By Dr. Ernest H Agatstein, Co-President of the Religious Zionists of America (RZA-Mizrachi)
My wife and I joined thousands of visitors from around the world in the World Mizrachi Mega Mission held in Jerusalem, May 22-May 25th 2017. It was a once in a lifetime event for those who attended and I wanted to share my experiences with those who could not attend. I gave the Drasha on the first day of Shavous on my return from Jerusalem to our shul Kehilat Yavneh in Hancock Park, California and was asked by many in the audience to put my words into print.
One of the feelings I had in Jerusalem, over the week I was there, was akin to what our ancestors may have felt when making the three times a year Aliya Leregel, visiting the Temple on the three national holidays when Jews from all over the Diaspora would join their countrymen in the land of Israel in celebration. On this mega mission celebrating the 50th anniversary of the re-unification of Yerushalayim under Jewish control after nearly 2000 years of foreign rule, delegations with their rabbis took time off from their work schedules and came from the USA, South Africa, England, Canada, Australia, Mexico and France all for one purpose – to give thanksgiving to Hashem for the miracles of the 6 Day War and to participate with hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens in their celebration of this special Yom Yerushalayim.
The Mizrachi program would only begin Monday night. My wife and I arrived before Shabbos to experience what is known as Shabbat Yerushalayim. Davening Kabbalat Shabbat at the Kotel was truly magical. The plaza in front of the Kotel was completely filled, unusual for a regular Friday night. Sitting down in chairs in the middle of the plaza were hundreds of white shirted, kippot srugot wearing Yeshivot Hesder students who davened a Carlebach nusach without a chazzan, all singing in unison. To the sides of them were Shtreimel wearing Chassidic Jews davening their nusach. Behind them was a group of Litvish yeshivish students with their rebbe. By far the dominant group on this Shabbos were the religious Zionist contingent in terms of numbers. At the end of Lecha Dodi when they came to the verse Boi Beshalom a large circle was formed with dancing as is typical for a Carlebach Kabbalat Shabbat. Each group formed their own circle. At one point I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be a great Kiddush Hashem for all the groups to join in one circle and demonstrate achdus? But then in a flash, I remembered the Midrash of Krias Yam Suf, the splitting of the Red Sea when the sea split into 12 rows, one for each tribe, demonstrating that for Klal Yisrael, we can have different modes of dress, different customs, different niggunim, but as long as we are devoting our thoughts to Avodas Hashem, the service of G-d, all groups are considered equally pleasing in the eyes of Hashem.
Shabbos before Yom Yerushalayim is designated Shabbat Yerushalayim. At the Beit Knesset Hagadol, the Great Synagogue, in the heart of Jerusalem, in honor of this auspicious Shabbos, the two Chief Rabbis of Jerusalem are sitting on the dais with the Chazzan and the choir. It feels like a Yom Tov. Every seat is filled. Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Aryeh Stern speaks before Krias Hatorah. He asks, why is Mount Sinai, after the giving of the Torah never given any prominence – we don’t even know where it is. On the other hand, we say Ki Mitzion Tezeh Torah Udvar Hashem Miyerushalayim – from Zion shall go forth Torah and the word of G-d from Jerusalem. He answered that Torah must have mesirus nefesh, self-sacrifice, connected with it, for it to be spread. He pointed out that Akedas Yitzchak, the binding of Isaac, the ultimate example of mesirus nefesh occurs on Mount Moriah, the site of the future Temple. In 1967, 175 paratroopers gave their lives to liberate the Kotel. Chazal say that the ultimate way to gain Torah knowledge is to study “Pas Bamelach Tochal”- “eating bread with salt”- a euphemism for studying in deprivation and want with great self sacrifice. Tzahal, the Israel Defense Forces, protects all the people of the State of Israel to allow them to study Torah in peace with great mesirut nefesh. Thus indeed does Torah disseminate throughout the world due to the mesirut nefesh that emanates from it. Rabbi Stern noted that the Omer period has traditionally been associated with mourning for the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva who died during this period. In our own generation, we have seen the beginnings of comfort to Klal Yisrael during this very same period. At the beginning of the Omer, close in time to Pesach, when we were born as a nation, comes Yom Haatazmaut when Klal Yisrael once again is reborn as a nation on its own sovereign soil. At the end of the Omer period, close to Shavuos when we received the Torah, comes Yom Yerushalayim when spirituality was re-infused into a modern secular State of Israel. The Jewish people return to the Kotel, Kever Rachel, Maarat Hamachpela, Judea and Samaria and an overall refocus on Torah, Yeshivot, and Ba’al Tshuvah movements.
