.

-The Wall, by Yossi Gamzu

Through the 70s and the 80s we spent a total of five years in Jerusalem, working and studying. We loved the city with its rich diversity and physical beauty, its intensity, its historical echoes and holy places, its romance. We had (and have) a lot of friends there. We watched it develop and urbanize, for better or for worse, over those decades. But when we finally decided to make Aliyah in 1990, it was obvious to us that we would not make our home there - which led a number of those friends to decide that we were crazy. Why indeed?

When the Temple was standing, the high point of the Yom Kippur ritual - and thus, the spiritual climax of the whole year - came when the high priest was commanded to:

…lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the goat; and it shall be sent off to the wilderness through a designated man. Thus the goat shall carry on it all their iniquities to an inaccessible region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:21-22)

The Mishnah (Tractate Yoma, chapter 6) gives more details about the sending off of this scape goat - how the designated priest was accompanied by the elite of the city as he walked eight miles into the desert, stopping at ten rest stops that had been prepared for him along the way. After the last such booth he continued alone to the cliff from which he pushed the goat to its death, carrying the sins of the people into oblivion. It is not clear if the name Azazel (Leviticus 16:8) applied to this goat referred to a specific place, or to its function, or to some vestigial pagan memory. In modern Hebrew, Azazel is one word for "hell."

This ritual depends, of course, on the fact that Jerusalem is located on the border between two climatic-geographic zones, sitting right on the edge of the desert, as is obvious to anyone who has looked at the view from Mt. Scopus or the Mount of Olives. Turn west and all is green and temperate; turn around and the barren wilderness is in your face. There are many references in the rabbinic literature to Jerusalem as the axis mundi, the center of the world - which is why it was important that Jesus was crucified there, and that Mohammed ascended on his pilgrimage to heaven from the Temple Mount. Somehow, this mountain, where Abraham bound Isaac, has taken on layer upon layer of meaning - and of sanctity. What the ritual of the goat for Azazel shows is that it was only eight miles from the center of the world to the end of the world, from the Holy of Holies to Nowhere. Interesting. And intense. To this day Jerusalem is a magnet for people who are drawn to this intensity; some of them are undone by it, afflicted by what psychiatrists call "Jerusalem syndrome." Some find joy and fulfillment in the stimulating Jewish spiritual and intellectual life that is possible in such a rich environment. Many mostly block out the sanctity, and go about their lives just as they would anyplace else (except for the traffic jams every time a head of state visits or a prominent rabbi dies).

We found it too much, and decided to make our home in a place where the stones are just stones, and the olive trees are just olive trees, and the neighbors are just neighbors; a place that is, well, just a place, not a symbol; a place such that when we want sanctity we have to seek it out or create it - or make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

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