Topography of Ancient Jerusalem ֠part III: Jerusalem and the Desert (part a)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy


In the last two shiurim we examined the significance of Jerusalem's topography. As a continuation of the same subject, this shiur and the next will be devoted to the issue of Jerusalem's proximity to the desert.


We shall first describe the actual data that testify to this fact; thereafter, we shall discuss its spiritual significance.


1. Borders of the desert


The edge of the desert is an interesting geographical phenomenon. The point of contact between the desert and the mountain range is located in Mount Ephraim and the Shomron in the north, and at the Hebron mountains in the south. These two areas are both fairly far to the east. This fact is easily recognizable today in the map of Jewish settlements:


In the northern mountainous region, the meeting with the desert happens around the settlements of Kokhav ha-Shachar and Rimonim.


In the south – in the northern part of the Hebron mountains, where Gush Etzion is situated today, the desert meets the mountains around the settlements of Metzad, Ma'aleh Amos, Tekoa and Nokdim.


Around Jerusalem, in contrast, the encounter with the desert is far further to the west: on the eastern slopes of the Mount of Olives [1].


This phenomenon has several climatic ramifications. For instance, there is a difference of about 150mm of rain between the Ein Karem region, in south-western Jerusalem, and the region to the east of the city (Al-Azariya, etc.)


Likewise, the rock type is different in the east, and to the east of the city we already start finding vegetation that is typical of the desert (corresponding to the more limited rainfall). These, then, are the data that connect Jerusalem to the edge of the desert.


Now, in keeping with the approach that we adopted with regard to other aspects that we have investigated, we shall propose that this topographical reality bears spiritual significance, and we shall explore this idea.


2. Dependence on God


The whole of Eretz Yisrael – in complete contrast to Egypt – is characterized by its dependence on rain:


"For the land to which you are coming to possess it is not like Egypt, from whence you have come – where you sow your seed and water it with your foot, like a vegetable garden. Rather, the land to which you are passing over is a land of hills and valleys; you shall drink water from the rain of the heavens" (Devarim 11:10-12).


While this reality characterizes all of Eretz Yisrael, it is clear that the closer a place is to the desert, the greater its dependence on rain. We witness the practical expression of this state of affairs during dry years, when shepherds – lacking any pasture for their flocks in the desert – move westward, towards the mountains, where there is more vegetation and food for the animals.


Jerusalem itself, owing to its proximity to the desert, can easily become a place to which shepherds lead their flocks. Thus the shepherds turn this area itself, to a certain extent, into desert [2].


The prophet Yishayahu (64:9-10) describes a situation in which "Your holy cities have become desert; Zion has become a desert, Jerusalem is desolate. Our holy, beautiful house where our fathers praised You, has been burned with fire, and all of our pleasant things have been laid waste" [3].


The proximity to the desert creates a real dependence on the quantity of rain, and this has its effect on the nature of the habitation of the area.


Significance of the Dependence

Following the verses quoted above from Parashat Eikev, the Torah continues (Devarim 11:12), "A land that the Lord your God cares for; the eyes of the Lord your God are upon it from the beginning of the year to the end of the year."


There is an internal connection between dependence and Divine Providence: to the extent that one is more dependent, he enjoys more specific supervision. This supervision actually means "connection;" – in other words, a situation of dependence deepens the connection of a person, or of the world, to God, dependence on Him, and association with Him. Jerusalem is more dependent than most cities, and by virtue of this dependence, its connection with God finds expression [4].


Dependence and Providence are two sides of the same coin. To the extent that a person is dependent upon God, the workings of Divine Providence in his life and in the world are clear to him. In this sense, reliance actually serves to connect and bind all of Creation to its Creator. In a situation of drought there is no rain, and all of Eretz Yisrael – and Jerusalem in particular – return, as it were, to a situation of "desert," the situation that existed prior to Benei Yisrael's entry into the land; a situation of absolute reliance upon God.


Logic of the Dependence [5]

In explaining the reliance of the land on God, the Torah indicates two main reasons: the pervasive idolatry, and the lack of social justice with its various manifestations.