Rabbi Shlomo Amar Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem spoke before Mussaf. He quoted from the Parsha of that week Parsha Bechokosai when after recounting the calamities of the Tochecha the Torah speaks in comforting tones – Vezacharti Es Brisi Yakov – and I will remember my covenant with Jacob. Here Yakov is spelled with a superfluos Vav. Only five times in Tanach is Yakov spelled in this full format. Says the Midrash, Elijah the Prophet is spelled five times without a vav as in the verse of Malachi 3:25, “Hineh Anochi Sholech Lachem es Elia Hanavih – Behold I shall send you the prophet Elijah” – there the Eliahu is spelled without a vav – Elia. Yakov is homiletically holding Eliyahu’s letter vav hostage until he comes and announces the coming of the Messiah. Asks Rav Amar – why the letter vav and not another letter? Answers Rav Amar quoting Rabenu Bechaya – in Shmos 8:19 “Vesamti Pedus Beyni Uven Amecha I Shall make a Distinction Between you and the Egyptians”. There the word pedus is spelled without a vav. The redemption from Egypt is destined to be incomplete. The Children of Israel wander in the desert for 40 years with all of the Yotzai Mitzrayim dying before entering the land. We, Klal Yisrael wander in exile for 2000 years. This is not full redemption. The pedus the term for ultimate redemption is Chaser – lacking. Yakov holds Eliyahu’s vav hostage and says I am not making your name whole unless you return and announce the true full redemption with Mashaich Tzidkenu. Why the vav? The vav is the letter of chibur, of connection. The name Yerushalayim comes from a combination of what Avraham called Jerusalem Yireh and what Malkitzedek called it Shalem; but the heh of Yireh is replaced by a vav – Yer – U – Shalayim. Jerusalem is the Ir Shechubra La Yachdav, the city that King David says brings all the tribes of Israel together as one. The Vav is the ultimate connector, the unifier and we know without unity of the Jewish people we will never merit full redemption. Jerusalem helps us in this unification process.
Nir Barkat, the Mayor of Jerusalem, spoke in shul after Musaf as well. A secular Jew who nevertheless spoke about Isaiah the prophet roaming the streets of Yerushalyim shows how the term “secular’ is a misnomer. It seems that all Jews who live in Medinat Yisrael whether they are shomer Torah Umitzvot or not have a connection to the land and to our ancient past that is unbreakable and part of their daily lives and rituals. He pointed out that Jerusalem today is one of the top five high tech cities in the world. Mobileye, a company that was bought by Intel for 15 billion dollars, is pioneering the technology that drives driverless automobiles. The same technology is being used to develop “Orcam” a company attempting to develop sight in the blind. He noted that 2/3 of all students in Jerusalem elementary school today are Chareidi. He told us that Machon Lev, a religious science college, has a program to train Chareidi students who have had no elementary or high school education and in 15 months prepares them to start college, studying for an engineering degree. This year the school received 900 applications from Chareidi applicants for the available 40 spots. If “Torah” is taken broadly to mean “Torah Ohr” wisdom of all types, then indeed Ki Mitzion Teze Torah- wisdom is emanating from Jerusalem to the whole world to better humanity.
Sunday night was the official State of Israel’s celebration of 50 years of Jerusalem’s reunification. Hundreds of thousands of Jews of all types gathered at Jaffa Gate outside the walls of the Old City, sitting in the streets with their children and grandparents. The massive crowd included secular and Chareidis but the majority being of the religious Zionist persuasion. In attendance were Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin, both who addressed the throngs of humanity with stirring and inspirational words. Projected on the walls of the Old City were images of Akedas Yitzchak and of Yakov’s ladder along with more modern images of the tanks of 1967 breaking through to the Kotel. One heard the voice of Colonel Motta Gur announcing Har Habayit Beyadenu, Rabbi Shlomo Goren blowing the shofar at the liberated Kotel, images of the crying paratroopers as they hugged and kissed the ancient holy stones. As I watched the spectacular fireworks and glorious light show projected on the walls and over the walls as we sat in the streets I could not help but remember the evocative phrases of the prophet Zecharia – od yeshvu zekenim uzkenot birchovot yerushalyim – once again will sit elderly men and women in the streets of Jerusalem! The words of King David -Al chomotaich yerushalayim hifkadeti shomrim – on the walls of Jerusalem we have appointed watchmen. Od yeshama beharei yehuda uvechuzhot yerushalyim – once again will be heard joyous song in the hills of Judah and the courtyards of Jerusalem. We saw all of this with our own eyes in our own time!
