Rabbi Jesse HornThe writer teaches Talmud ("Brisker" approach) and Tanakh at the Hakotel hesder yeshiva in Jerusalem and lectures widely. He has a B.A. in Judaic Studies and M.A. in Jewish Education from Yeshiva University and Rabbinical degree from YU/RIETS.
At the Yam Suf, the Sea of Reeds, Moshe turns towards Hashem in prayer, requesting his help. Surprisingly, Hashem responds, “Why do you call out to me? Speak to Bnei Yisrael (the Children of Israel) and let them start moving [towards the Yam Suf]” (Exodust 14:15).
Hashem’s reply itself is difficult, for one might wonder why Hashem criticized Moshe for praying, yet the Midrash’s (Mechilta 3) remarks on the episode are more puzzling. It comments that “B’Zchut (in the merit of) Jerusalem, I will part the sea,” which presents a glaringly obvious question; what does Jerusalem have to do with Kreyat Yam Suf, the splitting of the sea?
In his book, Aim HaBanim Smaycha (p 24), Rav Tachtel explains that the heart of Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel, is Jerusalem. The Midrash simply testifies to the importance and centrality of Jerusalem by addressing Eretz Yisrael as Jerusalem. In other words, Hashem responded that B’zchut Eretz Yisrael, which is called Jerusalem, due to its significance, the Yam Suf will be split.
Perhaps we can offer an alternative explanation of this Midrash; one that interprets Jerusalem to mean specifically Jerusalem, and not just a code word for Eretz Yisrael. Perhaps Jerusalem was chosen based upon what it represents, in contrast to what Eretz Yisrael does.
Therefore we must ask, what does Jerusalem symbolize, and how does it differ from Eretz Yisrael?
Eretz Yisrael is Am Yisrael’s homeland, whereas Jerusalem is its capital; but Jerusalem captures more than its political role. Jerusalem hosts the Beit Hamikdash, Holy Temple, and therefore Hashem’s Shechina, Presence (Ramban, Introduction to Shemot). Mitzvot, such as Aliyah L’Regel, Maaser Sheni, Bikurim (coming up to the city for the three festivals, tithes and first fruits that must be offered in the Holy City) and others command people to visit Jerusalem several times a year in an attempt to facilitate a connection with Hashem and charge their spiritual batteries.
Jerusalem, in additional to a political capital, houses Hashem’s Presence.
Jerusalem today is no different, with its unique message celebrated on Jerusalem Day, Yom Jerusalem. Whereas Yom Haatzmaut screams out “Am Yisrael Chai,” - the People of Israel live - and celebrates our existence and our belief that for eternity it will continue, Yom Jerusalem declares “We value more than survival. We value Hashem dwelling in our midst. We value life of Godliness. We value Hashem’s Presence among us, just as He promised He would if we would build Him a Mikdash, a holy place.” (Shemot 25:8).
The Midrash chooses to highlight the Zchut (special merit) of Jerusalem precisely because Hashem has a burning desire to dwell among us. Therefore it is correct to state that B’zchut Jerusalem, He split the sea.
Yom Jerusalem celebrates this Zchut, a monumental step towards Hashem’s complete returning of His Presence home, to be among His people.