Idolatry: this matter is presented explicitly in Devarim 11:16-17 –


"Guard yourselves lest your hearts be tempted, and you stray and worship other gods and serve them. Then God will be angry with you and He will shut up the heavens so that there will be no rain, and the land will not give forth its produce, and you will soon perish from the good land which God gives you."


In the days of Eliyahu, it seems that this was the simplest reason for the prophet's decree, "There shall be no rain or dew during these years, except by my word" [6].


Lack of Social Justice: Social justice is mentioned in the Torah as a condition for Benei Yisrael inhabiting the land altogether. In the section immediately preceding the one quoted above (Devarim 10:17 onwards) we read as follows:


"For the Lord your God is the God of all gods and the Master of all masters; the great, mighty and terrible God Who does not show preference and does not accept bribes; He performs justice for the orphan and the widow, and loves the convert (stranger), to give him bread and clothes."


In other words, the aspiration for legal and social justice – especially towards widows, orphans and converts (strangers) – is the model that should illuminate the way for Benei Yisrael, guiding them to emulate the qualities of God: "You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the Lord your God; you shall serve Him and you shall cleave to Him…."


This, then, is the condition for dwelling in the land of Israel.


The prophets also address this issue; we shall mention just two examples:


In II Shemuel 21 the text mentions three years of drought "Because of Shaul and his bloody house, because he killed the Giv'onim." The reason for the drought was the insult to the rights of the strangers residing in the land during the days of Shaul. The Giv'onim demanded that seven of Shaul's sons be handed over to them for hanging – "And we shall hang them up to God in Giv'at Shaul (he who was God's chosen)." When the bodies are buried, God relents and gives rain.


Amos 4:7 onwards records another drought, resulting from the "Cows of Bashan in the mountain of Shomron, who oppress the needy and crush the destitute" (4:1). The nation continues to offer sacrifices in the Temple while, at the same time, condoning and maintaining social injustices; this causes the severe drought.


3. Drought and the Temple


In his prayer upon completing the construction of the Temple, Shelomo says (I Melakhim 8:35-36) –


"When the heavens are stopped up and there is no rain because they have sinned to You, they shall pray at this place and praise Your Name, and return from their sin, when You afflict them. And You shall hear, in the heavens, and shall forgive the sin of Your servants and Your nation, Israel, to whom You show the good path that they should follow, and give rain upon Your land which You have given to Your nation as an inheritance."


In other words, the Temple serves as an address to turn to at times of drought (as well as in other times of need), through prayer to God.


The prophecy of Chaggai mentions a drought that is directly connected to the building of the Temple (2:16 onwards). Throughout the period of the return from the Babylonian exile until the rebuilding of the Temple, severe drought reigned. It was only from the day when the construction of the Second Temple commenced that there was blessing upon the land (Chaggai 2:18-19):


"Consider, now, from this day onwards: from the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, from the day when the foundation of God's Temple was laid – consider it. Is the seed in the barn yet; have the vine and the fig tree and the pomegranate and the olive tree borne their fruit yet? From this day I shall bless you" (and likewise the parallel verses in Zekharya 8:9-12).


In other words, prior to the rebuilding of the Temple, there was no rain and no blessing; it was only the commencement of building that caused these phenomena to manifest themselves. Hence, we deduce that there is a strong connection between Jerusalem and the Temple and the phenomenon of rainfall.


