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At the Gates of Jerusalem

Today is Pesach.

I did something today that I do virtually every Pesach and Sukkot. I went to the Kotel - the Western Wall.


The city is full of people, throngs making their way to visit the wall to pray there. The Kotel plaza is full, really full! This gathering which continues for seven days is a modern-day fulfillment of the ancient rite of Aliya LaRegel - the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. 

But what should be in our minds when we visit Jerusalem?

How did the Jew in Temple times feel as he made his way to the Holy City to sacrifice and celebrate in Jerusalem?

I would like to articulate some ideas by reading Psalm 122 together with you, section by section:

שִׁ֥יר הַֽמַּעֲל֗וֹת לְדָ֫וִ֥ד שָׂ֭מַחְתִּי בְּאֹמְרִ֣ים לִ֑י בֵּ֖ית ה' נֵלֵֽךְ׃

A song of ascents. Of David. I rejoiced when they said to me, “We are going to the House of the LORD.”

The songs of ascent - Psalms 120-134 - are associated with the Temple and in particular the festive pilgrimage to the Temple. What are the "maalot" of "shir HaMaalot"?


Some suggest that these are the 15 steps of the Temple on which the Levites stood when they sung the holy Psalms.


Others suggest that it refers to the Olei Regel - the pilgrims for the "Foot Festivals" and as such, possibly this Mizmor (Psalm) expresses the feelings of just one of these people.

"I rejoiced when they said to me, “We are going to the House of the LORD"


The person who came to visit the Temple would have to prepare, to spend 7 days making himself or herself pure and then take great care to retain that purity. One may enter the Temple only in a state of ritual purity.


Why were they going there? They had something to communicate to God! Possibly thanks for a special life moment, or having been healed from a perilous illness. Possibly they came to pray for inspiration or financial success. Maybe they were coming as part of the national celebration of Pesach or Sukkot. They might even come bearing the "First Fruits - Bikkurim" of their fields. 

Whichever way they came with joy, anticipation, celebration. This was a big moment. And over and above it all was to be the moment of sacrifice which would be associated with deep prayer and a genuine sense of "encounter" with the Divine Presence.

עֹ֭מְדוֹת הָי֣וּ רַגְלֵ֑ינוּ בִּ֝שְׁעָרַ֗יִךְ יְרוּשָׁלִָֽם׃

Our feet stood inside your gates, O Jerusalem,

The pilgrim who harked from a small village in the Galil or Judah had never seen a city of this size. The grand fortifications were impressive and awesome. At the gates they stood, taking in the magnificence of their capital city.

יְרוּשָׁלִַ֥ם הַבְּנוּיָ֑ה כְּ֝עִ֗יר שֶׁחֻבְּרָה־לָּ֥הּ יַחְדָּֽו׃

Jerusalem built up, a city knit together,

How is the city "knit together"?

Option A: It is the joining of the city and the Temple. The values of the Temple must permeate the city. The Temple on the other hand, is no ivory tower - it is there to serve as a channel, an avenue so that those in the city may be oriented towards God. So this hybrid, this amalgam of city and Temple is part of Jerusalem's power. Sometimes we call it ירושלים של מטה lower Jerusalem, which is aligned with ירושלים של מעלה the heavenly Jerusalem.

Option B: In a town or village, each house is surrounded by an olive grove or a vineyard. Arab villages today look this way. But Jerusalem was an urban sprawl. It looked like the houses were "knot together".

Option C: The Rabbis read this phrase as "A city that makes all Israel into friends." Here it is the 12 Tribes of Israel who are "knit together. Jerusalem was extra tribal (like Washington DC). No tribe could claim it as their own. It belonged to everyone and no one. It was the nations' city without tribal division.

שֶׁשָּׁ֨ם עָל֪וּ שְׁבָטִ֡ים שִׁבְטֵי־יָ֭-הּ עֵד֣וּת לְיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל לְ֝הֹד֗וֹת לְשֵׁ֣ם ה'׃

For there the tribes would make pilgrimage, the tribes of the LORD,

a testimony to Israel, to praise the name of the LORD.

Now imagine the experience of arriving from the Tribal Region of Dan, or Yissachar, or Reuben. Probably each tribe had a different dialect or accent. In the ancient world you might have been exposed almost exclusively to your Tribe. And now, standing at the gates, you encounter a dazzling array of people who look different and speak a little different. It was an exciting moment in which you could palpably FEEL the sense of being part of the nation, the 12 TRIBES of Israel. 


כִּ֤י שָׁ֨מָּה ׀ יָשְׁב֣וּ כִסְא֣וֹת לְמִשְׁפָּ֑ט כִּ֝סְא֗וֹת לְבֵ֣ית דָּוִֽיד׃

There the thrones of judgment stood, thrones of the house of David.

As we read in the first line, this is a visit to the House of God. But the visitor to Jerusalem cannot but be impressed by:

1. The law courts - the seat of the Supreme Court, later called the Sanhedrin

2. The royal palaces.

The architecture must have been impressive.

But even more, to visit Jerusalem was to touch the highest institutions in the Land. The seat of Justice. The seat of royalty, of Government.

Moreover, it was incumbent for the Judges to feel that they judged with God watching over them. (See Psalm 82)

The King had to carry a Sefer Torah to ensure that he "not raise his heart above his brothers." (Deut 17)

In the ideal situation, these two institutions would be infused with and would convey a sense of mission, values, and humility.



שַׁ֭אֲלוּ שְׁל֣וֹם יְרוּשָׁלִָ֑ם יִ֝שְׁלָ֗יוּ אֹהֲבָֽיִךְ׃

Pray for the well-being of Jerusalem; “May those who love you be at peace.

יְהִֽי־שָׁל֥וֹם בְּחֵילֵ֑ךְ שַׁ֝לְוָ֗ה בְּאַרְמְנוֹתָֽיִךְ׃

May there be well-being within your ramparts, peace in your palaces.”

לְ֭מַעַן אַחַ֣י וְרֵעָ֑י אֲדַבְּרָה־נָּ֖א שָׁל֣וֹם בָּֽךְ׃

For the sake of my kin and friends, I pray for your well-being;

לְ֭מַעַן בֵּית־יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֵ֑ינוּ אֲבַקְשָׁ֖ה ט֣וֹב לָֽךְ׃

for the sake of the house of the LORD our God, I seek your good.

The Psalm ends with a prayer. Three times the word "Shalom". The notion of "shalva" - tranquility, calm, harmony, rest. The visitor blesses Jerusalem that it may continue to be at peace, to serve its national role. Note the reference to "loving" Jerusalem. This is a city that arouses love.

Peace in your ramparts - security

Peace in your palaces - royalty

For my brothers and friends - the nation, the tribes

The house of God - the Temple, spirituality, and the presence of God itself.

"Peace, Peace, Peace!" (Like "Holy, Holy. Holy!"?)


Has the pilgrim even reached the precinct of the Temple when he utters these prayers and hopes, or is he striding through the city streets? Who knows?!

He certainly sounds inspired , even besotted!


But possibly these hopes and dreams are uttered after his rendezvous with the Divine at the Temple, after he has sensed the sanctity and religious elevation of the Temple, he cannot leave without uttering his blessing and hope for his city, the national capital, God's city. 

This wonderful Psalm gives us a window into the rich experience, the deep emotions of a Jew of old who came to visit the Temple, especially at the time of the Regel. 

But it gives us a fabulous multi-layered understanding of the different facets of Jerusalem - and allows us to yearn and dream, to plan and build and work, to bring Jerusalem closer to its ideal image.

Moadim lesimcha!

Chag Sameach!

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