Re'eh: HaMakom Asher Yivchar Hashem

This shiur provided courtesy of The Tanach Study Center In memory of Rabbi Abraham Leibtag

To our surprise, the city of Jerusalem (by that name) is never mentioned in Chumash.  However, the underlying concept of that eternal city emerges as a major theme in Parshat Re'eh.

In the following shiur, we uncover the 'foundations of Jerusalem' in our study of the Torah's repeated use of the phrase: "ha'makom asher yivchar Hashem" [lit. the site that God will choose], and its thematic significance.


When we speak of Jerusalem, we usually relate to either one of its two aspects:

  1. Its geographic location
  2. Its function as the national center of the Jewish Nation.

Even though Chumash never informs us in regard to its precise location, its function as a 'national center' for the Jewish Nation unfolds as a fundamental theme in Sefer Devarim.

To understand how and why, we must begin our shiur by returning to our analysis of the CHUKIM & MISHPATIM section of the main speech of Sefer Devarim.

Recall from the introductory shiur on Sefer Devarim that the main speech of Sefer Devarim (chaps. 5-26) discusses primarily the mitzvot that Bnei Yisrael must keep when they enter the land (see 6:1), to establish themselves as an "am kadosh".  This speech divides neatly into two distinct sections:

I: "HaMITZVA" (6:4 - 11:31) II: "HaCHUKIM v'haMISHPATIM (12:1 - 26:19)

The MITZVAH section, we explained, contains primarily mitzvot and repeated reminders ("tochachot") regarding the proper attitude towards God ("ahavat Hashem"/ e.g. 6:5,10:12,11:22), while the CHUKIM & MISHPATIM section contains the more practical laws that Bnei Yisrael must keep when setting up their nation in the Land.

These 'practical laws' begin in Parshat Re'eh (see 12:1) and continue all the way until the laws of "bikkurim" in Parshat Ki-tavo (see 26:1-15).  As this section is the Torah's largest corpus of laws, we should expect for its manner of presentation to be significant.  As we shall now discuss in greater detail, the very first primary topic of this section just so happens to be "ha'makom asher yivchar Hashem".  Therefore, we begin our study with an analysis of how the Torah first presents these laws:

HaMakom Asher Yivchar Hashem

Let's read the opening pesukim of the CHUKIM & MISHPATIM section, noting the progression of the commandments and the development of its main topic:

"THESE are the 'chukim & mishpatim' which you must observe in the LAND WHICH HASHEM IS GIVING YOU... :

  • You must totally destroy all the sites where the nations worshiped their idols... on the high hills and mountains... you must ERADICATE THEIR NAMES from this place.
  • DO NOT WORSHIP YOUR GOD IN THIS MANNER (in multiple places of worship/ read carefully!).
  • Rather, at the SITE WHICH GOD WILL CHOOSE - HA'MAKOM ASHER YIVCHAR HASHEM - amongst all your tribes, - LASUM ET SHMO SHAM; - "l'shichno ti'DRSHU u'ba'ta shama"
  • THERE you must bring all of your offerings and tithes etc. Eat and rejoice there in front of your Lord...
  • ... After you cross the Jordan and enter the Land and find rest from your enemies and enjoy security, then - HA'MAKOM ASHER YIVCHAR HASHEM L'SHAKEYN SHMO SHAM - bring THERE everything I command...
  • Be careful not to offer your sacrifices anywhere that you want, rather at HA'MAKOM ASHER YIVCHAR HASHEM, only THERE may you bring your offerings...

(see 12:1-14)

Note that the first commandment - to destroy all places of idol worship in order to eradicate the NAMES of other gods from your land - serves as a 'prerequisite' for the commandments that follow: to establish a central SITE IN WHICH GOD'S NAME WILL DWELL.

This obligation - to transform Eretz Canaan into a land in which God's Name (i.e. reputation) becomes known - emerges as the first topic of this section.  This goal is accomplished not only by ridding the land of the names of OTHER gods (12:2-3), but also by establishing a national religious center – i.e. HAMAKOM ASHER YIVCHAR HASHEM L'SHAKEYN SHMO SHAM – a vehicle through which this goal can be realized.

In relation to the framework of the main speech, this opening commandment is quite appropriate, for Bnei Yisrael are about to enter and conquer the Promised Land in order to establish God's special nation.  Therefore, it is significant that the opening commandment be to rid the land from the names of other gods, while establishing a site in which God's NAME will become known.

A Recurring Theme

Not only is - HAMAKOM ASHER YIVCHAR HASHEM - repeated several times in the opening "parshia" (i.e. chapter 12),  this phrase is mentioned some TWENTY times throughout the entire CHUKIM & MISHPATIM section of the main speech (chapters 12-26)!  As illustrated in the following table, not only is it the FIRST topic of this section, it also develops as a recurring theme.

The table below summarizes each mention of the phrase "ha'makom asher yivchar Hashem" together with its related topic:

Pasuk Topic
12:5,11,14,18,21,26 The place to bring all "korbanot"
14:23,24,25 The place to eat "maaser sheni"
15:20 The place to eat "bchor b'heyma"
16:2,6,7,11,15,16 The site for "aliya l'regel" on the holidays
17:8,10 The seat of the Supreme Court
18:6 The service of the Leviim
26:2 The place to bring one's 'first fruits'

A National Center

A quick glance at this table immediately shows that the purpose of this site is not only to offer 'korbanot'; rather it emerges as a National Religious Center.  These mitzvot in Sefer Devarim facilitate the establishment of this center, for in order to fulfill them, one must frequent this site on numerous occasions during the course of the year!

First and foremost, every individual is obligated to make a pilgrimage to the site on the three agricultural holidays ("aliyah l'regel" / chapter 16).  Moreover, one is obligated to visit this site whenever he must offer a "korban" (be it "n'dava" or "chovah").

The farmer must bring there not only his first fruits ("bikurim"), but also 10% of his harvest to eat and share at this site ("maaser sheni").  Likewise, the shepherd must bring not only the first born animals ("bchor"), but also 10% of his entire flock ("maaser b'heyma")!  Furthermore, the Supreme Court for all judicial and halachik judgment must be located at this site.

Thus, this site - HAMAKOM ASHER YIVCHAR HASHEM - is much more than a location to bring "korbanot".  It unfolds as the National Center of the Jewish people.

What is the purpose of this center?  How should it function?

One could suggest that the establishment of this site would greatly facilitate the development of Am Yisrael as God's special nation.  The establishment of this center, and the obligation of every individual to frequent this site, ensures the unity of the people and of the religion.  Without such a center, within several generations it would be more likely that we would find twelve different religions rather than twelve tribes.

This center was to serve as a center not only for gathering and offering "korbanot", but also for justice, judgment, Torah education, and culture - a site that would enhance the spirituality of each individual.

To prove this point, let's take a closer look at the mitzvah of "maaser sheni":

"You shall set aside every year a tenth of the yield of your field. And you should eat this tithe in the presence of your Lord "baMakom asher yivchar Hashem l'shaken shmo sham"... IN ORDER THAT YOU LEARN TO FEAR GOD forever..." (14:22)

The Torah commands us to tithe ten percent of our produce, and eat it (or share it) within the confines of that center - an act that we are told will teach us to fear God.

But why should simply 'eating food' at this site cause one to fear God?  To understand why, we must conjecture as to how this site was to develop.

The Site / The Temple / and Jerusalem

Even though it is not explicitly stated, it is implicit that the Bet HaMikdash [Temple] was to become the focal point of this national center - for the simple reason that Devarim commands us to bring our "korbanot" there. [These are obviously the same korbanot as described in Sefer Vayikra.]

However, "maaser sheni" itself is produce, and not an animal offering (i.e. it doesn't require a mizbayach).  Nevertheless; the Torah demands that we eat this "maser" at this site.  This implies that there must be an additional area surrounding the Mikdash where this "maser" can be eaten (which Halacha defines this as the area within the walls of the CITY that surrounds the Bet HaMikdash - the same law that applies to eating the meat of the "korban shlamim".]

But when one eats his "maser" within the walls of this city, other people will be there as well.  Let's review who else should be in this special city on a daily basis.   First of all, the Torah designates 'civil servants' who are to officiate and administer the Bet Ha'Mikdash - i.e. the "kohanim" and "leviim" - whose entire lives are dedicated to the service of God. There will also be the judges and scholars of the supreme court system, populating this 'holy city' surrounding the Temple, infusing it with an atmosphere of "kedusha" (sanctity).

Therefore, the experience of eating "maaser sheni" in this 'holy' city, mingling there with the kohanim, leviim, and Torah scholars, while sharing one's food together with family and the needy (see 14:25-27), would create an environment that enhances one's "yirat shamayim" - the fear of God.

