Holy Rabbis and the Reconquest of Jerusalem
By Tzvi Fishman
During the annual Yom HaAzmaut celebration at Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav in Jerusalem, some three weeks before the Six Day War, the Rosh Yeshiva, HaRav Tzvi Yehuda HaKohen Kook, gave a powerful and prophetic speech to the students and gathered guests, describing his initial anguished reaction when he had heard the news, some twenty years previously, that the United Nations had voted to partition the Land of Israel in approving the creation of a truncating Jewish State. While joyous Israelis danced outside on the streets, he sat at home, stunned by the announcement that the Inheritance of Hashem and Jerusalem had been cut into pieces and divided. Raising his voice, he shouted, “THEY DIVIDED OUR LAND!” Everyone in the hall was silent. “AND WHERE IS OUR HEVRON? AND OUR SHECHEM? WHERE IS EVERY METER OF THE LAND WHICH HASHEM BEQUEATHED TO US ALONE?! HAVE WE FORGOTTEN THAT ALL OF THE LAND IS OURS?!”
One of the yeshiva’s students, that late HaRav Yehuda Hazani wrote down his teacher’s words. “Yehuda had a phenomenal memory,” his wife, Hannah, told me. “After he made a neat copy of his scribbled writing, he showed it to HaRav Tzvi Yehuda for final editing, and then arranged for its publication in the HaTzofet newspaper. At the time, no one in the country spoke about our returning to Judea and Samaria, nor about capturing the Temple Mount. The idea was like a science fiction. Then, three weeks later, it came true.”
At the same time, in the late spring of 1967, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, Chief Rabbi of Tzahal, was in Australia, raising money for Israel Bonds, when he read in a local newspaper that Egypt’s President Nasser had closed down the Straits of Tiran leading to Eilat. At Nasser’s request, United Nations Peace Keeping Forces abandoned the Sinai Peninsula, and vast numbers of Egyptian tanks and infantry units were stationed along the Israeli border. Certain that the belligerent actions would lead to war, Rabbi Goren decided to fly back home to Israel. “In a matter of weeks, I will pray at the Kotel and on Mount Sinai as well,” he prophesized to the large crowd at his farewell appearance in Australia.
In Israel, the population was seized with worry and despair. Nasser’s promises to drive the Jewish State into the sea had unnerved the country. The armies of Syria and Jordan were mobilized to join Egypt in a devastating attack. Israel’s top military echelon advised Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, the acting Defense Minister, to strike first before Israel’s forces received a deadly blow, but the cautious and aging politician wanted to give the Administration in Washington time to convince Nasser to withdraw his forces and allow the UN troops to return to their positions. The IDF brass disagreed, not wanting to put the fate of the country in foreign hands, by counting on America to save it from extinction.
Arriving in Israel, Rabbi Goren immediately drove to a meeting with the IDF Commander-in-Chief, Yitzhak Rabin, who tensely informed him that the surrounding Arab countries were preparing their armies for an all-out attack on the tiny Jewish State. Rabin told him that two cabinet ministers from the National Religious Party, who opposed going to war, Moshe Haim Shapira and Zerach Warhaftig, were preventing Prime Minister Levi Eshkol from unleashing IDF forces. Rabin asked Rabbi Goren to speak with them and persuade them to change their minds. “After I see for myself the moral of our troops,” the army chaplain replied in his forceful and independent manner.
The journalist, Avi Rath, who spent several years with Rabbi Goren’s editing his autobiography, “With Might and Strength,” told the Jewish Press that the former Chief Rabbi was first and foremost a prodigious Torah scholar. “Verses of Torah, Tanach, and Tehillim were always on his lips, and when he accompanied Israel’s soldiers into battle, the spirit of the Torah which filled his being crowned him with a towering faith, untiring energy, and valor. For him, the war was not only a matter of saving Israel, it was, in the words of King David, so that, ‘the whole world will know that there is a living G-d in Israel.’”
