Israel, Religion

Rethinking the Blessing for Jerusalem to Focus on Mercy

Every day, millions of Jews pray multiple times per day, in the set of blessings known as the Amidah, for the return to, and rebuilding of, Jerusalem and reestablishing there the Glory of King David.

It is time to rethink that blessing.

In a world in which Jerusalem has not only been rebuilt, but greatly expanded and fortified by the State of Israel, is this prayer still necessary, or justified? And in a world in which the complications — and tragedies — around the status of Jerusalem have been exacerbated by the decision by the U.S. government to move its embassy in the absence of a broader political solution or process, should American Jews in particular approach this prayer differently?

It is certainly not the case that every prayer needs to be adapted or adjusted to fit current events. As Jews, Jerusalem is at the center of our beings and our traditions, and we must continue to strive for meaningful presence there. But as I work through this blessing at a daily minyan, it feels impossible to recite the full text in the Siddur:

וְלִירוּשָׁלַֽיִם עִירְֿךָ בְּרַחֲמִים תָּשׁוּב
וְתִשְׁכֹּון בְּתֹוכָהּ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבַּֽרְתָּ
וּבְנֵה אֹותָהּ בְּקָרֹוב
בְּיָמֵֽינוּ בִּנְיַן עֹולָם,
וְכִסֵּא דָּוִד מְהֵרָה לְתֶֹכָהּ תָּכִין
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יהוה
בֹּונֵה יְרוּשָׁלָֽיִם

Since May 14, the third in word in the blessing is where I emphasize and the fourth is word is where I stop. Because those words say that before we consider what needs to be built, and what glory restored, we ask that all of it return “be-rachamim”, or “with mercy.” The rest of it falls away without mercy.

With the move of the Embassy to Jerusalem, with continued settlement expansion around the city, with the response to the protests in Gaza, where is the mercy? Where has the mercy been in the manner in which Gaza’s have been effectively imprisoned, in which Jerusalem has been altered to displace Palestinians who have resided there for generations?

Sadly, nowhere. At least not to me.

So, maybe, for the time being, we need to bring everyone together and stop the blessing after the first four words. Just begin and end with  וְלִירוּשָׁלַֽיִם עִירְֿךָ בְּרַחֲמִים תָּשׁוּב. Pray that we find mercy first. Before we can rebuild, before we can re-establish, before we can crown, we must return with mercy. Without it, the rest is moot.

Mercy must be the condition and the focus of Jewish presence in Jerusalem, not an afterthought. Mercy must be the condition and the focus of Jewish presence in Jerusalem, not an afterthought. Sadly it is an afterthought now, despite how much of Jerusalem has already been “built.”

So where do we find that mercy?

I don’t mean to navel-gaze, but I come back to what I wrote on Jewschool when the Embassy decision was announced. That I couldn’t recognize this decision, or explain it to our kids, because it is so one-sided. I asked in the post that we spend time to recognize the other, recognize the realities of the other side, even while we think about the way in which “our” side is glorified with this move:

“In sum, if we are going to recognize the reality of one side in the push to peace, we must teach our children about the other elements of reality, so they understand why this conflict continues. I hope every American Jewish parent talking to their children about Jerusalem will also be willing to do this.”

This is where mercy comes from — recognition and empathy. May we all work and pray harder to find it today, tomorrow, and for the days to come.

If you find it hard to accept the fact of the Israeli government and military’s brutality, or the American Jewish community’s support for it, try harder. That brutality exists.

If you find it hard to accept the impact of the U.S. embassy decision, or U.S. policies overall, and prefer to blame everything on the Palestinians themselves, try harder. That impact exists.

And If you find it hard to accept the Jewish people’s desire and need for permanence and strength in Jerusalem, try harder. The desire and need also exists.

Most of all, let’s try harder to find mercy. It exists, and it is what we need to bring all of these very difficult realities together to once and for all build the Jerusalem that Jews, Muslims, Christians, Israelis, Palestinians, and the rest of the world so desperately needs.

2 thoughts on “Rethinking the Blessing for Jerusalem to Focus on Mercy

  1. You may be missing a much larger reason to rethink this prayer. You say we live in “a world in which Jerusalem has not only been rebuilt, but greatly expanded and fortified”, but as far as the prayer goes, you are mistaken. The prayer for the rebuilding of Jerusalem refers almost certainly (in my opinion) for the rebuilding OF THE TEMPLE. How this can be done “with mercy”, or how this can be done at all, is why this prayer gives me pause.

    1. Thank you for the comment. That’s my understanding as well, and you’re right that I should have made a reference to the fact that I was already re-interpreting the prayer to a significant degree (or, for example, that the Reform movement has a different text precisely for this reason). Was trying to keep it short and skipped over that detail, but certainly you’re right it’s critical. I agree that the Temple rebuilding concept is one, especially now, that we cannot engage in with mercy. But if we move past that to a narrower view of the meaning, I think (hope) we can find a way to bring the prayer more meaning in the current context.

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