It was on a clear but cold winter afternoon that I landed at JFK Airport on my first visit to the United States. After clearing customs and immigration and being granted a three week tourist visa, I climbed into a taxi on my way to my Manhattan hotel. Half an hour later, as the sun was starting to set, the cab swept around a curve in the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and for the first time in my life my eyes fell upon a sight of which I have never tired. The towering skyscrapers of lower Manhattan silhouetted against the still blue sky took my breath away. I found myself silently mouthing these words, “How great are your works, Oh Lord!” (Psalms 92:5) as tears started up in my eyes. It was then, only a couple of hours after first setting foot upon the continent of North America while driving up the East River towards the Brooklyn Bridge that I resolved to stay. And, though no longer on a tourist visa, I’m still here.
Why did this sight move me so deeply? Because the Grand Canyon, Mount Rainier, and the giant redwood trees overlooking San Francisco Bay might all have conceivably come into being as the result of a lengthy process of random, unaided materialistic evolution. Primeval winds and wild rivers might have shaped canyons and mountains while undisturbed saplings grew and grew. But a colossal hub of millions of human beings all cooperating to build and maintain Manhattan with its buildings and bridges, its streets and subways and its unimaginably vast system of human enterprise could only have been built by creatures touched by the finger of God. I was immeasurably moved realizing that I was gazing upon the proof of God’s goodness.
Beavers build lodges and dams that are wonders of hydraulic engineering. Bees build hives of energetic productivity and ants create huge invisible underground nests. But none of these examples of animal instinct matches a city. Every beaver, bee or ant habitation almost exactly matches every other, but each city that humans build looks different and each houses its own unique culture. Every animal endeavor is predictable while cites collapse when their cultures fail as Jane Jacobs explains in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. While some cities become shining jewels gleaming with every facet of human creativity, others lose their central life force; they deteriorate and die, becoming garbage heaps and cesspools.
Just as a culture builds a city, so a city grows and protects its culture. And when the city dies, so does its culture. For this reason, Germany concentrated its bombing blitz during eight months in 1940-1941 upon London and not upon the green fields of Devon which provided such agricultural abundance. Likewise, the Royal Air Force bombed Berlin and Dresden and not German farmland. To end the Pacific war, we bombed the great cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, utterly ignoring the rice paddies that fed 70 million Japanese.
To fully grasp how cities are really an amazing manifestation of our Godly origin, we can glance at these Bible sections.
In anticipation of inheriting the Land of Israel, the tribes of Reuben and Gad request the east bank of the Jordan. After much nuanced-filled negotiation, Moses instructs them:
Build for yourselves cities for your small children and pens for your flocks…
Then Moses instructed Israel to give the tribe of Levi 48 cities! (Numbers chapter 35)
Did the small children of two tribes really need a few cities? Wouldn’t a handful of childcare facilities suffice? And did one tribe of Levites really need nearly 50 cities?
And, while we’re talking of unnecessary cities, why did Cain build a city for all of about half a dozen human beings on the planet? (Genesis 4:17)
Ancient Jewish wisdom explains that whenever Scripture mentions a city it is teaching us that a new culture is being introduced. This idea is not without modern precedent. When the Australians began to see themselves as an independent nation early in the 20th century, they set about building their new capital city of Canberra where no city existed and where almost no people dwelled. Fifty years later, Brazil did the same thing, building the capital city Brasilia, not in response to any growing local population but to attract a population. Of course today both Canberra and Brasilia are large and thriving cities.
Thus when the Children of Israel were anticipating their arrival into their own land for the first time ever, building cities was an essential first step. Reuben and Gad built cities, not for their existing small children but to provide a future-looking culture for those children. The Levites didn’t possess the numbers to warrant 48 cities, but they were the guardians of a culture that placed worship of God at the center. Naturally they needed cities to help implant that outlook.
Conversely when enemies attack, they have always known that if they destroy the cultural heart of the country by eradicating the city, the rural farmlands will also cease to exist.
This Sunday, we observe the most mournful day of the Jewish calendar, known as Tisha B’Av. This is the date around which almost every calamity inflicted upon the Jewish people throughout history is clustered. We tend to heave a heartfelt sigh of relief when the day passes each year. One of the calamities mourned is the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple some twenty-five hundred years ago. On Sunday we shall read the book of Lamentations whose opening verse reads:
Oh how has the city [Jerusalem] that was once so populous become so lonely!
She has become like a widow…
We see that just as the happy new culture that would arise with the Jewish arrival in Israel needed cities built, so the tragic new culture heralded by the eviction of the Jews from Israel needed cities destroyed—starting with the capital city, Jerusalem.
The condition of American cities sheds considerable light on the health of the cultures of the states in which those cities are situated. It is not hard to see that Atlanta, Dallas, Phoenix and Charlotte are in better shape than Baltimore, Detroit, San Francisco and New York. The rural countryside can pretty much survive without a God-centric culture. However, once cities go secular, there’s not much that can save them other than the fervent revival of the Biblical beliefs and values that built those cities in the first place.
I do enjoy the natural beauty to be found in the United States of America. But I am spiritually inspired and emotionally moved far more by the good people to be found maintaining and growing those still-healthy cities that I am privileged to visit and in which I am often blessed to appear and speak. I pray for that Biblical revival among America’s believers and the first sign of its success will be the return of our cities.
Adapted and reprinted from Tisha B’Av teaching summer 2016
14 thoughts on “Summer in The City”
Dear Rabbi Lapin
I have bad news for you.
You are my Rabbi.