Rabbi Goren journeyed to the southern Negev, where he met the commanders of Israel’s anxious battalions. Receiving conflicting reports, between optimistic expectations of victory and gloomy predictions that the government’s stalling for time had already soured the opportunity, he gave an order to the Army Rabbinate to be prepared to dig thousands of graves across the country, in case the forecasts of terrible losses proved true. Then, charged by the growing threat of war, he raced to Tel Aviv to meet with the reluctant religious cabinet ministers who put the blame for their opposition on Yitzhak Rabin who, they claimed, had balked when asked about Israel’s chances of success. Rushing to confront Rabin once again, Rabbi Goren discovered a broken warrior. In his autobiography, he writes that Ben Gurion, Rabin’s mentor, had shattered the young Commander in Chief’s confidence, accusing him of endangering the entire country, claiming that Israel alone could never defeat a joint attack by the powerful and massively-equipped forces of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan combined.
“Ben Gurion’s words affected Rabin deeply bringing about a nervous breakdown,” he noted. “He simply fell apart. All of the army was poised for war, and our Commander-in-Chief fell apart.”
To complicate matters, in a special radio broadcast, a tense, sleepless, and indecisive Eshkol stumbled over the words of his speech, further eroding the spirit of the nation. Dismayed by Eshkol’s procrastination, people demanded that the popular and charismatic Moshe Dayan be appointed as Minister of Defense.
As if possessed by a Divine Spirit, the IDF Chief Rabbi phoned Moti Hod, Chief Commander of the Israeli Air Force who insured him that a surprise first strike on Egypt would leave its entire air force paralyzed within two hours. Rabbi Goren hurried to meet once again with Interior Affairs Minister, Moshe Haim Shapira, and reported in his bulldozer manner that IDF commanders in the field were confident of an Israeli victory, if the order came now. The glaring-eyed Rabbi used all of his high-powered Torah persuasiveness to influence the peace-loving, religious, cabinet minister to adopt a more militant stance. Shapira assured him that he would support the appointment of Moshe Dayan as new Defense Minister during the emergency cabinet meeting, a few hours away, and that he would withdraw his opposition to sending Israel’s soldiers to war.
Wanting to be with the troops when they stormed into the Gaza Strip and Sinai, Rabbi Goren once again drove south to the Negev. Before Israeli jet fighters took to the skies, the Chief Rabbi entered the Air Force command bunker and distributed the prayer he had written, with a personal note to Moti Hod from the Book of Lamentations, exhorting him to: “Pursue them in anger and destroy them from under the heavens of the L-rd.”
Certainly, many factors influenced Levi Eshkol’s decision to go to war, and the change-of-heart of the formerly reluctant Shapira was one of them. Upon the official announcement that war had been declared, as Israel’s highly-trained Air Force soared into the skies, Rabbi Goren’s previously-prepared address to the soldiers of Tzahal was broadcast by “Kol Yisrael” over radios in every home and office throughout the country: “On this day of victory, Hashem is with you, all of the soldiers of the armies of Israel, on land, on sea, and in the air, to lead you in battle to triumph over enemies who have risen against us to destroy us. Let your hearts not be weakened for it is Hashem who fights by your side to save you….”
In a matter of hours, and throughout the next two miraculous days, the skilled pilots of Israel totally destroyed out the air forces of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, while determined Israeli ground troops crushed Nasser’s battalions in the Gaza Strip and Sinai, fighting their way to the Suez Canal. As the smoke cleared over decimated enemy runways and battlegrounds, Israeli Prime Minister, Levi Eshkol, had to make a decision – to give Israel’s army commanders in Jerusalem a green light to capture the Old City, or to accept the ceasefire which the United Nations had hastily organized in order to save the Arab world. The clock was ticking. At four in the morning, Knesset member, Menachem Begin, had woken Levi with a phone call, urging him to keep fighting in Jerusalem before the chance was lost to return the Temple Mount and Western Wall to Israel’s eternal possession. Already worn down by weeks of pressure and a deep, father-like concern for his small, besieged country, the mounting international pressure against Israel had further weakened Levi’s resolve. His military echelon, new Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, a recovered Yitzhak Rabin, Uzi Narkiss, and Haim Bar-Lev, were waiting impatiently for his order, but he wasn’t sure that America would back such a decisive and history-impacting move, which would so dramatically challenge the age-old superiority myths of Christianity and Islam.
