“A Song of Ascent: When the Compassionate One brings about the return to Zion,
we will be like dreamers.” (Psalm 126:1)
The Land of Zion has a central place within the hearts of our people, and recent events have once again caused this land to be a focus of our concern. Sensitive souls that are seeking a spiritual perspective on the problems and dangers confronting us in this sacred land can benefit from the moving book “Guardian of Jerusalem” - a biography of Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, as well as a documented history of Jewish life in the land during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The author is Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Sonnenfeld. One who reads this book will get a deeper understanding of the secular-religious conflict within the land, as well as the Arab-Jewish conflict over the land.
A major section of Guardian of Jerusalem describes the yearnings and accomplishments of the “Old Yishuv” - a term which refers to the religious Jewish communities in the Land of Zion that preceded the modern Zionist movement and the establishment of the World Zionist Congress. The Torah-observant Jews of these communities were involved in building new neighborhoods in Jerusalem, and they also started some agricultural settlements. The sages who led these communities desired to have more Jewish immigration to the land, but they were opposed to the philosophy of the World Zionist Congress. The main reason for this opposition was because the majority of the leaders of the World Zionist Congress were secularists who defined Jewish identity in strictly nationalistic terms, and who no longer viewed the Torah as the "raison d'etre" of the Jewish people. The sages of the Old Yishuv, however, strongly believed in the ancient message of the prophets - one which proclaimed that our ability to thrive in the land and to have true shalom depends on our commitment to the Torah, our Covenant with the Compassionate One. For example, the Prophet Jeremiah proclaimed the following Divine message after the Babylonians conquered the land, destroyed the First Temple, and caused our people to go into exile:
“For what reason did the land perish and become parched like the desert, without a passerby? The Compassionate One said: Because of their forsaking My Torah that I put before them; moreover, they did not heed My voice nor follow it.” (Jeremiah 9:12).
Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld felt that all the accomplishments of the secular Zionist movement would be in danger if its leaders continued to ignore the spiritual raison d’etre of our presence in Zion. Dr. Chaim Weizmann, a major leader of the World Zionist Congress, would often visit Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld in order to debate the issues and to stress the value of the secular Zionist ideology. In response, Rabbi Sonnenfeld would stress the following idea: If we have been exiled from our land because of our sins, then we cannot possibly have a truly successful return with those same sins clothed in modern garb.
In the heat of one of these debates, Rabbi Yosef Chaim turned to Dr. Weizmann and exclaimed:
“We pray that we should merit the return of the Shechinah (the Divine Presence) to Zion as it was in days of yore, before the destruction of the Temple. As stated by all the prophets, the main yearning to return to Zion must be to renew our spiritual lives in Zion - to return to lives of holiness and purity, as it was when the Kohanim and Levites stood at their posts and the populace absorbed Ruach Hakodesh (the Holy Spirit) and conducted itself according to the Torah. But to you who call yourselves Zionists, Zion is merely a geographical, political, physical concept in which you seek to establish theaters and cultural institutions the same as all the nations, while severing ties with our glorious past. Is this to be called ‘Zion’? There is no greater travesty than this!”
The historical accounts found in “Guardian of Jerusalem” indicate that, in most cases, there were cordial relations between the spiritual leaders of the Old Yishuv and the spiritual leaders of their Arab neighbors. In fact, Jews and Arabs would greet each other on their respective festivals. Rabbi Sonnenfeld was held in great esteem by the local Arab population; thus, after World War I, when tensions between Arabs and Jews began to increase, Rabbi Sonnenfeld was involved in efforts to create peace, but he encountered opposition from some secular Zionist leaders. Their opposition led to a tragic event which is described and documented in the book.
After World War I, the Land of Zion became the mandate of Great Britain. When an American fact-finding delegation later came to Jerusalem to feel out public opinion on the British mandate and the idea of a Jewish homeland, Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld was invited to appear before the delegation. The members of the delegation presented him with a long list of questions regarding his attitude towards Jewish resettlement of the Land. Rabbi Yosef Chaim's answers were so clear and unequivocal, and his attitude towards the Jewish return to the land so positive, that even the secular Zionist papers highlighted his response and praised his views. The head of the delegation asked Rabbi Yosef Chaim if he believed that a land so geographically small as this land could serve to solve the problems of the Jewish people. In his response to this particular question, the sage included the following analogy: “When children return to their mother's home, space is never a factor. No matter how many children come and how small the house may be, they squeeze in and sit and the mother will never say that it is too crowded.”
This analogy was based on the prophecy of Isaiah concerning the ingathering of the exiles, who are described as the returning children of Mother Zion (Isaiah 49:20-22). In this spirit, we chant each Shabbos morning the following words after reading the haftorah - the weekly portion from the Prophets:
“Have compassion on Zion for she is the home of our life, and save the saddened of soul speedily in our days. Blessed are You, Hashem, Who causes Zion to rejoice through her children.”
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
1. If you get the “Guardian of Jerusalem,” please let me know, and if any questions emerge from your reading, feel free to discuss them with me.
2. For further information about this amazing book, visit:
http://www.artscroll.com/linker/hazon/ASIN/GUAH (The Hebrew edition is available in Israel, and it is called, "Ha'Ish Al HaChomah.")