This week’s parsha has a familiar highlight–I hope you remember when we studied the text of Sulam Yaakov(Jacob’s Ladder)–Holy Place during the last portion of the program, and around our visit to Jerusalem. Do you remember? Do you remember the discussion? What you might have felt? What was a “Holy Place” for you then? Did you argue about Jerusalem? Is it just a pile of rocks? Is it human actions in a place that make it holy?
I was on a tour this week of East Jerusalem as part of a conference for people that run and lead Israel programs for teens. We visited Sheikh Jarrakh/Shimon HaTzadik, a highly contested neighborhood where Jews have been exercising rights to reclaim property from before ’48, and are moving into a neighborhood that has been unequivically Arab for the past 70 years. Not a simple place, and for sure, there is no simple solution. We met with a Palestinian from Isiwiya, and the meeting was in the Synagogue of French Hill as he described an Islamic perspective on Jerusalem–what a Holy Place!
As we develop our understanding that Jerusalem is deeply Holy for people that are not Jewish, it is a kind of ‘eureka’ moment–like when Jacob says, “Gd is in this Place and I didn’t know it” (Gen 28: 16) Often we stop reading there. The next verse says, “He became frightened and said, ‘How awesome is this Place! This is none other than the House of Gd, and this is the Gate of Heaven!'”(Gen 28:17). These are difficult verses to translate, and the ‘fear’ and ‘awe’ that are here can be understood in many different directions. One possible reading is to be awed at the incredible responsibility of stewardship over the House of Gd and the Gate of Heaven–this place that is the most sacred in all of Jewish Tradition, but there are others in the world who are also deeply connected to it–how can we work towards a vision of sharing it peacefully?
I happened to learn a halacha in the Rambam this morning that may be a critical key to moving forward. In the Rambam’s enumeration of the Laws of Shabbat, towards the end he addreses the concept of ‘techum shabbat‘. The concept of not travelling more than 1/2 mile outside of one’s city on Shabbat (based on the verse in Exodus 16:29 that describes Shabbat and says that each person should “stay in their place”). The Rambam enters into a discussion of how to determine the boundaries of one’s city, in order to determine the limits to which one can walk. In Chapter 28 of Hilchot Shabbat, Halacha 2, he says that if a house is within 70 cubits of the last house or the city wall, it is considered part of the city, and the 1/2 mile begins from there. Similarly, if there is a row of houses, each within 70 cubits of the next, the last one is where we start to measure.
Now why is all of this important to us? In the next halacha, the Rambam lists different kinds of structures that can be considered a ‘house’ for these purposes, and the second on the list is a Temple for Idol worship that has the priests living there. This is incredible! In order to define city limits regarding how far a Jewish person can walk on Shabbat, a Temple to idolotry is part of the consideration of the same city!
When we can understand that sharing a city with idol worshippers helps us to define our own ‘place’–it is clear that they are part of the conversation, and all the more so we should strive to find a way to share space with our neighbors, especially around such a holy place as Jerusalem–the Gate of Heaven!