On Monday night was the opening event of the World Mizrachi Mega Mission. Close to three thousand people thronged the Binayanei Hauma to take part in what could only be termed an extravaganza. The three iconic paratroopers whose image was seen in all of the newspapers in 1967 gazing up at the Kotel were there 50 years later. People clamored to have their picture taken with them at a makeshift Kotel, trying to recapture the magic of that time so long ago. Governor Mike Huckabee among many notable speakers stood proudly with the Jewish people in requesting the move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. A concert given by Yaakov Shwekey delighted hundreds of seminary girls and yeshiva students from all around Israel who were in attendance among the audience. The ruach of joy and celebration for the miracles of 1967 was palpable in the crowd.
Tuesday brought a full day Mizrachi conference held at the Ramada Renaissance Hotel. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth opened the sessions. He told how he used to study Torah with Prime Minister Tony Blair. On one occasion, Prime Minister Blair asked him why did the Creator devote only 34 verses to the creation of the universe but devoted over 600 verses to the building of the Mishkan? Rabbi Sachs answered evocatively – it is easy for the Creator to build a home for human beings in the universe but very hard for human beings to build a home for the Creator here on Earth. I thought of the Midrash where on arriving in heaven to receive the Torah, the angels confront Moshe Rabenu and ask Hashem what is a human being doing here in Shamayim? Hashem charges Moshe to give the angels an answer. He asks them – do you work six days that you need a Shabbos? Do you have a Yetzer Hara that you can be given a command of do not commit adultery? Rabbi Sacks reminded us that 2017 is also the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. He asked the audience to whom was the declaration sent to? Of course to Lord Rothschild, he responded casually remarking that the Knesset building which houses Israel’s Parliament was donated by the Rothschild family (among the other countless projects in Israel they sponsored such as the magnificent Supreme Court building and the planned National Library).
Rabbi Sacks invoked the Nazir, the prized student of Rav Kook. In English, the metaphor for thoughts and ideas is sight – one has foresight or insight. One makes a keen observation. In Judaism the metaphor is hearing – Shma Yisrael – Hear O Israel. To Shma of the Talmud – come and learn. The exception in Judaism is when discussing Jerusalem Irya Hayefeffia – the beautiful city – Mesos Kol haaretz. We say mareh Kohen on Yom Kippur how beautiful is the sight of the Kohen Gadol as he emerges from the Kodesh Kadososhim. The aesthetic in Judaism is linked inextricably with Jerusalem and the Beit Hamikdash. On one of the afternoons, my wife and I wandered into the new Museum of Hebrew musical instruments. At the end of the tour you put on a virtual reality headset and you are suddenly transported into the second temple. The beauty is overwhelming. You look right and left and you are with the Kohanim and Leviim. As you approach the Mizbeach you feel warm (your brain playing tricks) You smell the incense. You are taken up by a lift that was used by the priests to clean the Kodesh Kadoshim and you enter the inner sanctum – the Holy of Holies – on the way up you see the city of Jerusalem as it stood 2000 thousand years ago. You are connected in a powerful way to our ancient and glorious past but using 21st century technology in modern day Jerusalem.
One final thought from Rabbi Sacks resonated with me. He told a group of 700 seminary girls later in the afternoon the value of spiritual goods over material goods. If you start with one thousand dollars and give one hundred away you are left with less. If you give love and add friendship to your life you end up with more, and not less.
Rabbi Hershel Schachter, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva University, gave a shiur on Har Habayit to over 700 yeshiva students in the morning. Michael Oren, the former ambassador of Israel to the U.S. and author of The 6 Day War, recounted the military miracles of the war. He noted that the day after the successful prosecution of the war, the United States who had not provided even one bullet to the State of Israel pre 1967, now switched its strategic alliances and became a staunch ally. This was reflected that very day by the sight of President Trump landing Air Force One in Tel Aviv that very day directly from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.. He was asked by someone in the crowd why, if Israel has the truth behind it, it often loses the propaganda wars. He gave the following brilliant metaphor. Knowing the truth is not enough. He noted that a modern warplane in the air is a powerful tool of war, capable of immense destructive power. However, if destroyed on the ground (as 450 Egyptian and Syrian planes were in the first hour of the 6 Day war which ultimately was the cause of the great victory) it is a worthless piece of machinery. So too, if we keep the truth about Israel and its rightful place in the Middle East to ourselves and don’t share it with the outside world and “keep it on the ground as opposed to in the air ” it will also not be the powerful tool it could be. It spoke to the need for all of us to be vocal ambassadors of that truth to all with whom we come into contact.
Tuesday night, the start of Yom Yerushalyim was observed at the Great Synagogue with a packed house and the Chazan and choir davening a Tefila Chaggigit with Hallel (no bracha) and a major address by Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth Ephraim Mirvis and executive director of the Conference of Presidents Malcolm Hoenlein. The following morning we joined thousands of our fellow Jews at the Kotel for Shachris at 7:30 AM. There was one minyan with one chazzan leading the immense crowd that filled the Kotel Plaza. When we reached the Amidah, a hushed intense silence fell over the Plaza. The Hallel was recited with a Bracha enunciated by thousands with great Kavana. It honestly felt like Yom Kippur with the intensity of feeling, recognizing that we were standing and giving thanks to Hashem at the very site that was liberated by those brave paratroopers. Rav Chaim Druckman said the Tefila Lishlom Hamedina and Chief Rabbi Lau recited the Achenu Kol Beit Yisrael with tears.
