After 3,000 years, who can remember?
How has Jerusalem, devoid of commercial, industrial or strategic significance, crept to the heart of contention between Israel and the Palestinians? Why does Jerusalem matter? The beginning of understanding is to grasp the importance of memory.
By defining the past, memory creates the present. Repression of memory creates mental disease. Health comes from memory's recovery. Stalin airbrushed Trotsky from photographs. Revisionists deny the Holocaust. Why does it matter?
Man is his memory. Those who suffer memory loss don't just misplace their keys. They lose themselves. They become lost and adrift in time, because without memory the current moment has no context and no meaning.
When the Jews were exiled, the prophet Jeremiah said, "If I forget Jerusalem let my right hand lose its strength." Somehow the memory of Jerusalem is linked to our vigor as a people. But why? What is the memory of Jerusalem, and what does it give us?
London comes from a Celtic word for "a wild and wooded town." Cairo is an anglicized version of the Arab name for Mars, the Roman god of war. Paris is named for the Paris of Greek myth, asked by the gods to choose between love, wisdom, and power. He chose love - the love of Helen of Troy.
The Talmud says Jerusalem was named by G-d. The name can be interpreted as having two parts: Yira, which means to see, and shalem, which means peace.
Jerusalem was the place of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, and Abraham said of Jerusalem, "This is the place where G-d is seen."
Elsewhere, G-d is a theory, but in Jerusalem G-d is seen and felt as a tangible presence. In Jerusalem we reach beyond the frailty and vulnerability of our lives, and we sense and strive for transcendence. Elsewhere we grope for insight. In Jerusalem we anticipate clarity. Paris may be for lovers, but Jerusalem is for visionaries.
Jerusalem is a metaphor for a perfected world, and it gives us perspective on our lives. When Aldous Huxley said, "We have each of us our Jerusalem," he meant much more than a temporal city of taxi-cabs and traffic jams. He meant a vision of what life might be.
The vision of life's promise is one we surrender at our peril because it gives us the will to live. In exile for two thousand years Jews said "Next year in Jerusalem," and amidst poverty and oppression they preserved the dream of a world in which love and justice, not power and self-interest, would be the currency people live by.
The other part of Jerusalem's name is peace, but the peace Jerusalem offers is not absence of strife. The peace of Jerusalem is the peace at the center of the spokes of a wheel, opposing forces delicately balanced and reconciled.
The Talmud says creation began in Jerusalem, and from there radiated outward. Medieval maps show Jerusalem at the intersection of Asia, Europe and Africa. The world flows into this spot and all life's forces resonate here. From this place the world is cast into perspective.
Men have long understood that he who controls Jerusalem controls the world's memory. He controls the way G-d is seen. He controls the way life's forces are cast into perspective. He controls how we collectively see our future.
The Temple Mount was once the highest point in Jerusalem, but in 135 CE Roman slaves carried away the mountaintop, turning it into the valley we now look down on from the Old City. The Romans expelled the Jews from Jerusalem and barred their re-entry on pain of death. "Jewish life," they proclaimed, "has ended."
The Crusaders rewrote Jer-usalem's importance, center no longer of the Jewish national drama, but site of the crucifixion of Jesus. Like the Romans they expelled Jews and destroyed synagogues. Next the Moslems rewrote Jerusalem's memory, expelling Jews and Christians. Systematically they built mosques on Jewish holy sites, and airbrushed out the past.
But Jews preserved Jerusalem as a memory. We left a square unplastered when we built our homes and broke a glass at weddings in memory of Jerusalem. We turned in prayer toward Jerusalem, and the nurturing of memory kept the Jewish people alive.
When Jerusalem was liberated, time was conflated. The past became present. What we had dreamed of became real, and soldiers wept because an adolescent Mediterranean country was suddenly, incredibly, and transcendentally transformed.
Suddenly we were not despised and impoverished itinerants, surviving on the fickle goodwill of other nations, nor even farmers or warriors, but a nation of priests and prophets, a light unto mankind. We knew ourselves once again as the descendants of those who taught the world "to beat their swords into plowshares," "to love your neighbor as yourself," equality before justice, and that admiration belongs not to the rich and powerful but to the good, the wise and the kind. Hitler said, "The Jews have inflicted two wounds on humanity: Circum-cision on the body and conscience on the soul." How right he was and how much more we have to do.
Divided by language, by geography, and even by religion, our people are bound together by exquisitely fragile threads of memory and of hope. If they sever we will fragment.
To this threat, Jerusalem provides counterpoint, for Jerusalem embodies our memories and hopes. Jerusalem is a living memory, a vision of G-d in our lives, an image of a perfected world. Jerusalem gives us the strength to achieve what we as a people must do to unite ourselves and to sanctify this world. This is why we remember.
Rabbi Nachum Braverman is author of The Bible for the Clueless but Curious, A Guide to Jewish Wisdom for Real People, and with Shimon Apisdorf, The Death of Cupid, Reclaiming the Wisdom of Love, Dating, Romance and Marriage.
This article originally appeared in OLAM