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Songs of Celebration: Moshe by the Sea and Naomi in Jerusalem

Jerusalem of Gold is possibly the most well-known contemporary Jewish song, certainly the most well-known Israeli song. People are familiar with its stirring tune, but most people do not know the life and death drama story behind the song and why a final stanza was added on afterwards. The song was released three weeks before the six day war in 1967. Naomi Shemer, who was already a popular song writer was commissioned by the mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek, in the winter of 1967 to write a song for that year’s Israel Music Festival. Her sorrowful lyrics draw on Biblical themes, and accentuate the traumatic history of the city of Jerusalem. It transports those themes to modern times. Jerusalem is isolated, with ‘a wall within her heart’ literally referring to the wall dividing the city between Israel and Jordan since 1948 when the Jewish inhabitants were expelled from their homes in the Old City and East Jerusalem. It speaks of being denied the right to go to our holy sites, the Western Wall and the Temple Mount. Yet despite all of this it is still ‘Jerusalem of Gold’, the light might be hidden away but it is still there. On May 15, when the song was played at the festival on the day after Independence day, the Israeli army had been mobilized and the country was on high alert due to the threats of war and annihilation from its Arab neighbors. Israel’s very existence was being threatened like it was in 1948. The feelings of vulnerability and sadness expressed in the song were even more intense with the threat of war, and the song became an instant hit. When the war did break out three weeks later, it became the soldiers’ rallying song. One soldier wrote to Naomi Shemer "At this very moment our planes are bombing the Golan and your song is playing on the radio. Your song Jerusalem of Gold has become part of our lives as we man our stations.” When the Israeli forces were victorious, re-uniting Jerusalem and freeing the Western Wall, Naomi Shemer came to the wall and heard the soldiers singing her song. This inspired her to write a final stanza, turning the song from a mournful song to a song of celebration.

Jerusalem a Divided City

This song follows a long line of songs of celebration found in Jewish tradition. In this week’s Torah reading the Jewish people are in a dire situation, similar to the one in May 1967. The Egyptians are closing in, their backs are to the sea, and an attack is imminent with the threat of the destruction of the entire people hanging over them. And then G-d comes to the people’s rescue. The Red Sea splits, the people flee through the sea and when they are safely on dry land the sea comes crashing down on the Egyptians. The enemy is decimated, the Jews are saved, and Moshe breaks out into song, leading people with the Song of the Sea which has found its central place in the daily morning service. Most of us have never had their lives put in danger, and it is difficult to imagine how a person is transformed after going through such an experience. However what we can relate to is how human nature is such that we often do not appreciate our blessings and show gratitude for what he have until we are in a position where we are in danger of losing everything. Why are action movies so popular? Because they allow people to experience this feeling of danger and vulnerability, and then salvation vicariously. We all have all been through trials and adversity in our lives, feeling that our backs are to the wall, and it is precisely at those times that we feel drawn turn to the Almighty with faith that help will come. This is the essence of the song at the sea, that being saved from danger, difficulty and adversity, and finding freedom, blessing and hope leads to us appreciation for our lives and gratitude to the Almighty. And when it does come, we must remember to express that gratitude, to sing a song of personal celebration.

After the miraculous victory of the six day war, there was a tremendous feeling of jubilation and religious awakening in Israel. Naomi Shemer captured that feeling in final stanza of the song with and expression of joy over the Jewish people returning to a reunited city, the shofar being blown over the Temple Mount, and the full strength of the gold returning with ‘thousands of rays of the sun’ which now shined down on the city once again. May we all be blessed to have the Almighty with us, the sun shining down on us, and to keep in our hearts some of that Jerusalem of Gold.

Rabbi Shlomo Goren the Chief Rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces blowing the shofar at the liberation of the Western Wall June 10 1967

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