Jerusalem. It was love long before first sight. In my youth I prayed at Torah Vodass Yeshiva at 206 Wil son Street in Williamsburg, Pennsylvania.
The east wall of the synagogue had two huge murals on either side of the holy ark. One was of the Cave of the Patriarchs and the other of Rachel’s Tomb with the lone olive tree. During the Shabbat meal my father would often exclaim, “Poor Moshe. He wanted so much to enter Eretz Yisroel but he was not permitted.” With that love-inadvance that was part of the spiritual and emotional treasure the Jew carried with him throughout the long exile it was so natural that my first sighting of the Land of Israel would leave a lasting impression. It helped that my arrival was by boat with the first glimpse being from a distance, and then coming closer and closer until finally setting foot on holy ground.
It was late June 1955 (Tamuz 5715) that I first entered Jerusalem, and I feel privileged to have lived here since our aliya, for the past 35 years, and to have experienced the awesome transformation of this holy city. In 1955 it was a small town, quiet, something like a shtetl but permeated with a painful pallor of sadness. The city was divided in half by a forbidding concrete wall. The wall with its barbed wire was like a knife straight through the heart of the city.
The two cities – Berlin, the capital of evil, death and darkness, and Jerusalem, the holy city, the city of peace, life, light, Hashem’s capital city.
Jerusalem has a beauty and a charm like no other place in the world. When I came on aliya in 1982, someone told me that Rabbi Meir Chodosh once said that he had observed Jerusalem for 65 years and that the sun shone on the city every day. I have been watching for 35 years and can confirm that, regardless of rain, storm, snow, sleet or gloom, at some point the sun will peek out and shine down on God’s city every day.
But Jerusalem in 1955 was the border of a small Israel. The guardians on the ramparts of the Old City were Jordanian soldiers who at times shot and killed; world Jewry was cut off from the Western Wall, Tomb of Rachel and the Cave of the Patriarchs. The nation of Israel was denied access to its holiest sites.
It was the city that dwells alone, as Jeremiah lamented, the city of “Lecha Dodi”: “Too long have you dwelt in the valley of tears, covered with the dust,” waiting for the moment that you will be told, “Shake off the dust, arise, put on your clothes of glory. For your light has come.” I have this feeling that the Creator and His heavenly hosts were impatiently waiting to unite both parts of the city and join Jerusalem and her people.
Twelve years later, in May 1967, the sounds of war thundered from Cairo to Damascus. Frenzied mobs called for the destruction of the Jewish state. A noose was being pulled tight around Israel, cutting it off from the rest of the world. Israel remained absolutely and completely alone. Anxiety and tension, to the point of real fear, gripped the Jewish world.
Were we about to witness the third destruction? Then Monday, June 5, Iyar 26 – war.
Haifa refineries burning; Tel Aviv under bombardment; Egyptian and Syrian troops on the march. From Israel – silence. Jordan began to bombard Jerusalem, Israel was attacked on three fronts. From Israel – silence.
I can’t recall any more when we first began to realize that something great was happening. It had to be sometime late Tuesday, because by Wednesday the whole world was electrified by the news of the liberation of Jerusalem.
Then the truth began to emerge. The war had been won in the first hours.
It’s a mitzva to read the story of those first hours that were a joint operation of God and the Israel Air Force. One who knows the story of those hours and internalizes it will have learned a lesson of faith that will last for a lifetime.
God was with them throughout.
The Shaarei Teshuva of Rabbeinu Yonah (3:17) says: “Know that the highest virtues have been transmitted through the positive commandments... the virtues of remembering His kindnesses and thinking about them as it is said, ‘And you shall remember the entire road on which Hashem your God led you there forty years [Deuteronomy 8:2]....[A]nd it is written, ‘Your kindness is before my eyes [Tehillim 26:3].’” It is 50 years later and the impossible has become fact.
The divine outpouring of blessing has made little Israel a world power militarily, agriculturally, scientifically and economically, and the great Torah center of the world, the fortress of the faith and stronghold of the spirit. I was astounded recently to learn that there are 300,000 ba’alei teshuva (lit: “master of repentance”; a Jew who returns to the faith) in Israel. Absolutely remarkable and unprecedented in our history.
I learned here in 1955 and know how small the world of Torah was then. The greatest explosion of Torah learning in history has taken place here. The relationship of the Master of the World with Israel in our time is expressed magnificently by Rashi’s commentary to the Book of Ezekiel (38:8). The verse talks of the enemies of Israel gathering to destroy them: “After many days thou shalt be mustered for service, in the latter years thou shalt come against the land that is brought back from the sword, that is gathered out of many peoples, against the mountains of Israel, which have been a continual waste; but it is brought forth out of the peoples, and they dwell safely all of them.”
Hashem says that these enemies will be destroyed.
Rashi comments: “You [the enemy] should have understood that the One who took them out from among the nations would not abandon them in your hands.” I have brought them back and I will watch over them, says Hashem. Today, Jerusalem is the fulfillment of Rabbi Akiva’s vision (appearing at the end of Tractate Makkos) as he looked down on the ruins of the Temple. He proclaimed the prophecy of Zechariah: “Old men and old women will once again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with his staff in his hand because of old age, and the streets of the city will be filled with boys and girls playing in its streets.”
The city is pulsating with energy and vitality. It is taking on a new identity with the ever increasing construction blanketing her. The skyline is repeatedly changing as the many building cranes give way to beautiful residential structures. Isaiah saw it so clearly.
“Consider the place of your tent, and stretch out the curtains of your dwellings, stint not. Lengthen your cords and strengthen your pegs. For southward and northward you shall spread out mightily, your offspring will inherit nations, and they will settle desolate cities.” (Isaiah 54:2-3) It is a joy to behold, as the psalmist says: “Beautiful in the heights, joy of all the earth.” (Psalms 48:3) Iyar 28 is the 50th anniversary of these great and ongoing events.
Hodu L’Hashem ki tov ki leolam chasdo.
Zeh hayom asa Hashem nagila v’nismcha bo.
Yom Yerushalayim same’ach.