The Bible depicts an ideal land, one flowing with milk and honey. Yet Israel has always been one thing in dreams and another in the tumult of everyday life. When the five books of the Torah end, the Israelites are still in the wilderness and Moses, our leader out of Egypt, has been denied the promised land. The message is manifest: The perfect place does not yet exist, and you must enter a messy and contested land armed with the vision God has given you. Jews conclude the Passover Seder with “next year in Jerusalem.” Yet if one has the Seder in Jerusalem, the conclusion is not “next year here.” Rather, it is “next year in a rebuilt Jerusalem” — a city that reflects the ideals and aspirations of sages and prophets, one marked with piety and plenty.
For many Jews, that vision is as relevant today as it was in ancient Israel. That means the past, present and future of the land is not just an argument about settlements or structures alone, but also an ideal of a place of safety, a heavenly city on earth, one that we continue to strive and pray for, especially after the violence of these last few weeks.
Though we famously admonish ourselves to ever remember Jerusalem in Psalm 137, the sacred city of stone and tears is not the sole focus of Jewish yearning. Israel is haunted by historical memories. In the northern town of Tsfat, a pilgrim can wander among the graves of the Jewish mystics who re-established a community in that mountain town after the expulsion from Spain in 1492: Isaac Luria, who taught that God’s self-contraction made way for the world; Joseph Caro, author of the Shulchan Aruch, the authoritative code of Jewish law, who believed an angel dictated visions to him in the evening. They were joined there by Greek-born Solomon Alkabetz, who wrote the poem L’cha Dodi (Come to Me, Beloved), a lyrical love song to the Sabbath that is sung in synagogues all over the world each Friday night.
Despite the deep meditations on evil and afterlife in Jewish tradition, the concept of hell is not as developed in Judaism as in other traditions. However, there is a popular name for it: Gehenna. It derives from a place where children in antiquity were said to have been sacrificed to the pagan god Moloch.
In 1979, archaeologists began excavating in the area that is believed to be ancient Gehenna. Not far from the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, they found what is considered to be one of the oldest bits of scripture that exists in the world, more than 400 years older than the Dead Sea Scrolls. It dates from the time just before the destruction of the First Temple, the Temple of Solomon, in 586 B.C. The scorched ground yielded two rolled-up silver amulets that are on display to this day in the Israel Museum. When painstakingly unfurled, the text was almost verbatim to the Bible verses:
“May God bless you and keep you.
May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you.
May God turn His face toward you and give you peace.” (Numbers 6:24-26)