The sidra calls Malchitzedek “king of Shalem” (Gen. 14:18). This name Shalem is said by the Midrash to have been chosen by Shem, whereas Abraham called the place HaShem Yireh (Gen. 22:14).
God said, “If I call it Yireh as Abraham did, then Shem, a righteous man, will be slighted. If I call it Shalem as Shem did, then Abraham, a righteous man, will be slighted. Therefore I will call it Y’rushalem, as they both called it together Yireh-Shalem, Y’rushalem, Jerusalem” (Gen. Rabba 56:16).
This means there are two dimensions to Jerusalem, Abraham’s and Shem’s.
Abraham’s introduction to Jerusalem comes when God commands him to go with Isaac to “one of the mountains which I will tell you” (Gen. 22:2).
The unidentified mountain will become Jerusalem, but Abraham does not know this yet. Only when he sets off on his search does God lead the patriarch there.
Rashi says that he knows he is on the right track when he sees a mountain with a cloud entwined around its peak.
It is not a mountain lit up by a shaft of sunlight, but one where there are secrets shrouded in the mist, so Abraham has to keep on climbing the mountain, looking and longing for what he will find. That is why Abraham’s name for the mountain is Yireh, “looking, seeing”.
Shem, on the other hand, is not looking or searching. For him the place is Shalem, “completeness”.
Who is Shem? One of the sons of No’ach. On the Ark, as tradition tells us, Shem tends the animals and ensures each one is fed. Later on, his thoughtfulness earns him the name Malchitzedek, “king of righteousness”.
For him, Jerusalem is the place where there is community and understanding between people, where God’s gifts give human beings the sense of completeness.
We are all Abraham and all Shem.
As Abraham, we are constantly looking for the spirituality of Jerusalem, searching for the mystique that is hidden in the cloud, yearning for the day when “out of Zion will go forth Torah, and the word of HaShem from Jerusalem” (Isa. 2:3).
As Shem, we see how Jerusalem has united the Jewish people everywhere and in every age, enabled us to build and rebuild the city, and made it a place where, despite the hostile media of the world, acts of lovingkindness abound.
For Israel and the Jewish people, Jerusalem is no ordinary piece of geography. It is a place like no other, it has never been without a Jewish presence, it has always been central to Judaism, it is the one place to which, say the prophets, all the nations will come to worship the God of Israel.
(Partly based on a D’var Torah by Rabbi Da-vid Sperling, issued by Nishmat, Jerusalem, 30 May, 2000.)