YOM YERUSHALAYIM 5777
This coming Wednesday is Yom Yerushalayim, the 50th anniversary of that day in the 6-Day War of 1967 when—despite all odds and dire predictions—in a mere 6 days, Israel’s small army obliterated the 6 Arab armies amassing on its borders and Jerusalem was returned to Jewish hands. It was the most miraculous world event of my lifetime.
I remember it as if it were yesterday. At 8:00pm June 7th Colonel Motta Gur cried out on the army radio—a call heard round the world—Har habayit b’yadeynu (the Temple mount is now in our hands). The next morning a photo appeared on the front page of every newspaper in the world of Chief Army Chaplin Rabbi Shlomo Goren sounding the shofar at the Wall. The 28th day of Iyar was one of the most exciting days in all of Jewish history. It seemed as if the Messiah was just around the corner fulfilling the prophecy of the blessings in today’s Torah reading.
Today’s Torah reading contains a list of blessings and curses. Of all the blessings, the most surprising may be (Lev. 26:8): “5 of you shall pursue a 100 and a 100 of you will give chase to 10,000; your enemies shall fall before you by the sword.” It reminds me of an old joke about the 6-Day War:
A platoon of Egyptians were camping out in the Sinai when an old Israeli codger came wandering over the nearest sand dune cursing at the Egyptians. The platoon commander ordered one of his soldiers to take the man back over the dune and “get rid” of him.
As the 2 men disappeared from sight there was a scuffle and soon the old man returned alone cursing and waving his fist at the Egyptians.
This time the commander sent 2 soldiers. They went over the sand dune; there was a scuffle and again the old man returned by himself!
A bit alarmed the commander now sent 10 men with the same result so the commander sent 25 men to escort the old Jew out of the vicinity. Once again there was a scuffle…this time one badly bruised soldier came crawling back over the dune, yelling, “Captain, Captain, run! It’s a trick! There are 2 of them!”
But it’s not just a joke. Rabbi Yisrael Ariel, founder and head of the Temple Institute in Jerusalem in an interview in the Jerusalem Post described what it was like when he was a paratrooper during the liberation of Jerusalem. He personally witnessed 2,000 captured Jordanian legionnaires cowering as they were being guarded by only one Israeli soldier. He then quoted this verse that, “5 of you shall pursue a 100 and a 100 of you will give chase to 10,000” and said, “I saw this verse being fulfilled before my very own eyes.” Yes it seemed as if the Messiah was just around the corner.
Rabbi Benny Eisner tells how he was part of a small brigade of officers who were told to defend Jerusalem from the south. They were given a few jeeps, a few old rifles with insufficient ammunition. They drove to the south and saw at the top of Har Gilo Jordanian tanks—lots of them. There was no way they could take them on; they were sitting ducks! But they prayed to Hashem and charged up the hill anyway shooting all of their ammunition. Suddenly the tanks miraculously retreated! Rabbi Benny and his small brigade continued driving all the way to Rachel’s Tomb and liberated it. After posting an Israeli flag, he came inside, put his arms around the gravestone and said “Rachel, Rachel, you can stop crying,” quoting Jeremiah (31:16), “v’shavu banim ligvulam, (your children have returned to their borders—they have come home)!”
I remember all this, but my children don’t. They weren’t alive when it happened. When my grandchildren entered this world, there were already people saying: “It’s not ours—never was.” The world is now being told that Jerusalem is only holy to Muslims and that our Holy Temples never existed—despite all the archeological evidence to the contrary. And the sad truth is that some of our kids believe it!
They don’t know that the King of Saudi Arabia said he would never rest until he can come to Jerusalem to pray but never came during the 19 years when Jerusalem was under Arab control. They don’t know that Jerusalem is not mentioned once in the Koran, but 630 times in the Bible as the city of Gd—capital of the Jewish nation. They won’t know this unless we tell them!
Yerushalayim (Jerusalem) is a magical word for Jews. It’s pronounced in awe. It personifies the presence of Gd in our midst. Jerusalem is the soul of our people. It can never be destroyed because wherever the Jew settles Jerusalem is alive in his heart.
That’s why for 2,000 years when we prayed, we always prayed toward Jerusalem, and 3 times each day in our prayers we asked Gd to rebuild Jerusalem. At every Jewish wedding we broke a glass demonstrating that even in our greatest moment of personal joy we mourn for Jerusalem. Twice a year, on Yom Kippur and at the Seder, we say, L’shana haba biy’rushalayim, “Next year in Jerusalem.”