Note how Chizkuni's interpretation of the pasuk re: "maser sheni" reflects this same idea:

"...when you will go up [to this site] to eat your maser sheni, you will see the priests officiating and the levites singing... and the Sanhedrin sitting in judgment and teaching laws..., and thus learn [from them] how to fear your God."  (14:23, see also Seforno)

A Proof from Hakhel

This obligation to frequent HAMAKOM ASHER YIVCHAR HASHEM culminates every seven years with the "Hakhel" ceremony, where the entire nation - including the women and children - gather to hear the Torah at this very same site. Here, once again, we find "yirat Hashem" - the fear of God - as the primary purpose:

"... every seventh year... when all Israel gathers before Hashem "ba'Makom asher yivchar", you shall read this Torah (Sefer Devarim) in the presence of all Israel. Gather ("hakhel") the people, men, women and children and the strangers, that they may hear and so learn TO FEAR THE LORD and to observe... Their children too ... shall hear and learn TO FEAR GOD as long as they live on the Land..." (see Devarim 31:10-13)

Not only to we find once again the site "hamakom asher yivchar Hashem", we also find the purpose of this gathering to instill the fear of God in those who gather.  As you review the above pesukim, note as well the similarities to Ma'amad Har Sinai.  This beautifully supports Ramban's interpretation that the underlying purpose of the Mikdash was to perpetuate the Sinai experience (see Ramban on Shemot 25:1 and the shiur on Parshat Terumah).

To conclude our discussion of the 'function' of this site ["hamakom asher yivchar..."], we return to Torah's special use of the word "makom" in a very similar context in Sefer Breishit.

Back to Sefer Bereishit

Review the story of Yaakov's dream at the beginning of Parshat Va'yetze (i.e. Breishit 28:10-22), noting not only the word ha'makom" (five times) but also its theme.  At the conclusion of this episode, Yaakov vows that upon his return to this site ["ha'makom"], he will establish a Bet Elokim - a House for God.  Here, we already find a thematic connection between the word "ha'makom" and the Mikdash.

Similarly, in the story of the "akeyda" (see Breishit chapter 22)` the Torah uses the word "makom" to describe that site.  [See 22:2,3,4,9,14.]  Recall as well how Avraham Avinu names this "makom" - "Hashem yireh" (see 22:14), a site that Chazal later identify as the very same mountain where the Bet Hamikdash was built in Yerushalayim.  In fact, in Divrei Hayamim we are informed that Shlomo hamelech built the Bet HaMikdash on Har HaMoriah, the site of the "akeida" (see II D.H. 3:1-3).

Even though it is not clear where Yaakov's dream took place, the Torah's use of the word "makom" in both stories, and their common theme certainly support Chazal's conclusion that both events happened at the same site (see Rashi 28:11), which later became the Bet ha'Mikdash in Yerushalayim.

Holy Ground or Holy Purpose

Our analysis thus far demonstrates how the Torah puts more emphasis on the 'function', than the location, of this site.  In fact, the Torah appears to be rather evasive in regard to where this site is actually to be located (see below).

However, this very point may be very fundamental towards our understanding of Jerusalem.  The site is special because of its function - to serve as a national center, to promote the reputation of God's Name ["shem Hashem"] among all mankind.

This emphasis is important, for man is very vulnerable towards focusing on the holiness of a site rather than the holiness of its purpose.  [Sort of like devening TO the "kotel" instead devening AT the "kotel", or saying tehillim TO "kivrei tzadikim" instead of AT "kivrei tzadikim".]

For this reason, most all of the later prophets rebuke the people for misunderstanding the Temple in this manner.  Take for example Yirmiyahu chapter 7 (in case you are not familiar, read 7:1-28, see also the first chapter of Yeshayahu).  This rebuke does not imply that there is no value to holy sites.  Precisely the opposite, the physical location is important for it provides a vehicle to promote its purpose.  Yet, it always remains cardinal not to allow the holiness of the site to override the holiness of its purpose.

[For a nice perspective on the balance between these two ideas, see Tehillim 51.  I realize that this is a 'touchy topic', so I'd rather you base your conclusions of David haMelech's explanation, rather than my own.]

