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

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy


4.  Future Reality


In the various prophecies we see that, in the time to come, Jerusalem will enjoy a situation of abundant water; living waters will flow from the city and animate the desert.  Examples of such visions are to be found in Yechezkel 47, Zekharya 14, Yoel 4, and Yishayahu 51, 13 etc.


Water in Jerusalem


Yishayahu (33:13-22) prophesies about the perfected reality in which the nations of the world will come to Jerusalem for judgment, and the Kingdom of God will be revealed over the entire world.  This reality is related to the appearance of water in Jerusalem; the water will emerge from the city and irrigate the whole world, as was the case in the Garden of Eden:


"Hear, those who are far away, what I have done; those who are near – know My might.  The sinners in Zion are afraid; a trembling has seized the flatterers.  Who among us can dwell with the devouring fire; who among us can dwell with everlasting burning? He who walks righteously and speaks uprightly, despising the gains of oppression, shaking off his hands from holding bribes, closing his ears from hearing of blood and shutting his eyes from seeing evil.  He shall dwell on high; his place of defense will be the fortresses of rocks; his bread will be given him, his water will be assured.  Your eyes will behold in the King in His splendor; they will see the land that is far off… Look upon Zion, the city of our gatherings.  Your eyes will see Jerusalem a quiet habitation; a tent that shall not be taken down, its pegs will never be removed, nor any of its cords broken.  For there the majestic God will be for us a place of broad rivers and streams, where no galley with oars can go, nor shall a mighty ship be able to pass it.  For the Lord is our Judge; God is our King, He will save us."


The question is asked: Who among us can dwell with everlasting burning? The prophecy here hints at the question of who is worthy of living in the city of holiness and the Temple, where the eternal flame burns upon the altar and is never extinguished (Vayikra 6:6).


The answer is, "He who walks righteously and speaks uprightly, despising the gains of oppression, shaking off his hands from holding bribes, closing his ears from hearing of blood and shutting his eyes from seeing evil."  This answer is reminiscent of Psalm 15 in Tehillim, which likewise lists the positive traits that are prerequisites for closeness to the House of God.


When the prophet goes on to describe the future vision of Jerusalem, he says, "A place of broad rivers and streams, where no galley with oars can go, nor shall a mighty ship be able to pass it."  Jerusalem is destined to be a place of great rivers [1], and God will protect it from all enemies.  Jerusalem will be in the heart of the mountains – and broad rivers and streams will exist within it.


In Tehillim 46:5, too, there is mention of a "river whose streams bring joy to the city of God, the holiest of dwelling places of the Most High."  The connection between these images is clear. A person who achieves these attributes embodies a maximal degree of righteousness in the world, and by virtue of this revelation of righteousness, Jerusalem is transformed into a place of broad rivers and streams.


This is, as it were, a return to the reality of the Garden of Eden, hinted at here in the word "naharayim" (streams), and also through the mention of the "ye'or" (river).  The Garden of Eden symbolizes a perfect reality; a reality in which righteousness is revealed in its completion.


Water from Jerusalem to the desert


Beyond the hints in the prophecy about water in Jerusalem itself, there are, as mentioned, several prophecies that speak of water emerging from Jerusalem and flowing into the Dead Sea, as well as irrigating in the east and west.  Yishayahu declares (51:3):


"For God will comfort Zion; He will comfort all of its desolate places.  He will make its wilderness like Eden, and its Arava (desert) like God's garden; joy and gladness will be found in it, thanksgiving and the sound of song."


At the beginning of the chapter, the prophet calls to the pursuers of righteousness, those who seek God, to look to Avraham and Sara [2].  The comforting of Zion that is described here is that the wilderness of Zion will once again become like Eden and its desert will be like God's garden.  In other words, Jerusalem and the desert adjacent to it will once again be full of flowing water; the Garden of Eden will even return to the desert of Zion [3].  Similarly, Yechezkel prophesies (16:50-55) that Sodom will have its fertility restored [4].


The prophet Yechezkel describes, in the chapters about the Temple, a vision of future redemption in which the Divine Presence will return to Jerusalem, and the Temple will be rebuilt upon its foundations, and the prince and the priests will rule with righteousness and judgment in the land (see, for example, 45:9-15; 46:18).  In chapter 47 the prophet describes the Divine blessing that will be bestowed upon the entire land [5].  The prophet describes water emerging from under the threshold of the House of God eastward, and as the water spreads eastward it becomes a flowing stream, irrigating and reviving the area, until it reaches the Dead Sea.  This influx desalinates the salt water and revives all forms of life in the area.