The indefatigable Rabbi Goren hurried to Rockefeller Museum just across from the Old City wall, where Mota Gur’s paratroopers were under Jordanian fire from Augusta Victoria Monastery at the northern peak of the Mount of Olives. Though Israeli soldiers had suffered heavy casualties fighting against entrenched Jordanians forces in the north of the city, at Ammunition Hill, the faith-filled Rabbi was certain – just as the Hashem had guided the pebble which toppled the mighty Goliath, the Eternal One of Israel was fighting alongside the brave soldiers of the IDF. Gur told him that although Israeli divisions had surrounded the Old City, he had orders from the government not to enter its gates, lest the entire world rise up against Israel. The United Nations had pressured Jordon to accept a cease fire, but the proud King Hussein meanwhile ordered his troops to keeping fighting. With a look of fire in his eyes, the army’s Chief Rabbi barked at the paratrooper commander:
“This historic opportunity to liberate the Jerusalem and the Temple Mount has fallen into your hands, and you hesitate?! I will take the responsibility. Come with me and free the Old City. If they court-martial us, I will accompany you to prison. It is an honor to die to liberate Jerusalem. Now is the chance!”
Rabbi Goren’s aid, Rabbi Menachem HaKohen, who didn’t leave the IDF Chief Rabbi’s side during the war, told the Jewish Press that Gur accepted the passionate plea in good-natured fashion, joking about the situation, as if to temper the mounting pressure all around them, promising to take the drill-hammer of a Rabbi along with him when his troops entered the city.
(Rabbi Menachem HaKohen (with beard and helmet), sitting with Mota Gur and Rabbi Goren at the Rockefeller Museum during a lull in the shelling. Photo credit, Government Press Office.)
Frustrated, the Rabbi Goren rushed to Tel Aviv to find Yaacov Herzog, the Prime Minister’s closest advisor, and demand that he convince Levi Eshkol to seize the hour.
“I was the army Chief Rabbi’s driver and aide,” Rabbi HaKohen relates. “From Jerusalem to Aza, then to Tel Aviv, back to Aza, up to Jerusalem, down to Tel Aviv, back up to liberate the Holy City, then on to Kever Rachel, Kfar Etzion and Hevron. He hardly slept the whole time. Even at night, he had a portable light in the car so he could keep studying Gemara. He learned seven pages of Gemara each day, even during the war. He also talked to me a lot to make sure I didn’t fall asleep at the wheel, just the way the Kohen HaGadol was kept awake all night before Yom Kippur by telling him intriguing narratives. We would even joke about how people would eulogize us if we were killed in the war. Although Rabbi Goren was a very serious talmid chacham, he quoted Kohelet, saying there was a time to weep and a time to laugh.”
(Rabbi Goren learning during a break in the action.)
From Tel Aviv, Rabbi Goren drove back south to Aza in time to accompany Division 11 as it set off to encounter the Egyptian forces massed along the border. As the unit roared forward, an enemy shell hit the Rabbi’s command car. All of the soldiers with him were injured. The shofar he was carrying was burnt from the fire and heat of the explosion, along with his officer’s cap. Miraculous, the small Sefer Torah he had brought with him remained unscathed. Treating the wounded as best he could, he carried bleeding soldiers to the ambulances that arrived, grabbed a helmet and pressed forward with the troops while under heavy Egyptian fire. As Israeli tanks advanced, after the first fierce round of fighting, the enemy surrendered its position and fled in panic. “I saw with my own eyes the truth of the verse, ‘Five from among you shall pursue a hundred, and a hundred from among you shall pursue ten thousand, and your enemies will fall before you by the sword.’ Rashi notes that the mathematics are not in exact proportion, and explains, ‘you cannot compare a few who perform the commandments of the Torah to many who perform them.’ We learn from this that fighting the wars of Israel is Torah in and of itself.”
