Former Shaliach in Washington (2003-4) and Memphis (2010-12)
Jerusalem, as we know, is the center of the world from which all the universe grew, the focal point of all our prayers. Endless world have been spoken about it. But surprisingly, our forefathers in the desert never even heard of Jerusalem. Our parsha introduces, for the first time, the concept of ‘The Place’ – המקום אשר יבחר ה’. There are many details we learn about The Place, but its name and location will have to wait several centuries before King David will reveal them.
What our parsha does do is give a long section of laws and regulations which will define and institutionalize the purpose and goal of The Place;
First we are to destroy the (many) places of idol worship, and thus eradicate their names. After that we can create a central worship place in which Hashem’s name will dwell. Just as there is one G-d and one chosen nation, so too there can be only one place of worship.
So we begin with a mission statement. We must wipe out the names of the idols, and spread the name of Hashem. We will turn the Land of Canaan into Eretz Yisrael. The vehicle to allow that transformation is The Place.
The Place is where all sacrifices must be brought and eaten. That is where Maaser Sheni, Bikkurim and the Bechor (first-born kosher animal) must be eaten. Three times a year all of Am Yisrael is expected to visit The Place. The Supreme Court (Sanhedrin) must reside in The Place
Many of these mitzvot appeared in previous books of the Torah, but one of the new elements we learn here is the centrality of The Place. So what is purpose of this place? What will it serve?
Not only The Place where we bring sacrifices, it will become much more than that. It will be the national, judicial and cultural center of the Jewish people. Every Jew will visit there at least 3 times a year.
Why? What do we gain from this?
We are building up a new center of spirituality and worship, which will not be based on daily contact. This in itself is a novelty in the ancient, pagan, world, in which altars are built “upon the lofty mountains and upon the hills, and under every lush tree”
On a practical, realpolitik level – it will keep the nation united, and make sure we have 12 tribes with 1 religion, not 12 religions. It will serve as a political and national focal point. As we enter the land we risk losing our connection to the Mishkan. In the desert it was within walking distance for the entire nation. Now it’s a cross country shlep to get there, which can take days or even weeks of arduous walking. In the time of the shoftim we can feel the lack of a unifying force, when the tribes functioned more as a (very) loose confederacy than as a nation. Only Shmuel managed to unite the tribes around a central point – The Mishkan, which will later be superseded by the Temple in The Place.
In addition, The Place is to be a spiritual and educational center as well. Notice the mitzvot of Maaser Sheni and Bikkurim. Unrelated to the sacrificial system, regular people – farmers and landowners, are obligated to bring food and eat at The Place. We’ll need a lot of halls and caterers, hotels and motels… The ‘Holy City’ has a staff of Cohanim and Leviim, and they, together with the judges, will set the tone in the city where everyone comes to visit. The holiness should be felt in the air, and the experience of eating with my friends, family and the needy in the holy city should be spiritually uplifting.
In my opinion, the culmination of The Place as a political, spiritual and national center takes place once every seven years during the mitzva of Hakhel; the entire nation is to gather in The Place to hear the king read from the Torah and then re-accept it upon themselves. Once every seven years, in The Place we re-enact the revelation at Har Sinai, and Kabalat Ha’Torah.
It is interesting to look back to different periods in our history and see when Jerusalem fulfilled that lofty role and why it, at times, failed to.
But it would be even more interesting and challenging to see to what extent Jerusalem fulfils that role today; for Am Yisrael as a nation and for each and every one of us as an individual – is Jerusalem a focal point in my personal and religious identity?
If it isn’t – what can I do to change that?