By the time of the psalmist, the centralization of the worship of God in Jerusalem required by Deuteronomy 12:5 had long since been established. Jerusalem had become the one and only place of legitimate worship for ancient Israelites. It was here and here alone where the agricultural festivals could be celebrated; the only place where the first fruits could be brought. A Noted Biblical scholar, Shalom Spiegel, even identified liturgies of entrance to the Temple that confirm its centrality (cf. “A Prophetic Attestaion of the Decalogue: Hosea 6:5,” Harvard Theological Review 27 , p. 120ff). But it is the psalms themselves that reveal how meaningful a pilgrimage to Jerusalem could be.
Pilgrims would have been greeted with a reminder of the sanctity of the city and the holiness of the Temple by those who monitored the gates. Hence, Psalm 24 begins with a rhetorical question: “Who may ascend the mountain of God?” in order to include a reminder in the ensuing answer: “He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not lied or done wrong…” Psalm 15 includes a more expanded list of requirements; almost a parallel to what is popularly called the Ten Commandments. The purpose of these reminders was clear: worship at the Temple Mount demanded more than participation in the prescribed ritual. It required a spiritual transformation (cf. Michael Fishbane, Text and Texture, p. 107).
This kind of transformation is hinted in the Torah text that commands each Jew to come to the place that God has chosen to cause His name to dwell therein and also to seek His place. At first, Nahmanides (1194-1270) associates this “seeking out” with asking directions. A pilgrim cannot come to Jerusalem unless he knows the way. But upon further reflection, Nahmanides concludes that the “seeking out” of the place of God does not refer to geography but to conduct. The road to Jerusalem is doing that which brings a person closer to God’s presence. Similarly, the gatekeepers of Jerusalem reminded the pilgrims of the difference between coming to the Temple and finding God. Coming to the Temple is relatively easy. It only requires a physical journey, albeit a tiring one. Finding God, however, is much harder. It requires a spiritual journey that is entirely transforming.
To us as much as to the pilgrims of the past, reminders of what is central to Jewish life and practice are still germane.