Yom Yerushalayim and Shavuot and its meaning today
An Unforgettable Night
Many people say that this night was the most memorable of their entire lives, etched into their consciousness forever. It was the first Shavuot to take place at the Western Wall, the Kotel HaMa’aravi, under Jewish sovereign control for the first time in almost 2 000 years. Only a few days after the liberation of the Old City during the Six-Day War, over 200 000 Jews made their way through the ancient alleyways of the Old City and its environs in order to gather together in the small but recently cleared piazza at the foot of the Wall. This was the first time since the year 70CE that individual Jews no longer returned as foreigners to someone else’s Jerusalem, but returned as the rightful owners to the heart of their national and spiritual home. These 200 000 people, emissaries and shlichim of Klal Yisrael, experienced a Matan Torah with a sense of dignity, redemptive spirit and destiny that had not been experienced for almost two millennia. Nineteen years earlier, in 1948, the Jewish people had been revived from the dead and begun to form their collective national body. Now their soul, Jerusalem, had been restored. A new era had dawned.
Both the brevity of this war and its timing are quite remarkable. The day that the Kotel and the Temple Mount returned to Jewish sovereign control, 28 Iyar, the third day of the war, is exactly one week before Shavuot. This day was instituted by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel as Yom Yerushalayim. The war ended, only a few days later on Shabbat, the 2nd of Sivan, at the very time that the Jewish people arrived at the foot of Mount Sinai to prepare for the receiving of the Torah 3 000 years before. This timing could never have been anticipated by anyone who lived through this period. The war began, after much tension and fear, with mounting armies on the Egyptian and Syrian borders. Israel launched a pre-emptive strike on early Monday morning, 5 June. Wars usually last weeks, months, and often years and even decades. Incredibly, only six short days later, by the beginning of Sivan, the war was miraculously over and Israel had tripled her size and, most importantly, returned to the Old City and the Temple Mount. The timing of the war concluding around Rosh Chodesh Sivan, only a few days before Shavuot, is imbued with enormous spiritual significance. The purpose of this article is to explore this significance and the importance of the close proximity between Yom Yerushalayim and Shavuot by drawing on both Biblical and Rabbinic literature on this fascinating topic.
In Those Days at this Time
I find it extraordinary in that the very day the war ended , Rosh Chodesh Sivan is the very same day 3 000 years that the Jewish people arrived at the Sinai desert. This was the very day that the Jewish people began their preparation for the receiving of the Torah and the experience of hearing the Aseret HaDibrot – the Ten Statements – directly from Hashem. The opening pesukim – verses – in Chapter 19 of the Book of Shemot record this explicitly.
“In the third month (Sivan) after the children of Israel went out of the Land of Mitzrayim, on that day (Rosh Chodesh) they came to the wilderness of Sinai for they departed from Refidim and came to the desert of Sinai and had encamped in the wilderness and Israel camped before the mountain. And Moshe went up to Hashem and the Lord called out to him from the mountain saying ‘thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and tell the children of Israel’.”
The pesukim describe the arrival of the Jewish people after more than
40 days of trekking from Egypt to the Sinai desert and the foot of Mount Sinai. It is here that they encamped before Mount Sinai as described in the Midrash and quoted in Rashi: “as one man with one heart”. They stood with a singular unity and with great anticipation to receive the Torah – our value system. On that day, Moshe ascended the mountain and was called upon by Hashem to share His message with the Jewish people. What clearly emerges from these verses is the fact that the arrival at Sinai on Rosh Chodesh Sivan initiated a six-day spiritual preparation period before receiving the Torah on the sixth day of the month.
What was the message that Hashem shared with Moshe to tell the Jewish people in order to prepare them for the receiving of the Torah? The verses continue (Shmot, 19;4–6)
“You have seen what I did to Mitzrayim and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself. Now therefore, if you will obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you will be My own treasure from among the people for all the earth is Mine and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the things that you must tell the Jewish people.”
Hashem’s opening words to the Jewish people at the foot of Mount Sinai are a description of the fact that the Jewish people themselves had seen with their own eyes the miracles that Hashem did in Mitzrayim. Hashem had done the impossible – carrying them out on eagles’ wings and redeeming them as defenceless slaves from the clutches of arguably the most powerful and brutal regime of that era. They had lived through this experience themselves. Rashi explains the significance of this personal experience.