After davening, we went on a walking tour, recreating the very steps of the paratroopers who liberated the Kotel walking all the way to the Lions Gate. We could see Har Habayit through many doors that opened to it from the Arab Quarter. We were told that almost one thousand Jews went to the Mikveh and physically ascended up to the Har Habayit, the Temple Mount itself that morning. The previous day, a seminar was held between Rabbi Glick and Rabbi Taragin debating what are the halachic disputes that govern whether we should or should not ascend to the holy site. It was just thrilling and emotionally uplifting to just be in proximity to our holy Temple site of distant past. On the march to the Lions Gate we asked, why didn’t the soldiers stop at the Har Habayit itself? Why did they run only to the Kotel, the retaining wall that surrounds Har Habayit? They understood that the Kotel represented 2000 years of Jewish yearning to return once again to Jerusalem, Leshana Haba Biyurushalyim.
Later that afternoon, we gathered at The Beit Knesset Hagadol to hear Chief Rabbi of South Africa Warren Goldstein recount some of the miracles of the 6 day war. He noted that between 7 and 8 AM, when the Israel Air Force were destroying the Egyptian planes on the ground, the Egyptian commander of the base had been sent entertainers the night before and had overslept because of it. The Jordanians had radar that actually detected the Israeli armada in the air and attempted to alert the Egyptians but the radio code had been changed the previous night and the Jordanian messages had not gotten through. Zeh hayom asa hash em nagila venismaechah bo. This day Hashem has made – rejoice in it, sang King David. The open miracles seen during the 6 Day War were indeed wondrous.
Yossi Klein Halevi, the noted author, spoke next. He pointed out the ways in which Jewish history changed because of the 6 Day War.
It returned Judaism to the Israeli narrative. From 1948 to 1967 the secular narrative had predominated. Achad Haam’s quest to build “a new Jew”, with a new “Israeli” culture, strong and muscular, exemplified by the kibbutz movement. Now after 1967, there is talk of messianism, a return to the holy places, a resurgence of Torah with blossoming of new yeshivot and seminaries by the hundreds so that today there is more Torah being learned in Israel than in all prior generations. Jews from all over the world begin to visit on a regular basis after 1967 many sending their children to study for a year after high school. Many make Aliya, particularly to establish new communities in the biblical lands of Judea and Samaria. A massive worldwide baal tsuvah movement begins in earnest, returning hundreds of thousands to long lost customs and rituals. All of these events are triggered by the victories in 1967.
The 6 Day War returned G-d to many Jews. Many survivors of the Shoah, broken in spirit as well as body, had lost their faith in the Almighty. After the miracles of 1967, many forgave G-d in seeing the mighty hand of Hashem and his miracles in saving the Jewish people from potential destruction and returning the lost holy places to our control. Why no forgiveness after 1948 and the establishment of the State? Perhaps it was too soon. Perhaps because we had lost the Old City of Jerusalem. It was pointed out that perhaps the Old City was lost in 1948 because of lack of unity among the nascent Jewish army then – the myriad fighting forces -the Hagana, the Palmach, the Irgun, the Stern gang. Perhaps it was won in 1967 because of unity – shomer hatzair (the left wing communist thoroughly secular youth movement) kibbutzniks side by side with their Bnei Akiva (the religious Zionist youth movement) compatriots in fighting their way, inch by inch, to the Kotel.
Finally, the 6 Day war returned a million Soviet refugees eventually to the State of Israel. Many of the early refuseniks point to their hearing of the lightning victories by the Israeli army in 1967 as the catalyst to their return to Judaism after the 70 years of bitter Soviet persecution.
Wednesday afternoon, 4 PM, as Yom Yerushalayim begins to wind down the celebration begins in earnest. Hundreds of thousands of marchers carrying Israeli flags fill the streets like rivers and dance and sing towards the Kotel. Streaming through the Damascus Gate, they are an unstoppable force. If one has not observed this sight in person it is hard to describe I certainly have never seen this display of patriotism in the United States or perhaps in any country on Earth. This connection between the people and their State is visible and moving. It truly makes one feel that one who does not live here misses out on this aspect of our religion – the nationhood attached to its land as Hashem has destined us to be.
I say – next year is the 70th anniversary of the founding of the modern State of Israel. Let’s all make plans to be there to celebrate!