At the end of this prophecy, Yechezkel declares: "And by this stream there shall arise on its banks, on this side and on that side, every type of fruit tree; their leaves will not wither, nor shall their fruit fail.  They shall give new fruit every month, for their waters issue from the Temple, so their fruit will be for food and their leaves for healing."


Beyond the revival of the Dead Sea and the renewal of all life in and around it, this prophecy speaks of a return to a situation of the Garden of Eden: leaves will not wither and fruit will not fail; the vegetation will even have healing qualities.  The Garden of Eden that will return, as it were, to exist in the Temple will also spread as far as the Dead Sea and give it life.  All of this, as stated, will be a result of the righteousness with which the prince will rule, as part of the process of redemption as a whole.


The Mishna in Middot (2,6), describing the Temple, teaches as follows: "Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov said: In it the water flows and is destined to emerge from under the threshold of the Temple."  The Vilna Gaon notes the expression, "In it the water flows [present tense]" – meaning, right now the water flows, but in the future it will emerge from under the threshold of the Temple.  In other words, according to the Vilna Gaon, even today there is living water that flows in the Temple Mount.  In the time to come it will emerge.


Chazel interpret this special section in Masekhet Yoma 77:


"Rabbi Pinchas said in the name of Rabbi Huna of Tzipori:

'The fountain that emerges from the Holy of Holies is at first comparable to the feelers of grasshoppers;

When it reaches the entrance to the Sanctuary, it becomes like the thread of the warp,

When it reaches the vestibule it becomes like the thread of the woof,

When it reaches the entrance to the courtyard it becomes like the lip of a small vial.'

This is what Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov taught: 'Flowing water is destined to emerge from beneath the threshold of the Temple.'

From here onwards the flow grows increasingly stronger until it reaches the entrance to the House of David.

When it reaches the House of David it becomes like a flowing stream, in which the ritually impure, menstrual women and women who have given birth can immerse themselves, as it is written, 'On that day a fountain will be opened to the House of David and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, for [sprinkling upon] the sinners and for [purifying] the menstrual impure' (Zekharya 13:1)."


The Gemara here depicts the growing strength of the flow of water as it continues eastward, emphasizing the purifying aspect of this water.


The prophet Yoel (4:17 and onwards) describes a vision of the future in which God gathers all the nations to the Valley of Yehoshafat, and sits in judgment over them there.  As a result of this judgment,

"You shall know that I am the Lord your God, dwelling in Zion, my holy mountain.  Then Jerusalem shall be holy; strangers shall not pass through it any more.  And it shall be on that day, that the mountains will drip with sweet wine, and the hills will flow with milk, and all the water courses of Yehuda will flow with water, and a fountain from the House of God will emerge and water the valley of Shittim."


In other words, in the wake of the judgment of the nations in the Valley of Yehoshafat and in the Valley of Charutz [6], water will flow through all the water courses of Yehuda and a fountain will emerge from the House of God, and irrigate the valley of Shittim.


Here again, the manifestation of the perfect reality of righteousness and judgment throughout the world will be revealed through the abundance of water that will emerge from the Temple, watering the valley of Shittim, and apparently repairing the immorality that was prevalent there – a repair by virtue of the water that emerges from the Temple.


The prophet Zekharya, living at the time of the return from the Babylonian exile, describes a situation in which, in the End of Days, God will gather all the nations to war: "The Mount of Olives will be split in half, east and west, with a very great valley between them.  And half of the mountain will move northward, and half southward… and it shall be on that day, that there shall be neither bright light nor thick darkness.  There shall be one day, which shall be known to God – neither day nor night.  And it shall be, towards evening, that there will be light.  And it shall be, on that day, that flowing water will emerge from Jerusalem, half towards the eastern sea and half towards the sea of the west; in summer and in winter it shall be.  And God will be King over all the world; on that day God will be One, and His Name One."


The prophet describes a vision of an earthquake in Jerusalem, in the wake of the war in which God will mete out judgment to the nations in Jerusalem.  Following on the earthquake, flowing water will emerge from Jerusalem eastward to the Dead Sea and westward to the Mediterranean.  This water will flow in summer and winter.  At the same time, the prophet describes a phenomenon of light that continues even in the evening, and therefore there will be a day that is "neither day nor night," but a day that is all light.  And when this reality comes about, the whole world will know the Kingship of God.