“You have seen” – it is not a tradition that you have, and I did not send you a verbal account, I do not have testimony present to you by witnesses, but rather you with your own eye saw what I did to Egypt.
The fact that the Jewish people themselves through direct personal experience witnessed this remarkable redemption is the greatest possible preparation for the imminent receiving of the Torah. It is this experience which creates a spiritual context in preparing for Matan Torah. It is these earth shattering and open miracles which created out of the natural order the supernatural: delivering the strong into the hands of the weak and the many into the hands of the few; deliverance in the face of destruction and the possibility of future life in the face of a seemingly certain death. This gives crucial significance to the impending event of the Revelation and Matan Torah. It is these personal experiences that give validity, authenticity, vigour and relevance to the revealed Word of Hashem and His values. The G-d of Israel is not an untried and untested abstract spiritual entity hiding in the heavens. Rather, so to speak, He is a Living G-d, involved intimately in human affairs, who has proven Himself beyond any doubt to His people in their own direct personal lives.
Amazingly, it was this very theme that Rabbi Yechezkel Levenstein, the famed Mashgiach of the Ponevezh Yeshiva, drew upon when he shared a stirring shiur with his students immediately after the Six-Day War. Here is an excerpt of his words:
“You have seen (Shemot 19,4)”: It is not a tradition that we have… but rather something our own eyes saw recently, and this can serve for us a strong introduction and preparation to the receiving of the Torah. We saw with our own eyes open miracles. We saw G-d’s closeness to us. It can be said that we merited this through the promise (Leviticus 26;44) “that even though you will be dispersed in the Land of your enemies, I will not despise you and be disgusted with you to destroy you”. As it says in the Haggadah, “it is that stood for our forefathers and for us … We saw with our own eyes what Hashem, the protector of Israel, did for us according to what the soldiers who experienced it have testified.” (Quoted in Hatekufa HaGedola, page 2, Rav Menachem Mendel Kasher)
Rav Levenstein points out clearly that the enormity of the open miracles that we experienced during the Six-Day War, as well as the fact that they were experienced on a first-hand personal basis, serve as both an introduction and preparation for Shavuot – the receiving of the Torah. After all, how could one live through this war and be indifferent to Hashem’s miracles? The breathtaking and lightning brevity of this war, its remarkable achievements – the returning of the Jewish people to our Biblical Homeland and to the Old City of Yerushalayim and Temple Mount – and all the open miracles of redemption and deliverance in the face of an imminent destruction – transpired only a few short days before Shavuot. The guiding hand of Hashem seemed as clear in 1967 as it was 3 000 years before at the original Matan Torah.
At the same time of year that the war ended, in early Sivan, Hashem had commanded Moshe all those years ago to remind the Jewish people of the miracle of their deliverance and redemption from Egypt. He was to tell the Jewish people that the fact that they experienced their liberation with open and incredible miracles, as if they were plucked out of Egypt on giant “eagles’ wings”, would significantly transform their Matan Torah experience.
The G-D of Abraham or the G-D of Aristotle?
One of the greatest of our rishonim, medieval commentators, Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, in his seminal work, The Kuzari (article 1, Section 25), points out a critical insight into a deeper understanding of the significance of the miracles of Yetziat Mitzrayim and their relationship to Matan Torah. Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi poses a fundamental question regarding the very first statement of the Aseret HaDibrot. The following line is the famous declaration of Hashem introducing Himself, so to speak, to Bnei Israel at the foot of Mount Sinai. (Shmot 20;1):
“I am the Lord your G-d who brought you out of the Land of Egypt and out of the house of bondage.”
Why is it that Hashem introduces Himself as the G-d that brought us out of Egypt and not the G-d who created heaven and earth? As important as Yetziat Mitzrayim is, it seems to pale into insignificance in the face of the power of the Omnipotent G-d who created the entire cosmos. Surely, creating something from nothing – ex nihilo – the vast and ever-expanding universe, and the earth with the intricately complex circumstances which provide the possibility for life, is far more impressive than redeeming one small people at one particular point in history from one particular country. One seems universal and infinite and the other seems particular and parochial. Yet, Hashem chose to introduce Himself specifically as the one who brought them out of Egypt. Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi responds to this conundrum with a fundamental of Jewish faith. As great as the Creation of the world is, it transpired thousands of years before Mount Sinai and was a memory of the distant past. It is possible, as maintained by many of the great Greek philosophers, that after the world was created it was then abandoned. G-d may be the Omnipotent power of Creation, but that does not presuppose in any way that He is involved in human affairs, in human history and the lot and destiny of His people. Perhaps, as the great Aristotle has maintained, He is an abstract Being, concerning Himself only with the macro and cosmic issues of the universe with little interest in the concerns, trials and tribulations of the micro tiny speck of molten rock and water known as earth and the insignificant miniscule organisms – human beings – who inhabit it. By introducing Himself, maintains Rabbi HaLevi, “as the Lord your G-d who brought you out of the house of bondage”, Hashem had proven to His people that nothing could be further from the truth.
Indeed, He was and is involved in every way in human affairs, despite the feeling that now and then He might have distanced Himself. He cares about the course of human history and the pivotal role that the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, His people Israel, play in the unfolding of the human drama. He will not let them sink to oblivion and be crushed by the weight of Egyptian cruelty or any other dictatorial regime, but would redeem them, whether they deserved it or not, not only for their own sake, but for the sake of the moral and spiritual future of His world.
He had proven to them that when all seemed lost, that nothing could possibly be done in the natural order to redeem His people, He would if necessary transcend the natural order and perform open miracles to realign His people with their destiny. The laws of nature were there to serve Him and His people’s mission and not the other way around. The laws of nature would not be unbreakable shackles to snuff out His spiritual purpose. Bnei Yisrael, who stood at Mount Sinai, had experienced this in person. This was not only a G-d of the abstract thinking philosophers, but a G-d experienced in the realm of practical human life. They had lived through, seen and experienced for themselves the awesome power, care and concern of G-d. He became not only a powerful Divine force, but a personal spiritual redeemer. They experienced this in a direct and undeniable fashion. He was now known to them unequivocally as the G-d who had brought them out of Mitzrayim, out of the house of bondage. He was not only a distant heavenly King of a faraway heavenly palace, but also a loving and caring father intimately guiding, directing and caring for His beloved children.
Six Days in June – The Eagle Soars Again
Just as Bnei Yisrael had experienced directly the open miracles of Hashem and the miraculous feeling of soaring out of Egypt on the protective wings of an eagle, so too did the Jewish people in the modern era, in 1967, feel a similar sense of redemption. They had escaped near destruction at the hands of powerful and fully mechanised armies which had been trained by the best of Soviet military minds and equipped with their finest weaponry. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol stuttered in his radio address a few weeks before the war, not knowing how it would turn out. Rabbi Zalman Melamed Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Beit El, who was then an army chaplain, would subsequently convey to us his students at our Yom Yerushalayim festive meal that the army Chief Rabbinate believed there were not enough spaces in Israel’s cemeteries to bury the expected dead. They expected between 50 000 and 150 000 deaths and had begun converting parks of Israel into new potential cemeteries. He himself was sent to the beautiful Yarkon Park in Tel Aviv to do just that.
The Jewish State was only 19 years old in 1967 and many of Israel’s neighbours felt the time of her destruction had arrived. One hundred thousand Egyptian soldiers, and many thousands of newly mechanized tanks, marched through the Sinai Peninsula making their way to Israel’s border. The Straits of Tiran had been closed off and Israel was feeling isolated. Foreign Minister Abba Eban travelled around the world trying to gain the support of the leading Western nations, but almost no political or military support was forthcoming. The world would sit back once again and let Israel fight alone. The sense of imminent danger was apparent. Rabbis from around the world have mentioned that more people turned up for davening in his shul on the day that the war broke out than had on Yom Kippur. No one could have anticipated that in less than a week the war would be over, Judea, Samaria and Gaza would be under Israeli sovereign control and the Kotel and Old City would return to Jewish hands for the first time in 2 000 years. Fifty thousand expected dead would be less than 700 and the world would marvel at the clear Hand of G-d protecting His people.
It is not surprising that the 200 000 people who made their way to the Kotel a few days later for Shavuot, so soon after the war, indeed felt that G-d was carrying them on eagles’ wings. Our celebrations of Matan Torah and all subsequent celebrations over the last 46 years since that initial celebration on 6 Sivan 1967 are different from the Shavuot celebrations of the preceding 2 000 years. Just as the Jewish people experienced open miracles and Hashem’s involvement in history in Egypt in Biblical times, so too have we experienced them in modern times. It is with a sense of dignity, redemptive spirit and destiny that we experience Shavuot today. It is with a feeling that the people have returned to their appropriate platform in human history – that they have begun building a collective society in their Homeland, the Land of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and that they can begin once again to aspire to be “a light unto the Nations”. Once again we were propelled forward on eagles’ wings to fulfil even further our unique destiny.
Surviving or Thriving?
It is true that between the years 70 CE and 1948, the time of Galut and dispersion, we have also witnessed an incredible miracle; that of the survival of the Jewish people against impossible odds. The Jewish people had soared on eagles’ wings from imminent destruction to a new era of redemption. Both Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein in his monumental halachic work The Aruch HaShulchan (Orach Chaim 1;10) as well as Rabbi Yaakov Emdin (introduction to commentary on his siddur, Beit El) have pointed out that the phenomenon of the survival of the Jewish people throughout their – at times – horrific galut and dispersion of the last 2 000 years is a truly remarkable miracle. Rabbi Emdin goes as far as saying that it is perhaps even greater than the miracles of the experience of the coming out of Egypt. Our mere survival alone is a historical marvel. Surviving dispersion to over 100 countries with very little practically uniting us, banishment for almost every European nation, hardly ever being able to legally own land, wandering from country to country as at best second-class citizens, living through the harrowing crusades and destructions of many communities in the Rhinelands, the Chelminski massacres, the unthinkable and unspeakable Shoah – is nothing short of mind-boggling. The fact that we not only physically survived, but clung with unbending commitment to our Torah during these times despite separation of communities, is miraculous beyond words. This is undeniably true.
There is, though, one critical distinguishing factor between the miracles of the last 2 000 years and the recent miracles that we have experienced in 1948, 1967 and beyond. The former were miracles of a people struggling to survive and the modern miracles are of a people beginning to thrive. Those were hidden miracles that could only be understood with the perspective of history; these are open miracles, blatant and overtly clear to all who dare to see them. Those were miracles during times of much tragedy and difficulty;
these are miracles at a time of triumph and redemption. It is true that the survival of the Jewish people through the horrific Egyptian bondage and slavery is remarkable. It is Yetziat Mitzrayim, though, the liberation from Egypt, which forms the foundation of our redemption and the locus of Hashem’s open miracles. It was only after being freed from slavery that we were able to leave the exile of Egypt behind and march, hopefully, towards Mount Sinai and the receiving of the Torah. Indeed these occurrences form the foundation of the national and spiritual pilgrimage festivals of Pesach and Shavuot – of the physical freedom of our People and the revelation of our Divine mission and destiny.
How blessed we are to live in an era today, where between Pesach and Shavuot we are able to celebrate two modern days of deliverance, Yom Ha’atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim. Yom Ha’atzmaut–so soon after Pesach and so similar to it, is the day that we received national freedom, thereafter being able to return as free people to our historic Homeland. Yom Yerushalayim only one week before Shavuot and so similar to it , is the day we returned to our holiest site further tapping into our spiritual destiny. The Jewish people and the Torah world are not only surviving, but thriving almost as never before. The Shavuot and Matan Torah experience since 1967 is now an inherently different collective experience. In the modern Era, the Jewish people have experienced personally and the entire world has witnessed the awesome might of the G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and His eternal care and concern for His people, Israel, and their unique spiritual and moral mission. He has once again brought them to the forefront of world affairs to be a blessing to His world and a beacon of light to all nations. We have soared on eagles’ wings into a new era of spiritual context, relevance, dignity and destiny for our mission as a Jewish People.
May we appreciate the enormity of the times that we live in, and may we commit and recommit to every element of Hashem’s Holy Torah and halacha which gently guides us through the personal and collective challenges of everyday life.