Uncovering the divine spirit during the Six Day War

Declassified documents reveal IDF rabbi’s excitement over liberating Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Hebron.

The iconic 1967 photo of Rabbi Shlomo Goren holding a Torah scroll as he leads the first Jewish prayer session at the Western Wall since 1948. (photo credit: REPRODUCTION PHOTO: BENNY RON)
The iconic 1967 photo of Rabbi Shlomo Goren holding a Torah scroll as he leads the first Jewish prayer session at the Western Wall since 1948.
In 1967, as Israel was preparing for the war that by all odds would likely see the nascent state almost annihilated or at the very least have it escape miraculously with only a narrow defeat, IDF Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren was making his way back to Israel after a fundraising stint in Australia.
Flying back to the Holy Land via the Pacific, he landed in New York an hour before Shabbat had started, spending the holy day of rest at a Jewish community near the airport. During Friday’s service, someone recognized him, and immediately he was asked to speak during the services the following day.
“In the evening there was a big crowd in the synagogue. There was a lot of anxiety. People were crying and the general feeling was that we were about to have another holocaust,” Rabbi Goren recalled in the testimony he gave to the Defense Ministry after the Six Day War, in documents that were recently declassified and released to the public for the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem and of the liberation of Judea, Samaria, Gaza and the Golan Heights. “When I saw their anxiety and that they were crying I opened up the ark and said, ‘I swear, on this Torah scroll, that in any constellation, against any enemy that we will have to fight against, on whichever front it will be, against one Arab army alone, or against all of them – we will win. I told them that I was also planning on blowing the shofar at the Western Wall, and this greatly eased their anxiety.”
Throughout his speeches, in New York, and previously in Australia, Rabbi Goren constantly mentioned that the build-up to the military conflict was indeed a tremendous opportunity to liberate the entire territory of the land of Israel. Although Rabbi Goren was a major-general, due to his mission overseas he had not been privy to all the information the IDF’s top brass had received regarding the situation. His belief in the upcoming victory no doubt stemmed from the extraordinary amount of spiritual work he had performed over his lifetime in order to see how God was setting up the pieces to bring redemption to His Chosen People.
But as he embarked on the flight to Israel from his stopover Saturday night in London, he learned that the feeling that he had about this amazing opportunity wasn’t exclusive to him. Rather, whoever opened up their Jewish soul to let in an extra dose of faith in God, could also feel that victory for the Nation of Israel was nigh.
“There were only 11 people on the plane. They were all Israeli military officials returning home, except for one Jew from the US, calling himself ‘Einzneir,’ who said that he’s flying to Israel because a Jew’s place in a time of war is in the land of Israel, and that he would stay there until the end of the war, until the victory,” Rabbi Goren remembered. “That’s what he told me, and afterwards, I met this Jew at the end of the war, and the two of us cried when we met.”
A Deal
In 1961, Rabbi Goren had been chatting with commander Motta Gur saying that Central Command had promised him that whenever the IDF should liberate Jerusalem’s Old City, he would be the first Jew to reach the Western Wall. Gur, who had been at loggerheads with Rabbi Goren over a religious issue, told him that if he wants to be the first one to reach the Kotel, they have to be at peace.
“What do you mean?” Goren remembered asking. “And he answered me, in this exact language: ‘Because I am going to liberate the Old City.’ I told him: ‘If you promise to liberate the Old City, I’m making a peace deal with you.’”
In a special televised show bringing together the major players involved in the liberation of Jerusalem, Goren said to Gur, who by chance had his mission to the Sinai canceled and instead was told to liberate the Old City: “If you were a rabbi, I would have seriously believed that the spirit of the prophets was upon you.”
Into the Lions’ Gate
“I asked him: ‘Where are you?’ and he answered, ‘We’re going up to the Lions’ Gate.’”
Upon hearing that Israeli troops were heading into Jerusalem’s Old City, the IDF chief rabbi didn’t waste any time joining Paratrooper Brigade commander Gur on June 7, 1967, to enter the city of the perfection of beauty.
“I ‘flew’ straight to the Rockefeller Museum, left the car there and I took my Torah scroll and shofar with me,” Rabbi Goren said. “I got out of the car, and with the Torah scroll in one hand and the shofar in the other, I started running toward the Lions’ Gate. As I was running there, the brigade was getting ready to go inside.”
In the meantime, Rabbi Goren told the Defense Ministry transcribers that he saw the Central Command commanding officer and the deputy chief of staff driving quickly in our direction.
“I didn’t pay attention to them. I didn’t want to drive there, I wanted to go by foot. I said it’s not important if I’m killed or not, the most important thing is for us to reach the ancient city of Jerusalem,” he said.
When they got to the Lions’ Gate he started blowing the shofar as it says in the Torah to blow trumpets, or the shofar, in times of war: “When you go into battle in your own land against an enemy who is oppressing you, sound a blast...” (Numbers 10:9).