As sunset fell over the battleground, Rabbi Goren decided to return to Jerusalem. In the middle of the night, he arrived in the Holy City, where the sounds of explosions and gunfire filled the air from all parts of the city. Immediately, he rushed to the home of his father-in-law, the saintly Rabbi David Cohen, known as the “Nazir,” asking to borrow the shofar of his shul. Rabbi Goren’s aid, Rabbi Menachem HaKohen, told the Jewish Press that he stood on a chair and pulled the shofar down from the top of a bookcase. Running to the Rockefeller Museum, they discovered that many soldiers had been killed by enemy shells and the fierce fighting throughout the city. When he woke up in his jeep after an hour of sleep, Rabbi Goren learned that Mota Gur had set off to command an early morning charge on Augusta Victoria. Supported by Israeli jets, two IDF divisions converging from different directions seized control over the strategic ridge overlooking the Jerusalem from the east. As Jordanian snipers fired from the walls of the Old City at approaching Israeli troops, Rabbi Goren jumped into his jeep and drove toward the Lion Gate, picking up a “trampist” (hitchhiker) on the way, Yosi Ronen, the sound recorder for “Galatz,” the army radio station, who managed to capture the sounds of Rabbi Goren’s shofar, and victorious shouts and singing of the history-making battle. Finally receiving orders to liberate the Old City, Mota Gur led a paratrooper brigade down the Mount of Olive hillside toward the Temple Mount. At 9:45, with the song, “Jerusalem of Gold,” playing on radios throughout the country, Israeli tanks opened fire on the Lion’s Gate, blowing up the bus that had been positioned there to seal off the fifteen-meter-high stone gateway. Under consistent sniper fire, the Israeli forces charged forward. A tank tried to move the bus aside but got stuck. As Rabbi Goren ran toward the gate, a paratrooper captain screamed at him to take cover by the wall, alongside the other soldiers, lest he get shot. Torah scroll and shofar in his hands, the exuberant Rabbi ignored the command. “I am the highest-ranking officer present,” he answered. Don’t try to stop me!” Blowing the shofar as loudly as he could, he led the charge into the Old City, climbing over the stalled tank in the gate and jumping down on the other side. “The Shechinah, which never left the stones of the Kotel, prepared the way before the soldiers of Israel, protecting them with her Clouds of Glory.” he later wrote. Then, as if in a dream, he reached the gate leading to Har HaBayit. With another long blast of the shofar, he called out to the troops behind him, “In the Name of Hashem, liberate Jerusalem! Rise up and conquer the Mount!”
Rabbi Yisrael Ariel, then a student at the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva, and now head of the Temple Institute in Jerusalem, reached the Mount after it had been liberated by the paratroopers. “My orders were to enter the Dome of the Shrine and guard the rotunda containing the Foundation Stone,” he told the Jewish Press. “The fact that I was standing in the place of the Holy of Holies was like a spiritual explosion, the reverberations of which have stayed with me until today, inspiring everything I have done. When I heard that two holy elders with long white beards had arrived at the Kotel, I was certain they must be the Mashiach and Eliahu HaNavi. A short time later, after receiving permission to join the crowd at the Wall, I discovered that the two holy elders were my Rabbis, HaRav Tzvi Yehuda Kook and HaRav David Kohen, the holy ‘Nazir’. ”
(Rav Yisrael Ariel on left of photo.)
At the start of the war, Zvi Friedman had fought with the troops who had forced Egyptian tank units to withdraw from Aza. Hurrying to Jerusalem with Rabbi Goren to strengthen the forces in the Holy City, he too found himself on the Temple Mount as the army Chief Rabbi read out a victory speech of thanksgiving to Hashem which he had ready in his uniform pocket. Freidman told the Jewish Press, “If you want to know the truth, finding myself on the Temple Mount didn’t mean anything to me. No one talked about the Temple Mount back then. Unlike today, it wasn’t a part of our vocabulary. Mota Gur called out, ‘Har HaBayit is in our hands!’ but I am sad to say, the Arabs are still in charge there. I looked at Hannan Porat, a young paratrooper and student of Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, and his eyes were shining with happiness and tears, but I didn’t feel anything special until I reached the Kotel.”
Some time later, commanders Mota Gur, Uzi Narkiss, and Defense Minister, Moshe Dayan, stood amidst the singing and dancing soldiers, as if wondering what to do with the treasure that had fallen into their hands. Rabbi Goren approached them. “Why don’t we gather all of the explosives we have and demolish all of the shrines and mosques on the Mount while we still have the chance,” the spirit-filled Rabbi suggested to his serious and startled listeners.
(Rabbi Goen on the Temple Mount.)
Realizing that he would find a more receptive ear at the Kotel, he hurried off in search of a path to the Wailing Wall, which for almost two decades had been off-limits for Jews. His bearded aide-de-camp, Rabbi Menachem HaKohen, had grown up in the Old City and knew the way. Joined by a few other soldiers, it wasn’t long before they faced a locked metal gate which they knocked down with their shoulders.