A point of fundamental importance should be added here, concerning the connection between the Temple and material blessing. The Temple is a special place through which God provides blessing to all of the world. The fact that Am Yisrael, as a society and as individuals, need to bring their produce to the Temple, is meant to express what King David declares in I Divrei Ha-yamim 29:14 – "For who am I, and who is my nation, that we have the power to give voluntarily in this way? For all if from You, and from Your hand we are giving to You." This point finds expression in the entire system of Jewish festivals. At Pesach we bring the omer, and by virtue of this the produce is blessed; at Shavu'ot we bring the two loaves, and through this the fruit of the trees is blessed; at Sukkot we bring water, and through this the entire year is blessed with rain. Likewise, every Jew who grows fruit of one of the seven species brings his first fruits (bikkurim) to the Temple, sometime between Shavu'ot and Sukkot. As a result of this system, when the Temple was destroyed, blessing ceased from the world. It is not merely a matter of technical record that prior to the building of the Second Temple there was drought, and as the building began the blessing was renewed. This is a matter of fundamental significance. Material blessing is the revelation of Divine closeness to Am Yisrael, and an expression of the fact that God desires their actions. This is the entire purpose of the Temple. (We shall not elaborate any further here.)


In Tehillim 147 (verse 12 onwards) we find that Jerusalem praises God for the rain and material blessing that the land enjoys. It is no coincidence that it is Jerusalem that offers this praise. Owing to its proximity to the desert, Jerusalem is particularly sensitive to the need for rain and knows to praise and thank God when that blessing is fulfilled.


In Midrash Bereishit Rabba 13:9, Chazal explain the reason for the change that took place since the time of Creation concerning the way in which the land is irrigated;


"Rabbi Chanan of Tzippori taught, in the name of Rabbi Shemuel bar Nachman: Because of four things God retracted His [original] decision, such that the world would now only be irrigated [by rainfall] from above: because of thugs, and in order to wash away noxious fumes, and so that the tall would receive as much water as the lowly, and so that all would cast their gaze upwards – as it is written, 'to set those who are downtrodden on high' (Iyov 5:11)."


Rav Samet comments on this Midrash, pointing out that the first and third reasons are related to social justice:


"Water from a river may be controlled by thugs, but rain is freely available to all – it falls upon the tall and the lowly, the strong and the weak, as we find in Iyov 5:10-11; 'Who gives rain upon the face of the earth and sends water upon the open places, to set those who are downtrodden on high, and that those who mourn may be exalted to safety.'"


The Midrash continues the same idea mentioned previously. The phenomenon of rain, as opposed to rivers and flowing streams, allows man to be dependent upon God and to ask for rain. Therefore, by bringing rain God is in fact acting as a just King, Who distributes His blessing equitably [7].


We have already discussed the fact that the very name "Yerushalayim" means justice ("tzedek") and that its whole essence is justice; its king is called "tzedek," and the city and its king are expected to act with tzedek. When the king acts justly and the city acts justly – they enjoy abundant blessing (see Yishayahu 32:1-2; 15:20); when they do not act justly, the city becomes a desert for all intents and purposes.


According to this understanding, the proximity of Jerusalem to the desert is no coincidence. It is of fundamental significance. It expresses reliance, and its special connection with God. The essential quality of the city – justice – has the ability to influence the blessing that it showered upon it, or (heaven forbid) to turn it into a desert.


This is one aspect of the proximity of the city to the desert, demonstrating – through the city's dependence from a climatic and physical point of view – its dependence on God, and the expectation that justice will characterize its king and kingdom, just as justice characterizes the kingdom and kingship of God.


We may summarize the above by saying that Jerusalem is very close to the desert, and therefore is dependent – even more than the rest of the country – on rain. The reasons for this dependence on rain are, mainly, the temptations of idolatry and the easy descent into social injustice. What this means is that rain is one of the gifts that is given directly by God [8]. Idolatry means a negation of the recognition that rain is given directly by God – and therefore, in this situation, God withholds rain. And with regard to social justice, God grants life to man in order that he will behave justly and in an upright manner. Therefore rain provides everyone with an equal share of water (in contrast to springs and rivers, which provide irrigation mainly to certain areas but not to others), and teach man to allow others what they deserve. When a society does not recognize this and people fail to give to others, they will see that God, too, declines to give, and they will suffer measure for measure.


Eretz Yisrael in general, and Jerusalem and the Temple in particular, are places where this dependence is felt with special clarity because of the proximity to the desert. Therefore God expects of them a greater measure of justice and moral behavior, in order that Am Yisrael will be deemed worthy of dwelling in the "Sanctuary of the King." Hence, the reliance of Jerusalem on rain has a reason: it is directly connected to the essence of Jerusalem and of the Temple as the dwelling place of justice.