Let us dwell on one point that is given particular emphasis.  Clearly, here again, we see a sort of renewed manifestation of the Garden of Eden: water emerging from Jerusalem and irrigating the borders of Eretz Yisrael – the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean.  Both with regard to light and with regard to water, a manifestation of unity is revealed here.  With regard to light – the prophet describes a unified situation of one day that has no day and night.  With regard to water, the concept of unity is manifest in the fact that the water reaches as far as the Dead Sea (its opposite); the water flows in summer and winter, and the result is that "On that day God will be King over all the world; on that day God will be One and His Name One."  In the wake of the realization of these visions, God's Kingship will be revealed over all the world, and (transcendent) God and His Name (immanent revelation) – will together become One.


It appears that the significance of the above is that the reality of day and night, as well as the reality of habitation and desert, are expressions of duality, contrast, multiplicity.  The future vision that is described here speaks of the nullification of this duality, with a manifestation of absolute Unity.  The light that illuminates even at night, and the water that flows to the furthest reaches of the desert in summer and winter, are an expression of unity in nature.  Night is the time that is furthest from Divine manifestation, while the desert is the place that is furthest from it.  Through God's revelation in both of these dimensions, his unified Kingship is manifest in the world.


Paradoxically, in the time to come all of Eretz Yisrael will return to the level of the Garden of Eden and will cease to be dependent on rainfall because there will be an abundant flow of water through the land, irrigating it.  Then it will be the nations of the world who will become dependent on rain, as Zekharya promises in 14:17 – "And it will be that whoever does not come up from all the families of the earth to Jerusalem, to worship the King, Lord of Hosts – they will have no rain" [7].


The righteousness that all the prophets describe in God's war against the nations and His judgment of them, also finds expression in the physical realm.  When righteousness is practiced in Jerusalem and the Temple, it is also realized in the vision of water emerging and irrigating the entire world, to the furthest (conceptual) point – the Dead Sea.


Zakharya, as we have pointed out, emphasizes the revelation of God's Kingship.  We have mentioned in the past the close connection between Kingship and righteousness, both with respect to God and with respect to a mortal king.  This point arises here, too. By virtue of the righteousness and justice that God performs with the nations, His Kingship is revealed.  The manifestation of His Kingship in the physical world is through water and light, a return to the reality of the beginning of Creation – a world in which there is light and water, and all of which is an expression of God's Kingship [8].


There are many instances where we find that the Holy One reveals His Kingship through water.  In the Creation of the world, water is the most fundamental element that exits, along with light.  Only on the second day is the water divided.  Hence, we deduce that water is an expression of the manifestation of God's Kingship in the world.


Continuing on from the above, the same idea arises from the splitting of the Red Sea.  This, too, was an expression of God's Kingship, in the wake of which Am Yisrael declares, for the first time, "May God reign forever and ever."


This idea is beautifully expressed in chapter 93 of Tehillim.  The psalm emphasizes that God's Kingship is eternal, and connects this with the Temple.  The psalm also hints at God's Kingship that was manifest with the Creation of the world and with the splitting of the Red Sea, and – ultimately – with the House of God; "Holiness becomes Your House, O God, for all time."


Chapter 29 likewise describes "God's Voice upon the water… and in His Sanctuary, everything declares 'Glory.'  God sat enthroned at the Flood, and God will reign as King forever."  Through the Flood, too, the Kingship and righteousness of God were manifest: the Flood destroyed the entire world, except for those who were inside the Ark.


Thus, just as water is related to righteousness, it is also connected to Kingship.  We have already noted, in previous shiurim, the internal connection between Kingship and its manifestation through righteousness, and so likewise through water.


Thus we have addressed the significance of the connection between Jerusalem and the desert, especially with regard to the righteousness that is demanded of the city and its accompanying dependence on God.  This situation is discernible both in the fact that Jerusalem is in relatively high danger of becoming desert, and in the fact that in the time to come, it will repair the desert by means of the water that will emerge from the Temple.


5.  Remembrance of God's miraculous guidance in the desert


Let us now turn our attention to other ramifications of the proximity of Jerusalem to the desert.  The desert is a place devoid of vegetation, roamed by wild animals.  It is a place that is dangerous for man – because of the lack of water, etc.  The characteristics of the desert make it a place of lawlessness [9] - a place where no man rules.  It is specifically for this reason that the desert can be a special place of encounter between the Holy One and Israel.  From the point of view of the natural surroundings, too, the desert reflects a primal reality where man does not rule, and hence its special connection to God.  It is apparently for this reason that no small number of groups and cults have headed for the desert, during different periods of history, in a spiritual quest [9].