What does Jerusalem mean to us today? When American Jews visit Israel one of our 1st stops is the Kotel. We want to place our notes between its cracks (Gd’s Post Office) and offer a prayer to Gd in the place that was so close to the Holy of Holies of the destroyed Temples. We are fascinated by the all the archeology, history and exotic smells. We want to visit the Jewish quarter and Arab markets and the religious neighborhoods in the modern city like Meah Shearim and Geula. And of course Yad Vashem—the Holocaust Museum—and Mount Herzl where the heroes of Israel are buried.
As intoxicating as this Jerusalem for tourists is, there’s another Jerusalem—a Jerusalem with a face. It’s made up of real people—neighborhoods of families, businesses, and schools. Let me share a few glimpses of my Jerusalem with you.
Some of these glimpses are no longer present because Jerusalem is a dynamic city. With so much in Jerusalem that never changes for thousands of years…there’s so much that changes every year. 1½ years ago when Cheryl and I last visited Jerusalem I was sad to discover that my favorite coffee house, Atara on Ben Yehuda street, with its signature French onion soup covered in Israeli cheese had closed. It was a place where writers and artists would come to schmooze. Their animated discussions were inspiring. But there are new and amazing restaurants opening all the time like Hechatzer by the old train station—one of the only places in the world where you can get a glatt kosher filet mignon stake. This is my Jerusalem.
And then there’s the Rabbanit or Rebbitzen Kapach (who passed away recently but her work continues). She was married when she was 12 or 13 in Yemen and came to Israel to build a new life with her husband who went on to become one of the best known Yemenite Torah scholars in the world. Each year the Rabbanit feeds thousands of people, also maintaining a Gemach—a storage facility with clothing and wedding dresses for those who can’t afford. This woman ran a one person social service agency. For me Rabbanit Kapach is my Jerusalem.
And then there is Yad Lakashish (Lifeline for the Aged). In 1962 Jerusalem was a divided city, with Jordan controlling half of the city that included the Old City. Life in Jewish Jerusalem wasn’t easy. Work was scarce, infrastructure poor and each passing month forced more and more of the elderly onto the streets as beggars. A junior High School teacher—Mrs. Mendilow—was disturbed by the human suffering and loss of self-respect suffered by these elderly. Worst of all was even her students made fun of them as useless and irrelevant.
Refusing to accept this, she began a workshop designed to train a small group of elderly, indigent men in the art of bookbinding because somehow she got a hold of an old bookbinding machine. Local schools would bring tattered books from their libraries to the workshop, and for a small fee they would fix them. She petitioned the government and was given a small shack right up against the wall that divided the city with Jordan. No one wanted that property because Arab snipers would shoot at Jews from atop the wall. Today—with a united Jerusalem—it’s one of the most expensive pieces of real estate. Yad LaKashish has grown and its 10 workshops now employ 250 elderly men and women and disabled artisans in various trades, who have rediscovered their pride as they receive a small salary, medical care and 2 meals a day. This is my Jerusalem.
And then there’s Rabbi Mordecai Goldstein—who died this year—and his Diaspora Yeshiva complex of schools on Mt. Zion. Rabbi Goldstein—with his tallis flying in the wind carrying Torahs with his students—singlehandedly occupied David’s Tomb at Mt. Zion as bullets were flying above them during the 6-Day War. He alone insured that at least some of Mt. Zion would be in Jewish hands. Most of it was already occupied by Armenian Christian churches. Goldstein’s institutions, like many others, are havens for lost Jewish souls from all over the world who find love and a spiritual home within them. This is my Jerusalem.
I could keep going. There are thousands of stories. Today we are so distracted by all the violence, terror attacks and the BDS world campaign to isolate Israel with boycotts, divestments and sanctions. None of this, however, will ever remove Jerusalem from our hearts.
President Donald Trump will be arriving on Monday in Israel. He will be the 1st sitting president to go to the Kotel. If he puts a note into the wall as I think he will, I hope it will be a prayer for Gd to help him bring peace between Israel and the Palestinians. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem, our prayer is that Gd watch over our Jerusalem and that He keep it safe as a true Ir Shaleym, a “City of Peace” for all. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis