Walk through the Old City, and you will find one of the oldest streets in the world. Known as the Cardo, it was built by the Romans nearly 2,000 years ago and was the main thoroughfare in Jerusalem for nearly seven centuries. One can still see the magnificent columns that adorned its path.
Any tourist who has visited Jerusalem in the last 50 years has seen, even walked on, this magnificent colonnade. But one detail changed the way I will look at it forever.
When the second Beit HaMikdash was destroyed in 70 C.E., there was a sizeable Jewish community in Judea, suffering under Roman rule. By 131 C.E., they had enough: Shimon Bar Kochba, one of Rabbi Akiva’s prize students, rebelled, drawing tens of thousands to his cause. Rabbi Akiva believed it was within his power to be Mashiach. And it made sense: 70 years after the destruction of the first Temple, the Jews had built a second. So 70 years after the Second Temple was destroyed, perhaps it was time for a third?
Alas, it was not to be. The Jews had rebelled, and Emperor Hadrian was determined to put an end to it. He assembled an army of 100,000 men, brutally quashing the rebellion. As many as a million Jews were murdered, or died of hunger and disease.
But Hadrian wanted to stamp out every last vestige of Jewish independence. It was illegal to practice Judaism. The great rabbis were hunted down and murdered. Rabbi Akiva himself was tortured to death. Hadrian razed to the ground what was left of Jerusalem and rebuilt it as a Roman city, Aelia Capitolina. The name “Jerusalem” was forbidden on pain of death; hence the popularity of the psalm (Tehillim 137:5): “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right arm wither, may my tongue cleave to my palate.”
As part of the rebuilding, the Romans followed their standard plan for Roman cities, building a grid of streets with the Cardo at its center. And here is the detail that changed the Cardo for me forever: It was built by Jewish slaves, probably captured during the Bar Kochba rebellion — but once completed, it was forbidden for Jews to walk there. Any Jew caught inside the city that was once Jerusalem was put to death on the spot.
I recall, on a trip to Poland, wandering around the area that had once been the Warsaw ghetto. In the display window of a silver store, I noticed a menorah and a pair of Shabbat candles, complete with the Magen David symbol on their base. It did not take a genius to figure out how those Jewish articles had ended up there.
If you are ever in Rome, on the second level of the Coliseum you will find a plaque explaining that the original building of the Coliseum was funded by the loot of Judea.
The Cardo, then, represents Jewish exile; it was a symbol of Roman domination. We as a people should long ago have ceased to exist, and we should most certainly have given up on Jerusalem, and yet we never stopped dreaming about coming home.
Why does every Jew anywhere in the world, including Israel, pray facing Jerusalem? Why do we mention Jerusalem in the Grace after Meals, at every wedding, and three times a day in our prayers? Jerusalem is mentioned over 500 times in the Bible. No matter what happens to the Jewish people and how far away we may have been, Jerusalem will forever be our holy city. Why?
Maimonides, in Hilchot Beit Habechirah (6:16) explains that the sanctity of Jerusalem stems from the Divine Presence, which is never lost.
My teacher, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, points out that Jerusalem is first mentioned in the Bible when Avraham miraculously defeats four kings with an army of only a few hundred. Malkitzedek, the king of Shalem, proclaims: “Blessed be Avram to G-d most High, who delivers your enemies into your hands” (Bereishit 14:19-20). This is the first time G-d is recognized as the guiding hand of history, hence the name Jerusalem: Yerushalem, the place where G-d is seen.
Rav Soleveitchik points out that there are two significant mountains in Judaism: Sinai, where we received the Torah, and Moriah, where the binding of Yitzchak took place and which tradition identifies as the Temple Mount.
We have no idea where Mount Sinai is, and almost certainly gave it back to Egypt in the 1979 treaty with nary a mention. Mount Moriah, on the other hand, is the center of all of Judaism. Rav Soleveitchik suggests that Mount Sinai is the mountain where we received the Torah from G-d; Mount Moriah, where Avraham was willing to give up his beloved son, is where we were willing to give back to G-d.
Jerusalem, then, represents the place where we become intensely conscious of all Hashem has given us, and feel a profound sense of responsibility to give back.
This Shabbat, the Ninth of Av, let us appreciate the gift we have been given to see Jerusalem rebuilt before our eyes, and live up to what that gift means.
Every summer, I noticed that pebbles would mysteriously appear on the tops of the Roman columns of the Cardo, but could never figure out how they got there. Then late one afternoon, I saw a group of kids from the Jewish Quarter, no more than seven or eight years old, standing at the railing opposite the Cardo. They were taking turns tossing pebbles across, trying to land them on the tops of the columns. They awarded one point for landing in the middle of the column, another point for landing close to the edge, and another if your stone knocked someone else’s off. … Jewish children, turning what is left of the Roman Empire into their game.
Shabbat Shalom, and a meaningful fast of Tisha B’Av, from Jerusalem.