The years of desert wanderings were a most significant period in the molding of Am Yisrael.  During this period the Divine Presence was manifest amongst the camp of Israel in a special manner, and God's great closeness to the nation was discernible.  This was a miraculous time of direct Divine Providence over the nation in many different respects (cloud, manna, well of water, quails, etc.), and it was during this time that the covenant between God and the Jewish nation was forged.  It is no accident that the Torah was given specifically in the desert, a place of lawlessness, where its acceptance could be absolute and unconditional.  Yirmiyahu (2:2) declares: "Go about and call out to Jerusalem, saying: So says God – I remember unto you the kindness of your youth, your love as a bride, when you went after Me in the desert, in an unsown land."  Continuing the same idea, we may propose that the location of Jerusalem adjacent to the desert is meant to serve as a reminder of the precedence of the desert in relation to inhabited land, as expressed during the development of the history of Am Yisrael prior to the entry into the land.  The desert is also reminiscent of the faith in God's great mercies, and the absolute recognition of dependence upon Him – as expressed especially in the desert.


This, apparently, is the idea that lies behind the words of the prophet Hoshea (12:10): "And I am the Lord your God, from the land of Egypt, until I cause you to dwell in tents as in the days of the appointed feast."  The desert can be a place to which Am Yisrael is returned for a certain time in order to renew the covenant of Sinai; in this case, the desert becomes a place of repentance and repair. 


Yechezkel, in contrast to Hoshea, says (20:34-37):


"I shall take you out from the nations and gather you from the lands to which you were scattered, with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, and with an outpouring of anger.  And I shall bring you to the desert of the nations, and I shall judge you there, face to face.  As I judged your forefathers in the desert of the land of Egypt, so I shall judge you, declares the Lord God.  And I shall cause you to pass under the scepter, and I shall bring you into the discipline of the covenant."


In this prophecy, the point of bringing the people out to the desert of the nations is for direct judgment, face to face, as the forefathers of the nation were judged in the desert.


6.  Desert as a contrast to the corruption of Jerusalem


At certain times, when Jerusalem had become corrupted, the desert represents a place where civilization has not been perverted.  Thus, Yirmiyahu asks of God (9:1 and onwards):


"If only I were in the wilderness; the lodging place of wayfarers, that I might leave my people and go away from them.  For all of them are adulterers; a gathering of traitors.  They bend their tongues, their bow of falseness, but they are not valiant for the sake of truth in the land, for they proceed from one evil to the next, and they do not know Me, says God.  Let each man beware of his neighbor and not trust his brother, for every brother acts with deceit, and every neighbor goes about spreading slander.  They each deceive each other and they do not speak the truth; they have taught their tongue to speak lies, and weary themselves in iniquity.  Your habitation is in the midst of deceit; through deceive they refuse to know Me, says God.  Therefore, so says the Lord of Hosts: Behold, I will smelt them and try them, for what else can I do for the daughter of My people? Their tongue is a sharpened arrow, it speaks deceit.  A person speaks peaceably to his neighbor, but inwardly he lies in wait for him.  Shall I not punish them for these things? Says God; shall My soul not be avenged for such a nation?


Upon the mountains I shall take up weeping and wailing, and lamentation upon the pastures of the wilderness, because they are burned up such that no-one can pass them, nor can anyone hear the sound of cattle; both the birds of the heavens and the beasts have fled, they are gone.  I will make Jerusalem into heaps; a den of jackals, and the cities of Yehuda I shall make desolate, without inhabitants.  Who is the man wise enough to understand this; to whom has the mouth of God spoken, that he may declare it? Why has the land perished, burned up like a wilderness that none pass through? God says: Because they abandoned My Torah, which I set before them, and did not listen to My voice, and did not follow it.  But they went after the stubbornness of their heart, and after the Be'alim, of which their fathers taught them.  Therefore, so says the Lord of Hosts, God of Israel: Behold, I shall feed them, this nation, with wormwood, and give them water of gall to drink.  And I shall scatter them among the nations that neither they nor their fathers have known, and I shall send a sword after them, until I have consumed them."


Jerusalem – the city of righteousness – is full of treachery, slander, falsehood and deceit.  The desert appears in the prophecy, on one hand, as a place where there is no corruption, and for this reason Yirmiyahu seeks to flee from Jerusalem to the desert.  On the other hand, the punishment that Yirmiyahu foretells is that Jerusalem itself will become a "den of jackals" and Yehuda – a desolation, in other words – a desert.  Yirmiyahu also warns concerning Jerusalem, in 6:6-8, that God will turn it into an uninhabited place and make it desolate:


"For so says the Lord of Hosts: Hew trees and cast up a mound against Jerusalem; this is the city to be punished, there is oppression everywhere in its midst.  As a well keeps its water fresh, so [Jerusalem] keeps her wickedness; violence and spoil are heard in it before Me constantly; malaise and wounds.  Be instructed, Jerusalem, lest My soul depart from you; lest I make You desolate, an uninhabited land."


