Writings

Jerusalem: A Border Town

 


Jerusalem: A Border Town

by Mike Comins

Looking north towards the Old City from the Haas Promenade in Jerusalem (in Hebrew, the tayelet), one sees what perhaps one has heard: Jerusalem straddles the high ridge of the Judean Hills. The crest runs north to south, from the antennae near French hill to the ridge immediately to our left. Rain falling to the west flows towards the Mediterranean and waters the coastal plain, the breadbasket of ancient and modern Israel. To the east: rain drop and salt cemetery, the Dead Sea. Vegetation is sparse; the population nomadic.

According to one theory, this accounts for the success of the Jebusite city that David conquered around 1,000 BCE. Situated between nomad and farmer, whoever ruled from Jerusalem regulated the exchange of wool and flour, and earned revenue by protecting the sedentary population from highway bandits.

Whatever the reason, it was symbolically fitting for the settling Israelite tribes to establish the new capital on the border between their nomadic past and their agricultural future, between wilderness and civilization. It was to Jerusalem that they brought the fruits of their agricultural success. Jews streamed to the magnificent Temple, where they gave thanks to God and met their people. Yet, one foot remained firmly planted in the wilderness. The view of the desert from the Temple Mount reminded Jews of their spiritual homeland: forever lost, always present Mt. Sinai.

The principal border in Jerusalem today is also between east and west, between Arab east and Jewish west, just as Jerusalem was divided physically between 1948 and 1967. Barbed wire and concrete walls separated Jew and Arab then. Today, other kinds of walls separate them almost as effectively.

In Jerusalem, borders are not limited to geographical markers. On the near slope of the Mt. of Olives, the oldest Jewish cemetery in continuous use rolls down toward the Temple Mount. The dead have their own quarter in Jerusalem. Throughout the centuries, Jews came to Jerusalem to be buried in the holy city. That they chose to die here, however, was a statement about the future, a demonstration of their belief in the coming of the Messiah. These dead lie in anticipation of days to come.

On the border in time between their former lives and the vision of their future return, we, the present occupants of Jerusalem, reside.

Drawing on Jewish tradition, one might understand the significance of Jerusalem's borders in a non-conventional way. Borders come to separate and distinguish, but not necessarily to divide. To cite one of many examples in Judaism, the end of Shabbat is marked by the ceremony of havdala, literally separation, to set the holy day apart from the six days of the week. The intent, however, is neither to disparage the six days as "impure," nor to divide us from them by denying their worth. Not only must humankind work to exist, but days of creation and productivity are certainly as necessary for the well-being of the soul as are days of spiritual and cultural activity. Rather, awareness of the border between Shabbat and the six days helps one to acknowledge the differences between them, to understand that each serves different goals and fills different needs. Marking the moment between Shabbat and the working week, one is reminded that both are essential to the wholeness of human life.

From her beginnings as a Jewish city, Yeru-shalem, whose name includes the Hebrew word for wholeness, sat on a border for the purpose of uniting the people around it. King David chose for his capital a Jebusite city, located on the border between two of the twelve tribes (Judah and Benjamin), rather than his powerbase, Hebron, the capital of his own tribe of Judah. Jerusalem the border town offered a challenge to unite the twelve tribes around a new center.

So too can Jerusalem's other borders be understood as challenges, as calls for integration rather than division.

The border between Jewish west and Arab east parallels the ridge that divides the fertile coastal plain from the Judean wilderness and the Dead Sea. Today, as then, the view to the desert bids Jews to live by the ideals accepted at Sinai. It was in the ownerless, nationless desert, in a materially impoverished land — where according to the Midrash all Jews were present — that God commanded:

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not mistreat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me (Exodus 22:20-22).

Similarly, consider again the cemetery on the Mt. of Olives: present-day Jerusalem on the border between Jewish past and future. Mainstream Jewish theology, among Judaism's various branches and streams, maintains that the coming of the Messianic Age is linked to the actions of the Jews of the present generation. The dead buried on the Mt. of Olives depend on the living to accept the values they helped to transmit through time, and to act upon them — to enable the future they crave. Past and future seek resolution in the challenge of rebuilding Jerusalem.

Jews, then, through the dynamics of Judaism, often negotiate a middle path between extremes. This moderate road should not, however, be mistaken for a position of compromise. Rather, to live on the border is to recognize the relationship between opposing forces that affect us – good and evil, sacred and profane, the need for both universal values and a particular culture.

Living on the border is neither to assimilate nor to fence apart the conflicting aspects of life. Rather, the goal is to live with them, fully aware of their contradiction and complexity.

Thus Judaism prompts the Jew to engage the world. Realism requires accepting the divisions inherent in life. Soulful living demands their harmonization.

For the Jewish people, therefore, it is natural that their capital, Jerusalem, remains the quintessential border town, a stone period under the great Jewish question mark.

Her very existence challenges Jews to mark borders that integrate.

Gazing northward from the Haas Promenade, Jerusalem is striking during the sun-bleached day; she is subtly inviting beneath the soft summer night. But she is rarely praised for her appearance at midnight or noon.

Jerusalem finds her moment of grace in the honey-fire sunset between them.


© Michael Comins, 1988