Yerushalayim, the Joy of the World

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein


Based on a sicha by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Summarized by Matan Glidai

Translated by Kaeren Fish


The mishnayot in massekhet Kelim that list ten levels of sanctity mention Yerushalayim as having an independent status, between that of the Beit Ha-mikdash and that of Eretz Yisrael. In addition to having its own special holiness, we would expect that Yerushalayim would also possess the sanctity of Eretz Yisrael, but with greater potency.


Concerning Yerushalayim, we read in Tehillim (48:3) that it is "yefeh nof, mesos kol ha-aretz" - "beautifully situated, the joy of the whole world." The phrase "beautifully situated" expresses the esthetic aspect, while "joy of the whole world" expresses the experiential aspect. We again relate to both of these aspects in our mourning over Yerushalayim: "Is this the city of which they say, 'the perfection of beauty, a joy to the whole world?'" (Eikha 2:15).


The beauty of Yerushalayim is twofold. On the one hand, the beauty relates to Yerushalayim's national status: it is the capital of David's kingdom, "kiryat melekh rav" - "the great king's city." Kingship, obviously, is related to glory and beauty – "Your eyes shall behold the king in his beauty" (Yishayahu 33:17). On the other hand, Yerushalayim's beauty is also related to its holiness, the fact that it is the dwelling place of the Shekhina. Although the Shekhina inspires awe and fear, it is also a complex symbol of beauty: "Glory and majesty are before Him, strength and splendor in His Temple" (Tehillim 96:6). This facet is also expressed in the beauty of the vessels of the Mikdash, but clearly the beauty is there even when the vessels are not.


The aspect of "joy of the whole world" also has many facets. Yerushalayim is the dwelling place of happiness and joy, both because it is the dwelling place of the Shekhina and because it is the gathering place of Am Yisrael. As the Mishna tells us (Sukka ch. 5), "He who never saw the celebration of the Beit Ha-Sho'eva, never saw real joy in his life." The joy at the Simchat Beit Ha-sho'eva arose from precisely these two factors: the connection with the Shekhina and the assembly of Am Yisrael. Yerushalayim, then, is truly the "joy of the whole world" – it contains the majesty, the light and the holiness that represent the pinnacle of our lives, removing us from life's daily routine. It gives depth to our everyday existence.


The Torah portrays Eretz Yisrael as "a land flowing with milk and [date] honey." What do these symbolize? Milk is related to nature – it is the most basic food that a person imbibes as he is born. Date honey, on the other hand, is a delicacy derived after a lengthy process of labor. It is special, something that is beyond routine and nature. Like Eretz Yisrael as a whole, Yerushalayim contains elements that may be compared to date honey, something which enriches and gives depth to life. But Yerushalayim also has elements of "milk" – it contains something basic and fundamental. It is impossible to imagine Eretz Yisrael without Yerushalayim. Yerushalayim does not just enrich Eretz Yisrael, it is a basic ingredient without which the whole cannot exist. All the lamentations and prophecies concerning the destruction focus almost exclusively upon Yerushalayim and the Mikdash, paying much less attention to the rest of Eretz Yisrael.


Thus, Yerushalayim embodies two opposing themes: something fundamental and firm on one hand, and something special and unique on the other. These two aspects are intertwined. The Gemara (Yoma 54b) teaches us that the Even Ha-shetiya (the "foundation stone" upon which the Temple was constructed) was thus called because the entire world is founded upon it. This is in accordance with the opinion of Chakhamim that the world was created from Yerushalayim, as it is written, "Mi-Tzion mikhlal yofi" (Tehillim 50:2) – which the Sages homiletically interpret as teaching us that "From Zion does the beauty of the world derive." Thus Yerushalayim represents both the foundation of the world – the basic existence of the world is derived from it – and the source of all the beauty and splendor of the world. It is both the foundation and the roof, the beginning and the end, the body and the soul.


Although Chazal interpret the verse (Shir Ha-Shirim 4:1), "Honey and milk are under your tongue," as referring to the Torah, we may relate the double imagery of honey and milk to holiness in general. Holiness, the connection to God, is on the one hand something wonderful, rich and glorious, and on the other hand it is a basic, fundamental ingredient that we cannot do without. A life devoid of holiness is an empty life with no content or meaning. Holiness is the foundation and the framework of our lives, but it is also the vision, the pinnacle of our aspirations.


This dual nature, then, relates to Eretz Yisrael as well as to Yerushalayim, and to our perception of holiness in general.


(Based on a sicha delivered on Yom Yerushalayim 5756 [1996].)