The danger that Jerusalem will become a desert because of its sins is anchored in the natural reality of the city's geographical proximity to the desert.


Eliyahu, too, flees to the desert (I Melakhim 19), to a place that is not inhabited, because of the corruption of the inhabitants of the cities.  Similarly we find that the desert was a refuge for those who wanted to cut themselves off from what was going on in places of civilization (Yirmiyahu 35, II Melakhim 10).


7.         The return of the Divine Presence to Jerusalem


Just as the Divine Presence left the Temple via the Mount of Olives eastward to the desert, so it is destined to return to Jerusalem from the east, via the desert – as we see in the prophecy of Yishayau (40:3) –

"A voice calls out in the desert: Clear a way for the Lord; straighten a highway in the desert for our God.  Let every valley be exalted, and every mountain and hill be made low.  And the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.  And the glory of God shall be revealed, and all flesh will see together that the mouth of God has spoken."




In this and the previous shiur, we noted several ramifications of the proximity of Jerusalem to the desert:


- The desert is the place of the covenant, the Torah, the resting of the Divine Presence and the open, miraculous connection to God.  Its proximity to Jerusalem allows the city dwellers to remember at all times the journey to Eretz Yisrael and its significance, as well as the hope of the return of the Divine Presence to Jerusalem via the desert.

- On the other hand, the desert is a place of destruction, desolation, lack of habitation, etc.  Its close proximity to Jerusalem illustrates what the city can expect if it fails to live up to the demands of it.

- The desert is a place of refuge from social corruption.  During the times when Jerusalem was corrupt and there was no righteousness in it, it invited flight to the desert – as Yirmiyahu sought to do.


In closing, there is an interesting opinion that connects the name of the city to the desert.  While there is no way of ascertaining with certainty the source of the name Zion, some have sought to explain that it is derived from the word "tziya" – parching – referring to the desert close by.  If this view is correct, it illustrates the great significance of this element in the character of the city.


In the next shiur we shall hopefully address the inheritance of Binyamin as the inheritance of the Divine Presence.




[1] This is expressed in a similar way in Yishayahu 30:25.

[2] Avraham also serves here as a figure representing righteousness, as discussed at length in the shiur about his encounter with Malki-Tzedek, King of Shalem.

[3] And just as the Garden of Eden is a place full of water, where streams flow, so Jerusalem will be in the future.

[4] Yishayahu himself declares (41:18-19), "I shall open rivers on high places, and springs within valleys.  I shall make the wilderness a pool of water, and the arid land a source of water…."

[5] There is a certain similarity here to the message in Tehillim 36:9-10 – "They are satiated with the fatness of Your House, and You give them to drink of the river of Your pleasures.  For the fountain of life is with You; in Your light we see light."

[6] We have noted in the past that Prof. Garsiel seeks to identify the Valley of Yehoshafat as Wadi Kidron, and the Valley of Charutz as the Middle Wadi.

[7] This is part of a more comprehensive process. At the beginning of Creation, the nations were similar to Israel in that their actions influenced the material blessing that God granted them.  After the Flood, this direct relationship of dependence ceased for the nations, and remained only for Israel.  In the time to come, the nations will once again become dependent on rain, while Israel will cease to be dependent.  This is the subject of a separate discussion, and we shall not elaborate here.

[8] In a previous shiur we mentioned the essence of the Temple as a place of Kingship, and we shall not repeat the discussion here.  For our present purposes, we may note the wonderful legend (Sukka 53a and elsewhere) about King David, when he was digging pits (in preparation for the building of the Temple).  The waters of the deep opened and threatened to engulf the world.  David uttered the fifteen Songs of Ascent, and thereby subdued them.  In other words, even the actual building of the Temple and the laying of its foundations are related to the water that lies ready to engulf the world.  Water is, on one hand, the source of life for the world; on the other hand, it has the power to destroy the world.  These two poles are balanced by the building of the Temple.  The place of God's Kingship in the world is manifest here in the context of water.  This legend requires further explanation, but we shall not elaborate here. 

[9] The Gemara in Eruvin 54a teaches, "If a person makes himself like a desert, where anyone may tread, then Torah is given to him as a gift.  And since it is given to him as a gift, he is God's inheritance…."  On the other hand, in the desert all are equal; there is no difference between the wealthy and the destitute.

[10] The Essene cult at the end of the Second Temple Period and the Christian hermits in the fourth century.


Translated by Kaeren Fish