Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem
It’s been a tough few weeks.
I’ve been really touched by the prayers for peace in Jerusalem, and in Israel and Gaza more widely. We have spent much time, love, energy, and anxiety praying for peace in Jerusalem recently. It’s an ancient longing, actually. We’ve spent thousands of years praying for peace in the Holy City of Jerusalem. Psalm 122 famously says “שַׁ֭אֲלוּ שְׁל֣וֹם יְרוּשָׁלִָ֑ם” - “pray for the peace of Jerusalem!”
And I’ve been thinking, as our prayers for peace have deepened and unfolded, about what it means to pray for peace.
Are we asking for Divine intervention? If so, do we imagine that God might reach down God’s hand and shift the scene in the Holy Land?
Or are we asking for something else?
There are, I think, two kinds of peace that we see sought in Jewish tradition. I spoke a few weeks ago about the differences between the sages and the prophets. The prophets, I said - they have their eye on some kind of redemptive future, a utopian vision, both affected and effected by Divine decree. But the sages, the rabbis of our tradition, they make decisions rooted in reality. They are interested in the world in which we live, in developing law based on action and consequence in the world. It’s not that it’s less Godly, I think - it’s theological in a slightly different way. The theology of the prophets is a Big Picture Theology. It’s eschatological and universal and all-encompassing. But the theology of the rabbis sees us as in partnership with God. We pull God into the world with our actions, and that means that we seek peace via ethical decision-making, via rules and regulations about - for example - how to engage in conflict in a principled and justified manner.
It is, of course, difficult to speak of the hope for peace - and how this plays out in the minds of the prophets and the rabbis - without also speaking of the Messiah. The vision of utopian peace that the prophets give us is bound up in this idea of the Messiah coming and heralding in that era. And I am specifically interested in how our tradition gives us two schedules on which the Messiah will arrive: his and ours.
Here’s what I mean by that. Most Messianic theologising is done by the rabbis. The prophets give us broad strokes of a utopian future, they paint multiple portraits of Messianic visions, and it’s up to the classical rabbis to spend time making sense of what it means. But the rabbis have inherited contradictory ideas from the prophets. I don’t mind that so much. The human experience is messy. You’ll excuse me for misquoting Life of Brian here, but what we have in our literature is both a mess, and a Messiah.
There is one version of the Messiah’s schedule that says: there is a specific, pre-ordained time for the Messiah to arrive. That is the schedule that we understand from the midrash surrounding our father Jacob’s deathbed. Jacob called to his sons, and declared that he would explain to them what would happen בְּאַחֲרִית הַיָּמִים - in the end of days. Then, of course, he does not explain that. The midrash tells us (B’reishit Rabbah 98:2) that the shekhinah, the dwelling presence of God, lifted from Jacob at that moment so that he would not tell those secrets. The implication of that rabbinic interpretation is: there is a set date, but we are not allowed to know it.
The second ‘schedule’ for the Messiah’s arrival is that he could come at any point that we are ready for him. In a long discussion on when the Messiah will come (Talmud Sanhedrin 98a), we get a story of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi meeting the Messiah, who is outside the city gates, tending to the ill. The text mentions that the usual way of untying and retying bandages for a group of people would be to untie them all, and then replace them all with fresh bandages - but the Messiah tends to one person at a time, because he doesn’t know when he will be needed to bring redemption. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi asks the Messiah when redemption will occur, and the Messiah says: today! But, of course, it did not happen - and we get the explanation that the Messiah meant: I will come today, if you listen to my voice.
I’m struck that these two ideas of the Messiah exist side-by-side in our tradition. One concept has the Messiah coming in his own time, at the end of days. The other has the Messiah constantly poised and ready, waiting for us to be prepared for peace.
So what does it mean to pray for peace?
Perhaps we are praying that now is the pre-ordained time for the Messiah to come. But if we are praying that way, we are either right or wrong. It’s either the pre-ordained time, or it is not.
But if we are praying for the latter kind of vision, that means something quite different. That means that we are praying that we might be ready to pave the way for peace. That means that we are envisioning peace in order to inspire ourselves to work towards it. What we are asking God to do, in that paradigm, is not to reach God’s hand down into the Holy City - what we are asking God to do is fill our hearts with hope. To help us to envision peace - because it is so difficult to work toward a peace that we cannot envision. And in Herzl’s words: “If you will it, it is no dream.”
“שַׁ֭אֲלוּ שְׁל֣וֹם יְרוּשָׁלִָ֑ם”, says the Psalmist - “pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” May we be filled with prayer. May our prayers uplift us. And may our prayers inspire us all to work toward a world that welcomes peace.