Rabbi Goren recalls in his autobiography, “As I reached the narrow plaza in front of the Kotel, I felt a great burst of light which blinded me. An Arab ran out from the adjacent tunnel and slid a chair under me before I toppled with dizziness.”
Tired, yet ecstatic paratroopers rushed to embrace the stones of the Wall. Above them, another student from the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva, Captain Yoram Zammush, hung the Star of David flag from a metal bar at the top of the Kotel. Blowing the shofar, and clutching the Torah scroll, Rabbi Goren recited Kaddish for all of the fallen, and all of the gathered called out, “Amen!” The “trampest” from the “Galei Tzahal” radio station was on hand to record all of the euphoric prayers.
Rabbi Menachem HaKohen, who later became Chief Rabbi of the Moshavim and the Histadrut, reflected, “Not since the Jewish People stood united at Mount Sinai had there been a moment of Jewish unity so absolute at this. Jews all over the world, from Moscow to the United States, in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, heard our prayers and answered, ‘Amen!’”
After draping the flag over the ramparts of the Wall, Yoram Zammush requested that his Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, be brought to the Kotel.
“Rabbi Goren instructed me to bring both Rabbi Kook and the ‘Nazir,’ to the Old City,” Rabbi HaKohen recalls. “The Dung Gate still hadn’t been captured, so I took Zammush’s jeep which was still up on the Temple Mount. Deciding to wait until Mincha time before hurrying to Mount Herzl to take care of burial arrangements for Tzahal’s many fallen soldiers, Rabbi Goren returned to the sacred site of the Beit HaMikdash to recite Tehillim, and take advantage of the halacha which permits Jewish soldiers to enter the grounds of the Mikdash during the conquest of the Temple Mount, which was still taking place, as sniper fire continued throughout the Old City. Praying with all of his strength, in the back of his mind was the reminder that Kever Rachel, Kfar Etzion, and Hevron still hadn’t been captured, and he wanted to have a part in their liberation as well.
(Rabbi Goren reaches the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hevron, with a Magen David banner he drew on a sheet. Photo credit, GPO.)
Driving the army jeep through the jubilant crowds on their way to the Old City, Rabbi Menachem HaKohen parked on the Temple Mount and led the two elder Rabbis to the narrow passage in front of the Wailing Wall, now jammed with soldiers: “The saintly ‘Nazir’ embraced the stones of the Kotel and remained there frozen. HaRav Tzvi Yehuda looked overwhelmed, as if he couldn’t comprehend where we were. Shaking off his disorientation and wonder, he began to weep. He asked Rabbi Goren to recite a chapter of Tehillim, and I sounded the shofar.”
(HaRav Tzvi Yehuda Kook, the “Nazir,” Rabbi Goren, and Rabbi Menachem HaKohen with the shofar. GPO)
“It is impossible to forget that day,” Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook recalled in a speech he later delivered on Jerusalem Day in the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva. “Each hour that passed, expectation quickened. One of our students who had enlisted raced back to the yeshiva during a break in the fighting and announced that, with the Almighty’s help, our paratroopers would soon reach the Kotel! A little later, a bearded army officer appeared with a message from HaRav Goren. ‘The Chief Rabbi of the army invites the Rosh Yeshiva to come to the Kotel,’ he announced. ‘An armored car is waiting outside.’
“HaRav David Cohen, the Nazir, joined us on the way. He too had been invited by his son-in-law, HaRav Goren. The army car progressed slowly through the joyous crowds who were thronging the streets of the city – thousands of singing and dancing people. Many of them had tears of joy in their eyes over the liberation of Jerusalem. We prayed the first national prayer at the Kotel after a nineteen-hundred year separation, not as individuals, but as representatives of the reborn Medinat Yisrael. The prayer that was an utter cleaving to Hashem. Every eye was filled with tears. Everyone chanted the Psalm, ‘A Song of Ascent: When the L-rd brought back the exiles of Zion, we were like those who dream.’
“Before we left the liberated city, I was interviewed by radio and television reporters from Israel and from around the world. They wanted to know my opinion on what had transpired. ‘Behold,’ I said. ‘We announce to all of Israel, and to all of the world, that by a Divine command, we have returned to our home, to our Holy City. From this day forth, we shall never budge from here! We have come home!’”