From Heart of Jerusalem

Forging a path of their own and doing it together


May 1948. Tough times for the Jewish people, particularly for Jews struggling to claw out a place for themselves in a land they hoped to claim as their own.

A few months after the United Nations voted to partition the British Mandate for Palestine and allow the creation of a modern Jewish state, six Arab armies were poised to attack. They were waiting for the British to leave, so as not to attack British sovereign territory.

The Arabs already in country, however, had no such dilemma, which was why the Jordanian legion was on the offensive. Even as the Jews celebrated the partition plan, the Jordanians were on the march.

The Jordanian Legion, commanded by Abdullah Tell, was without a doubt the best fighting force in the Middle East. Thirty-two hundred strong, three full brigades, British-trained and French-armed, they had no equal at the time. Despite its strategic insignificance, they had set their sights on the heart of the Jewish people: the Old City of Jerusalem.

For six bitter months, Jordanian legionnaires laid siege to the Jewish Quarter. There were 1400 civilians trapped inside the walls. The Jewish command had to do something.

And so it was. In the middle of the night, May 3 and 4, 1948, 22 fighters of the Palmach found themselves slowly climbing up the hill below the Old City walls under the noses of the Jordanian soldiers.

Taking cover behind the ruins of a Crusader fortress, the irony was not lost on them: These same crusaders who had massacred the Jewish communities of Europe a thousand years earlier had built a wall to protect Jewish fighters in their quest to redeem the ancient city for the modern State of Israel.

As they neared the final stretch of path that would bring them to their objective of the Zion Gate, they were literally right under the guards’ positions on the walls. They had to advance the last hundred yards one at a time so as to minimize the noise and avoid detection.

And as they all waited, each fighter advanced a hundred yards, one at a time, all alone.

It must have been terrifying. It was nearly 3 am, and they had to maintain total silence. If even one Jordanian soldier happened to look down, they would have had nowhere to run or hide. 

There is a comfort to being part of a unit, moving with men with whom you have become one and having each other’s backs. But all alone?

• • •

This week we read the portion of Beshalach, most famous for the dramatic splitting of the sea and destruction of the Egyptian Army. And amidst the powerful spectacle we often miss the details.

The Torah tells us (Exodus 14:22) that “the water was a wall for them on their right and on their left.” And the Talmud (Yoma 4b) explains that the water did not simply recede, leaving dry land. Rather, it literally split, leaving a path for them to pass through.

One wonders why it happened in this way, and moreover, why the Torah takes the time to share this detail with us. Rav Baruch Halevy Epstein, in his Torah Temimah, suggests that this way, the miracle was even greater. No one would say it was simply a coincidence, that the sea had dried up.

But that does not seem to answer the question. Besides, the fact that the sea suddenly dried up just when the Jewish people needed it most and then came crashing down again just as the Egyptians were closing in was not a big enough miracle?

Perhaps there is a deeper idea here.

Interestingly, the Talmud compares the Jews’ entering a path into the sea with walls on both sides to Moshe’s entering the cloud at Mt. Sinai, suggesting that the identical language implies that Moshe forged a path through the cloud. He wasn’t just walking through it; he was walking on a path. To receive the Torah, to discover meaning, to be imbued with a sense of purpose, is to be on a journey.

Indeed, the redemption only began when Moshe, alone in the desert in Shemot 3, saw a burning bush and turned off the path to see it, recognizing the need to change direction.

Perhaps a path signifies a direction, and a journey. In fact, one opinion in the Midrash suggests each Tribe had its own path, so that there were thirteen paths through the sea in total. Another Midrash suggests that each Jew had his or her own path!

• • •

Redemption, it seems, comes when a person is ready to take his or her own journey; when a person sees the path they are meant to take. 

Just before the sea splits, Moshe holds out his staff over the sea, pointing forward. Think about it: The Torah tells us there were six hundred thousand men, terrified by the sight of six hundred chariots. A thousand men were afraid of a chariot? They were stuck. When the sea split, they finally realized that they needed to take their own steps to leave Egypt behind.

Over three thousand years later, a small band of Jewish fighters, carrying the Jewish people on their shoulders, each alone with his or her thoughts, stepped out on a path all alone, determined to bring us home.

Many of those fighters did not survive that battle; indeed, the Jewish quarter fell to the Jordanian legion some four weeks later, on May 28, 1948.

But walk through the Shaar Tzion today and you will see a monument to the memory of those fighters and the courage with which they carried themselves on that day. 

“With no armor nor artillery, with their own bodies, they sacrificed themselves on the walls of the ancient city of Jerusalem. Let he who walks through this gate remember them.”

Each of us has our own Egypt that constricts us. The question is whether we are ready to forge the path that will leave it behind.

Rabbi Binny Freedman is Rosh Yeshiva of Orayta in Jerusalem. A version of this column was previously published.