“Next year in Jerusalem!” So ends the Jewish Seder meal. Pilgrimages to the holy city of Jerusalem were an important part of the Jewish faith in Old Testament times. There was only one Temple, the Temple in Jerusalem, David’s city. The journey was meant to give pilgrims plenty of time to reflect on God; the city and Temple were designed to inspire awe before the glory of God.
Much has changed since that time. The Temple has been destroyed and rebuilt several times. Jerusalem, while still important to the Jewish faith, is not as central to worship since the scattering through the diaspora. Still pilgrimages remain an important part of not only the Judeo-Christian faith, but other faiths. There is something about leaving the comfort of your home and traveling for many miles, experiencing the hardships of the road as you journey to a sacred spot that inspires mystical experiences. We go on pilgrimage to grow closer to our God, to reflect on what is truly important in our lives.
Psalm 48 is one of the Songs of Zion, designed to be sung by pilgrims coming to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple. It starts with words of praise for the magnificence of God–“Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised in the city of our God!” (1)–and God’s holy city, sitting atop God’s mountain, “His holy mountain, beautiful in elevation, is the joy of all the earth.” (2) Pilgrims are reminded of God’s glory, how God gave victory in battle. The mere sight of God’s holy city struck fear in their enemies’ hearts, “For lo, the kings assembled, they came on together. As soon as they saw it, they were astounded, they were in panic, they took to flight; trembling took hold of them there, anguish as of a woman in travail.” (4-6) God shatters the ships of Tarshish, “By the east wind you did shatter the ships of Tarshish.” (7)
It is a patriotic hymn proclaiming the power of the nation. The psalm continues in its praise of God. (9-11) Pilgrims coming to Jerusalem would march around and through the city until they entered the gates of the Temple, “Walk about Zion, go round about her, number her towers, consider well her ramparts, go through her citadels; that you may tell the next generation that this is God.” (12-14a) All was designed to inspire awe and confidence in the power of God.
Many will be traveling over Memorial Day Weekend, visiting friends and family or just making their pilgrimage to the grave site of loved ones. These burial grounds are sacred spaces, places of remembrance, hallowed ground. There is something about movement and travel, physically moving to a new location that evokes memories. Whenever I drive “up-north” in Michigan, I’m beset by memories at each exit ramp. I journey through time, college years in E. Lansing, years visiting my grandmother in Lansing, Alma, my hometown, and so it goes.
But you don’t have to physically journey to be on pilgrimage. Sometimes it’s enough to make the journey in our hearts and minds as we reflect on our life, where we have been and where we are going. As mentioned on the website Chabad.org, “You can be miles away from Jerusalem even while living there. And you can be on the other side of the world but only a step away. Because Jerusalem is much more than a city. It’s an ideal that we are struggling to reach.”
We may not be traveling to the Temple in Jerusalem, but ultimately we are all on the same journey to our home in New Jerusalem with our God. Let us approach those gates with hymns of praise!
Wishing all a safe journey wherever you may be traveling over the holiday weekend!