By Shalom Riskin
But the place which the Lord your God shall choose from among all of your tribes to place His Name there, for His dwelling place, shall you seek and shall you come there. And you shall bring there your whole burnt offerings and your sacrifices…” (Deut. 12:5-6).
Apparently the Torah is here speaking of our Holy City of Jerusalem, because it appears in the context of Israel’s entry into the Promised Land and the necessity to destroy the altars of idolatry before establishing our Temple to God. But why is Jerusalem not named?
The Bible has already identified Malki-Zedek as the King of Salem (Jeru-Salem the City of Peace) as far back as the period of Abraham (Gen. 14:18), and Mount Moriah had been designated as the place where the Almighty “would be seen” right after the Binding of Isaac (Gen. 22:14). Moreover, the Bible has no hesitation in identifying places. So why the reluctance to name Jerusalem here?
In his philosophic masterpiece, Guide for the Perplexed (part 3, chapter 45), Maimonides establishes the principle that Divine Service in the Temple was mainly directed against idolatry. Mount Moriah was the highest mountain in the region, so it was specifically chosen by God for the Holy Temple in order to attest to the superiority of God over all other idols! And this Divine intent had previously been revealed to Abraham. If so, why does Moses here hide the precise identity of the City of God?
Maimonides offers three reasons. First of all, he felt that publication of the name of the unique city would only incite the other nations to make war against Israel in order to acquire Jerusalem. Second, the other nations might attempt to destroy the city — if only to keep the Israelites from acquiring it. Finally, Moses feared that the tribes would fight over it, each desirous of having Jerusalem within its own borders.
In addition to Maimonides insights, there is even further significance behind Moses’ reluctance to reveal the precise name of the city. In the ancient world, every nation-state had its own god, whom the citizens believed lived within the boundaries of that nation-state. Jerusalem was to be the city which would house the Holy Temple of God; but God would exclusively dwell neither within the Temple nor within that city. God was the Lord of the entire universe, who could not be encompassed even by by the entire cosmos, less so by a single structure or single city.
One of the most difficult messages Moses had to convey to his people was that God is not limited by physical dimensions. Yes, Maimonides sets down in his Mishneh Torah that the sanctity of Jerusalem is the sanctity of the Divine Presence (Shekhinah), and just as the Divine Presence is eternal and can never be destroyed, so the sanctity of Jerusalem is eternal and can never be made obsolete (Laws of the Chosen Temple, 6:14). The great sage’s point is that the Divine Presence can never be physically destroyed because the Divine Presence is not a physical entity; it can’t be subject to creation or destruction.
There is one place in the world, teaches Moses, where God has consistently been recognized as the Creator of the world and foundation of ethical monotheism for all of humanity. One’s name is not one’s physical being, but one’s name is the medium by which one is recognized and called upon. Malki-Zedek, ancient King of Jerusalem and identified with Shem the son of Noah, recognized God as the power who enabled Abraham to emerge victorious in his battle against the four despotic Kings, and thereby rescue Lot from captivity. Abraham himself recognized God as the ultimate arbiter over life and death, the one to whom we must commit ourselves and our future, when he brought his beloved son Isaac to the akedah on Mount Moriah (Jerusalem). God’s name is on Jerusalem; it is the city in which the God of ethical monotheism is to be recognized and served!
Finally, the name Jerusalem is not specifically mentioned because this recognition of God as the guardian of justice and compassion, lovingkindness and truth is necessary not only for the people of Jerusalem, for all the tribes of Israel, but rather for the entire world. When God initially elects Abraham, the Almighty charges him and his descendants with a universal mission: “Through you all the families of earth shall be blessed”. (Gen. 12:3). The prophet Isaiah speaks of our vision of the end of the days, when the Holy Temple will rise from the top of the mountains, and all nations will rush to it to learn from our ways: “From Zion shall come forth Torah and the word of God from Jerusalem… so that nation shall not lift up sword against nation and humanity will not learn war anymore.” (Isa. 2:3-4)
May the God who cannot be confined to any physical place reveal His teaching of peace and security from Jerusalem His City to everyone throughout the world.