It is a well-known fact that wherever Jews live, they are meant to face Jerusalem in prayer (see Brachot 30a). As Rabbi Shubert Spero explains in his essay on ‘Turning to Jerusalem in Prayer’, “turning towards Jerusalem and the land of Israel from the “four corners of the earth” kept the Jew mindful of where he came from and where he longed to return. In a very realistic way, this compelled the Jew at all times, and in all places, to be mindful in actual geographical terms of the direction in which the city of Jerusalem was to be found. Should he decide tomorrow to return to Jerusalem, he will already know in which direction to set out.”
But in addition to physically facing Jerusalem in prayer in order to help guide us individually and as a nation about where we hope – some day – to return, we also all face Jerusalem in prayer to help unite us, both individually and as a nation. As Gemara Brachot 30a explains, ‘in this way all the Jews are directing their hearts to a single place’, which means that this gesture of all facing the same destination reminds us that notwithstanding our differences, we are part of one people serving the One G-d.
One reason for me mentioning this is because we are soon about to enter the time known as Bein HaMetzarim (literally ‘between the straits’) – which is the three week mourning period beginning with the fast of the 17th of Tammuz and ending with the 9th of Av, and though some of the tragedies which occurred on these days are unrelated to Jerusalem, a major dimension of these days and this period relates to the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem and our physical exile from the city.
However, a further reason for me mentioning this relates to the fourth ‘Sheva Bracha’ which we are taught in today’s daf (Ketubot 8a): שׂוֹשׂ תָּשִׂישׂ וְתָגֵל הָעֲקָרָה בְּקִבּוּץ בָּנֶיהָ לְתוֹכָהּ בְּשִׂמְחָה בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה׳ מְשַׂמֵּחַ צִיּוֹן בְּבָנֶיהָ – ‘Bring great happiness and joy to one who was barren, as her children return to her in joy. Blessed are You, Lord, who gladdens Zion through her children’, because when we speak of the ‘one who was barren’, we are referring to Jerusalem, and when the blessing ends with the words of ‘who gladdens Zion through her children’, we are referring to the ending of exile and the reuniting of the Jewish people in Jerusalem.
Today, more than any other time in history, Jerusalem is filled with residents and visitors from across the globe, and every single day the beautiful interactions of Jews of all types and stripes is a soothing and redemptive balm to our people and to Jerusalem herself. At the same time, there have also been instances, including recent events, when some Jews not only ignore the fundamental message of ‘notwithstanding our differences, we are part of one people serving the One G-d’, but actually do harm to fellow Jews. In such moments, rather than ‘gladdening Zion through her children’, such behaviour causes pain and grief – both to the victims of such behaviour, as well as to the city as a whole.
Over the past two millennia, Bein HaMetzarim was a time to mourn, to cry, to hope and to dream. Yet while we still feel and mourn the absence and loss of the Beit HaMikdash, we are living in an unprecedented time when the words of our prophets are being realized in our days and when so many of the children of Zion are now living in Zion. Of course, like all children, the Jewish people have often bickered. At the same time, they almost always remembered that notwithstanding their bickering, they are still part of one family. And why do we speak of ‘gladdening Zion through her children’ at a wedding? Because just as a wedding is a reuniting of souls which brings gladness to them and all that are present, this reuniting of the Jewish people is what Jerusalem has been hoping and waiting for during those many years of exile.
As mentioned, it is important to remember that every single day beautiful interactions occur in Jerusalem between Jews of all types and stripes which is a soothing and redemptive balm to our people and to Jerusalem herself. Still, as we approach the start of Bein HaMetzarim, it seems like a fitting occasion to reflect on the fourth ‘Sheva Bracha’ and to pray that we are able to act in a way that enables God to, ‘bring great happiness and joy to one who was barren, as her children return to her in joy. Blessed are You, Lord, who gladdens Zion through her children’