Any serious student of history will recognize that there are moments, all too rare, when a door stands open, waiting for a person, a people, or even the entire world to walk through, and change life as we know it, forever. Such a moment came and went in 1967, when paratroopers, on the wings of eagles, stormed the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem.
There was a magic in the air that day. It was as if anything was possible and dreams could come true after 2,000 years of longing and waiting.
A friend of mine, who was one of the paratroopers who liberated the Old City on that magical day, told me an incredible story.
Most of the paratroopers had broken in to the Old City through the Lion’s gate, but an elite company had come in from the south, storming the Zion gate and gaining a foothold in the Jewish quarter. Lechimah Be’Shetach Banui (urban warfare) is one of the most difficult types of combat. In addition to the normal pressures of fighting an enemy who is entrenched in his positions, one has the additional tension of worrying about many civilians in the area, as well as the challenge of ensuring, as different units converge on any given objective, that units do not end up accidentally firing at each other.
As such, much of the time is spent waiting between taking one position and moving on to the next, to be sure that friendly forces are all aware of each other and not in conflicting positions.
During one such period, with Jordanian mortar shells and sniper’s bullets still taking their toll, Yossi’s unit was taking cover along one of the narrow alleyways of the old city.
Safe for the moment, they were leaning against the wall taking stock of the day, still in awe that they were actually inside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. With the words of the prophets ringing in their ears, and the dream, never lost over 2,000 years, beating in their hearts, there was a sense that anything could happen, that redemption was at hand.
t that moment, the sounds of footsteps echoed down the cobblestones of the alleyway behind them, and the soldiers, ever on guard, turned to cover their rear, only to watch in amazement at the sight that greeted their eyes.
A little old man, with a long white beard and black coat and hat, oblivious to the sounds and sights of war all around, with a huge smile on his face and a twinkle in his eyes, was hurrying down the street heading for the Kotel, the Western Wall.
To a man, the paratroopers rose and simply followed this man towards the Kotel. Though most of them described themselves as completely irreligious (if such a thing could ever be true of an Israeli soldier in uniform) they were all convinced that this was the messiah, come at last to lead the Jewish people home.
In fact, it transpired that this was the sainted Rabbi Aryeh Levine (The Tzaddik of Jerusalem) who, upon hearing that the Old City was in Jewish hands, could not wait any longer and simply walked in to the middle of a war zone to get to the Kotel.
As we approach Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) this Sunday, April 23, why are we discussing the return to the Old City of Jerusalem, an event we will commemorate a few weeks later?
I often wonder how a concentration camp inmate, or a Jew starving in the ghettos during the Holocaust, would have reacted to a prediction that just a few years later they would be dancing in the streets of Tel Aviv in a newly declared State of Israel?
Often, we are so immersed in our own experiences that it is difficult for us to imagine that an entirely different reality is just around the corner. Much has been written about the terrible suffering of the millions of our brothers and sisters murdered by the Nazis, and the terrible evil the Nazis perpetrated. And we often pay tribute as well to the memory of heroes who fought the Nazi beast in the ghetto and concentration camp uprisings and as partisans in the forests. But little has been written about a different type of heroism: the ability of those who were somehow able to see a completely different reality, even in the midst of all their pain.
It is nothing short of incredible, that Jews who considered themselves deeply religious, in the face of all of the Nazi machine’s efforts to dehumanize them and destroy their spirit, were seen walking into gas chambers with the song of the ani ma’amin, Maimonides’ exhortation to believe with complete faith, against all odds, in the coming of the Messiah, in the belief that the world could and would be better, and that just such a world was coming and always just a moment away.
It is easy, when confronted with murderers on the streets of Toulouse, or madmen building nuclear weapons in Iran or Korea, to see the world through a lens of cynicism and frustration, and even despair.
But if countless numbers of Jews, amidst the maelstrom of events that could and should have broken their spirits, were nonetheless able to rise above the desire of their tormentors and see a better world, perhaps we owe it to their memory — specifically on Yom HaShoah — to know that the world can and should be better, and to stretch our imaginations, just as those paratroopers did in an alleyway of the Old City of Jerusalem, to decide how indeed we can make that better world, one day and one person at a time.
Shabbat Shalom from the Old City of Jerusalem.
This column is reprinted from 2012.