The whole way, Goren relived, he was blowing the shofar and reading Psalms. “I remember that I read the verses of “Whenever the ark set out, Moses said, ‘Rise up, Lord! May your enemies be scattered; may your foes flee before you’” (Numbers 10:35), and of “Hear, Israel: Today you are going into battle against your enemies. Do not be fainthearted or afraid... (Deuteronomy 20:3).
And then they reached the destination. After being expelled from the Old City for 19 years after having returned to it after an almost 2,000-year period – they were finally back in the dwelling place of God.
“When I got to the Temple Mount I blew the shofar, but first I fell to the floor and bowed down, as you are supposed to bow down at the site of the temple.
“I left the soldiers on the Temple Mount, as the inertia and my memories [of the Old City] pushed me to go to the Western Wall, even though I was standing right next to the site of the Holy of Holies, a place that is much more sacred than the Western Wall.”
Rabbi Goren remembered the exact psalms he read, beginning with Psalm 126, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dreamed,” and then reading Psalm 122, “I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’ Our feet are standing in your gates, Jerusalem. Jerusalem is built like a city that is closely compacted together.”
As he stood on the Temple Mount, he saw that they were hanging a flag on the Western Wall.
“I didn’t notice who was hanging it. It was like I was in a dream, all the time I was running from place to place. And then I continued to run to the Western Wall.”
Rabbi Goren recalled that he didn’t know how to get to the Western Wall from the Temple Mount. After all he said, he had a custom of praying at the Kotel every Shabbat, and during the mourning period after his mother had passed away he would lead the prayer services at the Western Wall on the eve of every new month. But he had never been allowed to ascend to the Temple Mount.
“At that precise moment, an Arab appeared, started walking around, and told me in Arabic, ‘this way.’ He understood that I was trying to get to the Western Wall.”
He went straight to the Mughrabi Gate, finding there two officers, who were also running to find the Kotel. The way was long with many steps and many inner gates. Finally they broke open the last gate and descended to the ancient limestone wall, where despite it only being a remnant of the age of the temples, as fourth-century scholar Rav Acha said: “The divine presence has never departed from the Western Wall, as it says in Song of Solomon (2:9) ‘Look! There he stands behind our wall’” (Shemot Rabbah 2:2).
“This is the Western Wall,” Rabbi Goren said. “I immediately fell on the floor, kissed the floor, got up and made the Shehecheyanu blessing for special occasions and the ‘Consoler of Zion and Builder of Jerusalem’ blessing. There wasn’t a living soul there. It was as if the Divine Spirit was there.”
Mama Rachel
“As I was in Jerusalem, on the Temple Mount, I said that we have additional tasks to complete.”
Rabbi Goren was referring to Bethlehem, with Rachel’s Tomb, and Hebron, the site of the Cave of the Patriarchs.
With the Jordanian Legion completing abandoning the city where David had lived, Rabbi Goren and three of his colleagues searched the pitch black of Bethlehem to find Rachel’s Tomb.
“When we entered, it was dark, we had a flashlight, and we also had some candles. We lit two of them, and I said the verses of Jeremiah the Prophet off by heart (31:15-17): ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted,  because they are no more. This is what the Lord says, ‘Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for your work will be rewarded,’ declares the Lord. ‘They will return from the land of the enemy. So there is hope for your descendants, declares the Lord. Your children will return to their own land,’” Rabbi Goren recalled. “We fulfilled the vision of the prophecy of Jeremiah the Prophet.”
Fathers and mothers
One of Rabbi Goren’s major efforts before the war in the Sinai in 1956 was to create a special prayer for the soldiers going to battle. Before the Six Day War, the Chief Rabbinate distributed hundreds of copies to the troops, with Rabbi Goren later saying “this prayer played a significant contribution to raising the general morale. Every last soldier had received the prayer from the chief of staff in veneration, and when I had gone around to the various units, the officers and the soldier showed me that they were saying the prayer before going to battle.”
After the success of liberating Bethlehem and Rachel’s Tomb, Rabbi Goren and his team continued to Gush Etzion, about 15 minutes south. Before dawn, he was told, the troops would be heading even farther south, to Hebron.
“At 4 a.m., I stood on a tank in the middle, and all the soldiers gathered around me,” he recalled. “I spoke to them and I told them simply, ‘I want to tell you about the enormous merit that has fallen into your hands today. Today, you need to know what you are about to liberate, and for who you are going to war.
“Today we are going to liberate the second most holy city in the world – the City of Our Forefathers, Hebron, the site of the Cave of the Patriarchs, where for years, not only during our statehood, but long before was closed to us. And, today, it is in your hands to liberate the city.
“When I went inside the Cave of the Patriarchs, the Divine Spirit was there. The cleanliness and beauty was unbelievable – just like at the Western Wall. Also at the Western Wall I could really feel the clapping of the wings of the Divine Spirit.”
On June 10, the six days of battle ended. By the seventh day, Israel was just beginning the work it had been doing.
This feature was originally published in May's Christian Edition.