I agree with 90% of your thought tools and have found most of them instructive, particularly about The Ancient but totally up to date lessons of the Jewish Scriptures. However in your latest Teaching you find wonder in the fabric, both material and social in cities. I have lived and worked in and around London for most of my working life and now live in semi-rural Hertfordshire. Yes there are many great things in a great City but the negatives are now greater than the positives.
Look at the cities in the land that you came from and show me a positive. You admit that many of the great cities in the land that you now live in are in decline.I am not suggesting that w should all live the life of a Hermit. of course Humans need the society of Humans( and contact and Worship of our Father in Heaven) but maybe Cities are not always the answer. Small Towns, intimate friends, the society that you can actually trust and affect I like.
the lie of “modern judaism”, aka reform and conservative movements, is a cultural phenomena only seen in cities of course….
Interesting….I’ll have to think about whether I agree
It seems that the rural countryside is more likely to produce a God-centric culture than great cities. Perhaps, it is because farmers are more dependent on forces of nature that they can’t control. As I consider the rise and fall of great cities and the culture that built them, it appears that a shared understanding of what it means to be a Roman or an American began in the countryside. That shared belief then created great cities where people forgot what it meant to be who they were. Then collapsing morals ultimately collapsed the city. I also see this pattern repeated in the Old Testament, especially in a small scale way as repeated over and over again in the book of Judges. It is a hard subject to describe in a short paragraph, but as I look at the ongoing change of culture in our great cities, I am reminded of Thomas Jefferson who observed,”I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.”
You’ll be as astonished as was I to hear that human settlement actually starts with cities and then spreads to countryside. The old model of farms becoming villages, becoming towns, becoming cities sounds logical but Jane Jacobs persuasively demonstrated that it is incorrect. Thomas Jefferson’s words you quote are indeed terrifying.
Dearly Beloved Rabbi — have listened to you for quite a number of years. Your comments today about the city skylines, etc. amaze me. I farmed all my life, milking cows and stewarding the land. BUT when I see the San Francisco bridge, bridges in New York, railway spans, when I sit by a crossing and revel in the power of a freight train’s huge engines and thinking about that splendid Arch you featured last week — I love cement and steel, however can the “earth” hold up such heavy structures? Just to say, thank you for being a kind of kindred spirit regarding wonderful human endeavors. I also read any and all tall ship biographies I can get my hands on — my hero is Joshua Slocum. Human beings surely enjoy our blessed God’s blessings upon our creative selves. Being a Christian I am very happy to enjoy your teaching — I really liked the reason you presented about just “why” do murderers, etc. do it????? Well, the point IS they chose to. The truth it is.
It is good to admire creativity around us. Thank Rabbi and Susan. Love, Ann
Thanks for your lovely and lyrical letter. Funny we should both find Joshua Slocum so fascinating. His book Sailing Alone Around the World, published, I think in 1900 or very soon afterwards is a boating classic. In it, he amusingly recounts meeting the president of South Africa, Paul Kruger (after whom the famous Kruger National Park is named) and they argued, Kruger insisting the world was flat and one couldn’t sail around it, only on it. I am happy to know you read our work and listen to the podcast http://rabbidaniellapin.libsyn.com/
Dear Rabbi Lapin,
I enjoyed your reflections on cities. G-d surely has a hand in directing man’s efforts toward the progression of human society and interaction. I noted while spending a couple of years in Israel how different Jerusalem was from Tel Aviv. Jerusalem was steeped in a sense of holiness. It was centered on an appreciation for the importance of religious devotion in man’s life. Tel Aviv, in contrast, was the home of secular life. Inhabitants of Tel Aviv seemed to care little about Jewish tradition, devoting their time to worldly matters. Tel Aviv and Jerusalem each had different spiritual characters.
I imagine that cities throughout the earth have their own faces, hands legs, arms and feet. Yes, whole bodies (each city from every culture) with their special expression. G-d’s work is evidenced in the uniqueness and diversity found across the globe. G-d raises up and brings down. May our nation stand firm in the service of the Holy One, Blessed be He. May G-d bless and protect the Jewish state, Israel and watch over His people, the Jewish nation.
I can only answer “Amen” to your letter. As you say the characters of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are so distinctively different.
Was it necessary for the Israelites to destroy the Canaanite cities, as evidenced by the destruction layer evidence for the period of Israelite entry to the Land? It seems to me that because of the idolatrous Canaanite culture their cities had to go to then be replaced by new or rebuilt ones based on Torah and its values.
You answered your own question quite correctly. Yes, they had to destroy those cities because the idolatry that permeated them fatally poisoned them.
Some things cannot be repaired. They need to be replaced. Often a man who regularly uses an umbrella given to him by an earlier girl-friend (or wife) will get rid of it when he marries his current wife and replace it with one that carries no spiritual patina or memories of someone who should now have no place in his marriage or feelings.
Your description of your first step onto the American continent touched me to the heart, dear Rabbi. We agree that this blessed American nation is a monolithic occurrence in Creation, when our Founding Fathers (Christian and Deist) established consensus: that our New World, for the first time in human history, should be based upon our perception of our covenant with the Lord, that all men are created equal under the umbrella of God’s providence for all men, not subject to any human tyrant. The only factoid understated is that Baltimore, Detroit, San Francisco and New York happen to be the long-established domains of the Democratic Socialist Party, which has destroyed the nuclear family, independence and self-determination in America in favor of the triumph of Progressive Mega-Government, to the ultimate ruin of us all. In these cities welfare triumphs, feeding desperation and crime, and catalyzing the downward spiral into nightmare and pandemonium.
You’re correct, James,
I did understate the details of those doomed cities because I knew that those who could understand the truth already knew it and those who didn’t probably would have trouble with it.
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