The Heavenly Jerusalem
An idealized Jerusalem arose out of the ashes of the Temple's destruction and the city's ruins.
The midrash in which Rabbi Yochanan is cited raises the question as to whether the heavenly Jerusalem is simply a template or mirror image of the earthly Jerusalem or a reality unto itself that one day will materialize on earth. From the context, it can be assumed that one rabbi believed that the heavenly Jerusalem exists intact regardless of the state of the earthly Jerusalem. Rabbi Yochanan seems to argue that only when the earthly Jerusalem is restored fully that the heavenly Jerusalem will be realized fully as well. The rabbinic concept of an ideal Jerusalem existing in the heavens fuels much speculation in later generations in Jewish history.
In Medieval Times
During the middle ages, the most passionate Jewish movements that embraced the idea of the heavenly Jerusalem were often disappointed by the reality. Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, Jews were able to live in Jerusalem again. And though Jerusalem was no longer a significant commercial or political center, Jews lived in Jerusalem for historical and spiritual reasons. However, for centuries Jews did not migrate from the major centers of Jewish population in the Islamic world to Jerusalem. It was only with the Crusades that Jews from Europe realized that it might be possible to live in the land of Israel, perhaps in Jerusalem itself.
One of the leading rabbinic figures of Spain, Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, called Nachmanides, was forced to leave Spain in the middle of the 13th century. Although considered by many scholars to be a Jewish rationalist, his commentary on the Torah reveals a strong mystical orientation. When he eventually reached Jerusalem and found it largely in ruins with a very small, impoverished Jewish community, he wrote of his dismay and disappointment. Clearly, the ideal Jerusalem that he imagined he did not find in the Jerusalem on earth of his day.
From the Mystics to the Hasidim
In the 16th century, a community of mystic Jews migrated from Germany to the land of Israel. Settling in the city of Safed in northern Israel because it was more closely tied to Jewish mystics in the land of Israel, this community developed a practical mystical philosophy that would give new meaning to the idea of a heavenly Jerusalem. The leader of this community, Rabbi Isaac Luria, taught a doctrine that explained how the world could be restored to perfection through human action. He explained that in creating the world, God first created vessels to contain the divine light that give the world life. However, the vessels were not strong enough and the divine light shattered the vessels. Thus, the sparks of divine light and the shards of the broken vessels become intermixed.
The task of human beings is to gather the divine sparks, one by one, until all have been collected. As this teaching began to take hold, it provided a means by which the ordinary Jew could help to build the heavenly Jerusalem. For only when the heavenly Jerusalem was fully built, could it become manifest on earth.
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