Capturing the Wall: The Story of Shavuot 1967

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04 Jun 2008

Kotel in 1967A brilliant flash shattered the darkness. The lonely climber saw in that blink of an eye that he was almost at the top of the peak, and around him a gorgeous valley spread with lakes reflecting the awesome mountain. And then it was dark again. Life flashes with those moments where everything is clear. So does Jewish history. I’d like to tell you about two of them.

As the taxi started driving I asked, “Can you please turn off the radio.”

Usually you only see the back of the driver’s head. This one turned around smiling: “Only if you sing to me,” he answered in Hebrew.

“Simin Tov u Mazal Tov” I began happily.

“V siman tov u Mazal Tov,” he joined in. Now he, my wife and I were all smiling.

I guess the song transported him back to a memory because he asked suddenly: “Have you ever heard about the liberation of the Western Wall in 1967?”

“Sure” I answered.

“I was there. I was a soldier in a unit fighting the Jordanians in the Old City. Our troop advanced into a section of the Old city. Although I had never been there before, and the Arabs had animals grazing and manure scattered between their houses and the ancient walls of the Old City, I seemed to recognize where I was. Suddenly I realized I was standing at the Western Wall.

I went to a school that was not religious. I remember we only had one textbook with anything religious in it. It had three religious pictures: the Tomb of Rachel, the Cave of Machpella where Avraham, Sara and the other forefathers are buried, and the Western Wall.

This was the picture of the place from my schoolbook. I was standing at the Western Wall. Suddenly I couldn’t move. My entire body was tingling, and I became overwhelmed by the holiness of where I was. Over my head I felt the presence of the “Shechina” (the Presence of G-d which is said to always dwell at the Western Wall), and I became completely paralyzed.

Meanwhile the Jordanians were shooting at us from the building tops. So when my fellow soldier ran up to me he thought I had been shot. He started checking me for bullet wounds, but he found none. No blood was flowing. Finally he realized I was in shock. He started shaking me till I came to.”

I could not believe the story I was hearing, but it got even better.

“Out of nowhere a Rabbi appeared. Rabbi Goren. We were soldiers ready for battle, but he was only a civilian. We ran to cover him. He was carrying a shofar, and was headed straight for the Wall.

As he reached the wall he said the Shehechiyanu prayer, and then took his shofar and began to blow. Then I heard him radio: ‘The Kotel Ma’arvi is in our hands, I repeat the Kotel Ma’arvi is in our hands’.”

As he told me his story I could not help but wonder why the Rabbi seemed to be more informed than the soldiers. How did he know to be there? Shouldn’t the soldiers have been radioing that they had captured their target? I understood as he continued:

“We had no orders to capture the Kotel. We just ended up there.”

As I heard his story it was as if it had been prophesized. It mirrored the words and events of the 3rd Jew to visit the place of the temple and his reaction over three thousand years earlier:

“Jacob…encountered (bumped into) the place…and behold G-d was standing over him and He said: …I will guard you wherever you go and I will return you to this soil…Jacob …said: “Surely G-d is in this place and I did not know! And he became frightened and said: “How awesome is this place!…this is the gate of Heaven.” (Genesis 28 vs. 10-17)

“You heard of Yitzhak Rabin?” the driver then asked. I couldn’t tell if he meant the question seriously. “He arrived next, and soon after him Moshe Dayan, and realized they’d captured the Kotel. Maybe you have seen two of the posters from that moment?” He asked pointing to his hair. “I am balding now, but I am in one of them, the one in the helmet,” he told me, and I did recognize him.

I thought to myself that the patriotic textbooks that feature that picture probably wouldn’t sequence the events in the order he was telling me.

“We bumped into the Kotel, and the Rabbi blew the shofar, and then the Generals showed up,” but Jacob, after whom we call ourselves Israel, is described by the Torah as “bumping into the place, and he is described as “the man of truth”.

The beauty of the taxi driver’s story was what he told me next. “It was summer time. After the liberation, first we invited all the yeshivas, and the rabbis to visit the Kotel. The next week was Shavuot, and we opened it for all of Israel to come and visit.”

Even though the taxi driver was not wearing a kippa, he turned around and the words of a Gemara flowed from his mouth:

“If you weren’t there to see the joy of the Simchat Beit HaShoeva (the water drawing festival in the temple on Sukkot) then you have never seen true happiness”

I nodded, waiting to hear what he’d tell me next.

“If you were not there to see the joy of the Jews coming back to the Kotel, then you have never experienced true happiness.”

You could see that he had experienced true celebration, and that its joy was alive within him now as it was when he experienced it forty years earlier.

“People were bawling, embracing, falling to their feet. For six months after you could not get an airplane ticket to Israel from abroad. Everyone was coming to see the Western Wall.”

Every Shavuot in Jerusalem, a few hours before sunrise from distant hills from every edge of the city the deserted streets begin to fill with Jews until from every direction Jews of every kind stream towards one central point– the Western Wall. You can hear the roar of people moving – old men, kids, groups of teenage girls, yeshiva students with their rebbes, and voices singing. And then in a single moment-at sunrise, the moment at which G-d gave His beloved Jewish people his beloved torah, all these different Jews step into prayer, as one man with one heart, and all is silent. I wondered if that tradition started that Shavuot in 1967 with the story of our taxi driver.

As he spoke the rest of the ride home I was thinking about all the holy men who wept bitterly to merit to see the Kotel and died with their dream unfulfilled. I wondered what it was about him that he had been chosen. I remembered the story that I heard when showed the picture of the Kotel being liberated, the picture of our driver:

As soldiers ran to the Kotel, one of the non-religious soldiers who ran to the Wall saw the religious soldiers crying. He too began to cry.

The religious soldier looked at him surprised and asked:

“I know why I am crying, but why are you crying?” The nonreligious soldier answered back: “I am crying because I don’t know what I am supposed to be crying about.”

Interesting how the moment of the giving of the torah ripples through the millennia to re-emerge in the subconscious of every type of Jew, all leading their own separate lives, to again be like one man with one heart at the Kotel on Shavuot. We all have two identities-the person we identify with day to day and the picture of ourselves we see within the critical moments of life that flash with clarity. At those moments we know who we are.

The moment in the history of the Jewish people when we saw ourselves as Israel, one man with one heart, was at the giving of Torah. I did not have to ask the driver his name to know that he, for me and everyone else who has seen his picture, is Israel.

Perhaps out of all the people in the world, G-d had chosen a 19 year old boy from Haifa, our taxi driver, to redeem the Wall so that the flood of Jewish people could stream there again, in order to give us all a broader vision of who we are in essence. The torah is for all of us. It is our heart, and connects us even when we see ourselves as very far from it.

Each one of us is like a lone climber through the darkness of exile struggling to cling to whatever Judaism we have left. The flash of light that puts us back in touch with our mission, and how close we are to achieving it was the light that flashed for our driver and the whole Jewish world in 1967. It is the lightning that lit up our souls with a sense of who we truly are-the light of the giving of the Torah.