Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Jerusalem of Gold…and Love (Web Journey)

With Lag B’Omer coming up next week, and Jerusalem Day soon to follow, this week’s web journey takes us back to a place, and a song, that can help us understand what all the fuss is about. I discovered the "Jerusalem of Gold" Web site totally by serendipity (which is exactly where these spiritual journeys are supposed to begin), while looking for something else. I was immediately taken by the story of the song, just as its music has long enraptured me. So saunter over, if you please, to Once you're there, click on "music," and search for a file with the song so that you can hear it, or if you're a reformed Napsterite like me, find it in your own MP3 files.

The story of the song is almost as enchanting as the song itself. Like the fact that the title came to Naomi Shemer from a Talmudic story of Rabbi Akiva, who romantically dreamed of being able to offer his wife a "Jerusalem of Gold," which to him must have been the most precious gift imaginable. He, after all, lived in amidst the rubble of the recently destroyed (and never completely cleaned up) second temple. Akiva's yearning is matched by Shemer's own, as for her, this song was as much a dirge as a tribute, bemoaning the still deserted marketplaces and empty Dead Sea road. Recall that this song was written just BEFORE the Six-Day War. Recall also, that those marketplaces were in fact well populated at the time -- by Arabs, who were essentially invisible to the Jewish dreamers and songwriters of that era. No, we are not totally blameless in the tragedy that has since followed this miraculous June victory.

Check out "Jewish Sources" and you'll see that for the sages, the "Jerusalem of Gold" was an actually article of jewelry, one that Akiva presented to his wife Rachel in gratitude for her steadfast devotion to him during the hard times. Read about it with greater clarity at Rabbi Judith Abrams' excellent Maqom site It turns out that the Akiba - Rachel story is sort of a Jewish version of the "Gift of the Magi. (").

A perfect way to imagine Jerusalem -- a city that can be attained not simply with great sacrifice, but with an infinite love for one's fellow human, and an infinite desire to give. That is also seen in the famous account of the Two Brothers, another seminal Jerusalem story. See it at

Now here's a twist. Is it possible that the Jewish Two Brothers story has Palestinian parallels? Check it out at With all this love, why is there so much hate? God only knows….
Back to Akiva: The love story between Akiva and Rachel is one of the most beautiful in Jewish literature. Read about it at, which will also help prepare you for the upcoming minor festival of Lag B'Omer.

Then go to, and you'll read something else about Lag B'Omer and Rabbi Akiva. (Actually, you’ll no longer find it there, but this is what it USED to say)

"The Talmud speaks obscurely of a plague occurring on one Omer that killed 24,000 students of the second-century Rabbi Akiva. What kind of a plague was it that apparently only affected Rabbi Akiva's talmudic students and nobody else and came to an end on Lag Ba'Omer (the thirty-third of the forty-nine days)? Most modern scholars assume that the plague referred to was not an illness.

Rabbi Akiva supported a rebellion against the Roman conquerors of Israel led by a famous Jewish military leader by the name of Bar-Kochba. Moreover, Akiva declared Bar-Kochba to be the Messiah who would liberate the Jews from Roman domination. Although Bar-Kochba did achieve some early military successes, eventually the Romans suppressed his revolt with incredible brutality. Among Bar-Kochba's leading soldiers were thousands of Rabbi Akiva's students. Thus, it is likely that Lag Ba'Omer was a day on which the Jews either achieved a short lived victory over the Romans or gained some respite from the slaughter of battle."

There are fascinating parallels to our time. There is no real respite for Israel from the plague of terrorism right now. But Israelis, whether in Sderot, the north, or anywhere, are a resilient lot. They celebrated Yom Ha'atzmaut last week and made light of the bombast coming from Iran and Lebanon. But soon, soon, we must hope, the marketplaces will be bustling once again, with Jews and Arabs together, making commerce, not war.

And soon, in our lifetime, we'll all go down to the Dead Sea together, without war, without fear, by way of Jericho.

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