Jerusalem: Seek and Find

As we have shown, Sefer Devarim never specifies the precise geographic location of where this site is to be, i.e. where the permanent Bet HaMikdash is to be constructed.  Instead, the site is consistently referred to as "the one which God will choose" ("HaMakom asher yivchar Hashem").

However, in Parshat Reay we do find a very obscure hint regarding how we are to find this site:  "l'shichno ti'drshu, u'bata shama" - (see 12:5)

God will only show us the site if WE look for it. This 'hide and seek' type relationship is reflective of every Divine encounter.  To find God, man must SEARCH for Him.  According to these pesukim in Parshat Re’eh, this principle applies to the nation in same manner as it applies to the individual.  [As we say in the daily Ashrei: "karov Hashem l'chol kor'av" - God is close to those who call out to Him.]

When Am Yisrael as a nation, begins a serious search for God, then God will show them the proper location to build the Mikdash.

The generation of Yehoshua, despite their military conquests, did not succeed in establishing the permanent Mikdash (after conquering the Land).  Instead, they erected the temporary Mishkan in Shilo.  There it remained, quite neglected, during the entire time period of the Judges.  After the city of Shilo was destroyed by the Phlishtim (during the time of Eli / see Shmuel chapters 4-6)  both the Mishkan and the "aron" wandered from site to site.  It was only during the time period of David ha’melech that Bnei Yisrael actively aspired to build the Mikdash.

For example, when David became king over all of Israel (see II Shmuel 5:1-9), his first act was to conquer the city of Jerusalem.  His next project was to gather the nation in order to bring the "aron" (the holy ark) to his new capital city (see II Shmuel chapter 6).  Note how Divrei ha'yamim describes how David explained his plan (and the reason) to the nation:

"David said to the entire congregation of Israel: If you approve, and this is from God (the events of David's rise to power), let us go forward and invite all our brethren in the land of Israel, together with the KOHANIM and LEVIIM and gather together, IN ORDER TO BRING BACK to us God's HOLY ARK - 'ki lo DRASH'NU'HU b'ymei Shaul' - for during the time of Shaul WE DID NOT SEEK IT"  (I Divrei Hayamim 13:2-3)

[Note the use of the shoresh "" here and in Devarim 12:5]

David Hamelech notes how the "aron" had been neglected during the generation of Shaul at the national level.  In contrast to Shaul,  David Hamelech considered bringing the "aron" to Yerushalayim as his highest national priority.

After the "aron" finally arrived in Jerusalem, the next step in David's master plan was to build a permanent house for the "aron", i.e. the Bet Hamikdash in Yerushalayim:

"When the King was settled in his palace and God has granted him safety from his enemies [he'niach lo m'kol oyvav m'saviv], the King said to Natan the prophet:  Here I am dwelling in a HOUSE of cedar wood, while the 'aron' is dwelling only in a TENT!"   (see II Shmuel 7:1-2) [Note again the textual parallel to Devarim 12:10-11]

Even though God informed David that Am Yisrael would have to wait another generation before the Temple could be built (in the next generation by his son Shlomo, see II Shmuel chapter 7), its precise site was already designated in David's own lifetime (see I Divrei Hayamim 22:1).  In fact, David Hamelech himself prepared all the necessary building materials (see the remainder of that chapter).

If you read the above sources carefully, you'll see that the underlying reason for God's decision to delay its construction for one more generation stemmed from the need to wait until its 'function' - to make a Name for God - could be properly fulfilled.

Jerusalem Today

As we have seen in our study, according to the guidelines of Sefer Devarim - 'Jerusalem' is destined to become more than just the city that houses the Temple. Ideally, Jerusalem should become the National Cultural and Religious Center of the Jewish people, while making a Name for God.  This aspiration is found in the prophecies of most all of the later prophets.  For example:

"For Jerusalem will be called the city of Truth ("ir ha'emet"), and the mountain of the Lord of Hosts -"har ha'Kodesh" (see Zecharya 8:3).

"For out of Zion will come forth Torah and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem" (see Isaiah 2:3).

Today, be it for halachic, technical, or political reasons, we are not permitted to rebuild the Bet HaMikdash.  Until the proper time comes, this aspiration remains our national dream and an everlasting prayer.  Nonetheless, to rebuild the city of Jerusalem as our National Center - a city of Truth, Justice, and Sanctity - is not only permitted, it is our duty.  In our own generation, God has opened for us a historic opportunity.  The achievement of this goal remains our national responsibility.