(to be continued)




[1] Yisrael Rosenson, in his article "Midbar shel Yerushalayim" (Telalei Orot) brings an interesting proof for this from the episode of David's flight from Jerusalem during the rebellion of Avshalom (II Shemuel 15). In verse 32 we read: "And it was, when David came to the peak, where he would prostrate himself before God…" – referring, apparently, to the peak of the Mount of Olives range. Thereafter, in chapter 16: 1-3, we read: "When David was just past the peak, behold – Tziva, the attendant of Mefiboshet, met him with a couple of saddled donkeys, with two hundred loaves of bread upon them, and a hundred bunches of raisins, and a hundred summer fruits, and a bottle of wine. And the King said to Tziva: What do you mean by these? And Tziva said, The donkeys are for the King's household, for riding, and the bread and the summer fruits are for the young men to eat, and the wine – that those who are faint in the desert may drink." David has now progressed slightly beyond the top of the Mount of Olives, in a north-easterly direction, and Tziva brings food that is meant to refresh those who feel faint in the desert. In other words, the desert starts immediately to the east of the Mount of Olives. The Gemara, in Rosh Ha-shana 31a, describing the ten journeys made by the Divine Presence, likewise recounts: "And from the city [Jerusalem] to the mountain, and from the mountain to the desert." The simple station to the east of the Mount of Olives (the mountain which is on the eastern side of the city – Yechezkel 11:23) is the desert, because of its great proximity to the Mount of Olives.

[2] An interesting description of this phenomenon is to be found in Yirmiyahu 12:10 – "Many shepherds have destroyed my vineyard; they have trodden my portion, they have made my portion a barren wilderness. They have made it a desolate waste; the desolation mourns to me. The whole land is laid waste for no-one takes it to heart. The spoilers have come upon all the high hills in the desert, for the sword of God has devoured from one end of the land to the other; there is no peace for anyone. They have sown wheat but reaped thorns; they have worked but gained nothing. Be ashamed of your harvests, because of the anger of God."

[3] Ultimately, the complete destruction described by the prophet is actually the destruction of the city and the Temple.

[4] This subject is an extensive one. There is a famous teaching by Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshis'cha, concerning the punishment meted out by God to the snake: "You shall eat dust all the days of your life" (Bereishit 40:14) – that although it would seem that the snake is now in the favorable position of having food readily available at all times, the punishment here is the distance from God: the snake will never need any contact with God. The Gaon Rav Shelomo Fisher provides a beautiful example: in his book, "Derashot Beit Yishai," vol. I, p. 131. How is it possible that the kohanim – the very "soldiers of God," as it were – are forced to wander from one threshing floor to the next, to receive their food? The answer is that to the kohanim it is very clear Who their food comes from. Their reliance reminds them at all times that they are servants of God, and dependent upon Him. This subject is certainly worthy of a discussion in its own right; here we merely make mention of it. Conversely, the Torah devotes many verses to the corruptive and destructive aspects of material abundance – e.g., Devarim 8:11-18.

[5] We make mention of two articles in this regard: Rav Yisrael Samet, "Ha-geshem bi-Yerushalayim," in "Ke-Lavi Shakhen," p. 458 onwards; and Shuki Preizler and Noam Perl, "Al Divrei ha-Batzoret," Orot Etzion 20, p. 119 onwards. We discuss above some sources that these authors treat in their respective articles, and concur in certain aspects.

[6] This issue should be elaborated upon, but we shall not do so in the present context.

[7] A beautiful expression of this significance of water is to be found in the words of Iyov (28:25-26): "He makes a weight for the wind, and weighs the water by measure; when He makes a decree for the rain and a way for the lightning of thunder." Rain is connected to a "decree" – justice, as described above.

[8] "The key for rainfall is in God's hand" (Ta'anit 2a).



Translated by Kaeren Fish