from Rabbi Shlomo Goren: Torah Sage and General by Shalom Freedman
In 1948, when the fighting between Arabs and Jews finished, the city of Jerusalem was left divided. The Temple Mount, the Western Wall, and the Jewish Quarter were in Arab hands. After 1948, the Jews of Israel could not cross the line and visit their most holy places. They could only climb to high places and look with longing across the divided city. During this time, Jordan was interested in developing its capital in Amman, and largely neglected Jerusalem. Jewish holy sites were desecrated, including the cemetery on the Mount of Olives.
It is safe to say that the great majority of the people of Israel during this time lived with a great longing in their heart, a longing to return to their most sacred places. In 1961, a Jerusalem-born paratroop commander named Mordechai Gur had a conversation with Rabbi Goren that would later turn out to be of historic significance. He told him of his plan, should there be an outbreak of fighting, to retake the Old City of Jerusalem. And he promised Rabbi Goren that he would be able to join with his forces should this take place.
In 1967, the Egyptians closed the Straits of Tiran, a clear act of war, and forced a long period of waiting and tension upon Israel, while the United States and other forces tried to find a diplomatic solution to the problem. There was a tremendous anxiety in Israel and throughout the Jewish world at this time regarding the possible destruction of the state. It was less than twenty-five years since the Shoah (Holocaust), the murder of over one-third of the Jewish people by the Nazis and their collaborators.
Large Egyptian forces were massed on the Southern border. Rabbi Goren, who at the outset of the tense situation had been in Australia on a lecture tour of the Jewish community there, was called home. He immediately began to work to strengthen the morale of the soldiers on all fronts. He traveled to the Egyptian border, to be with the army on the Shabbat of parshat Bamidbar.
Two days later, on 26 Iyar, June 5, 1967, the Six Day War began. On the morning of the war’s outbreak, Rabbi Goren wrote a special dispatch for the forces. He then took a small sefer Torah with him, and began to go to visit each and every battlefield unit. The soldiers at each of the stops greeted him warmly, kissed the Torah, and were fortified by his prayers and words of encouragement.
On the third day of the war, when on his way back to Jerusalem, his command car was hit by the Egyptians and set on fire. Rabbi Goren found cover in a field of wheat, which was also set on fire. The army rescued him. Rabbi Goren remained with the troops in the south for two days and then made his way north to Jerusalem. By this time, it was known that in the first hours of the war the Israeli Air Force had destroyed the Egyptian and Syrian air forces on the ground.
In Jerusalem, the Israeli forces under Major-General Uzi Narkiss had thwarted Jordanian efforts to take the city. Motta Gur’s fifty-fifth brigade, which had initially been intended for the Egyptian front but was not needed, was called back to Jerusalem. Its task was to break through the area in the northern part of the city at Sheikh Jarrah, the Police School, and Ammunition Hill. These operations involved some of the most costly and difficult fighting of the war. The Jordanian forces were well entrenched and fought fiercely.
Rabbi Goren rushed back to Jerusalem. He stopped at the home of his father-in-law, the nazir, in order to borrow a shofar to replace his own that had been burned when his command car was hit in Gaza. Then he went to the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem and the just-established command post of Mordechai Gur. There Rabbi Goren urged Mordechai Gur to keep his old promise of liberating the holy places and begin moving the troops toward the Old City. But Gur firmly resisted all persuasion, and would not go forward without a direct command from the General Staff.
According to the Israeli Army Encyclopedia (volume 16), the next morning Rabbi Goren was fearful that the historical opportunity to capture the Old City and establish Jewish control there for the first time in 2,000 years would be missed. He telephoned Dr. Yaakov Herzog, the director-general of the prime minister’s office, and urged him to convince Prime Minister Eshkol, before the Cabinet meeting about to be convened that morning, to give the order to take the city. Herzog said he would do this.
On the following morning, the 28th of Iyar, June 7, 1967, the order to take the city was given. Rabbi Goren, who had barely slept for three days and three nights, was with the troops that moved toward the Lions Gate (St. Stephens Gate). He began the race from the Rockefeller Museum. The orders were to remain close to the walls because of the enemy fire. He had with him the sefer Torah that he took with him everywhere. This was a sefer Torah that had been dedicated in the name of Baruch Asher Shapira who had been killed in the War of Independence. Rabbi Goren ran with shofar and sefer Torah in hand in the direction of the Lions Gate in the Old City. When criticized after the war for unnecessarily endangering himself, Rabbi Goren told reporter Haggai Huberman that he ran in the middle of the road with the sefer Torah and shofar and knew he would not be hit. He said that his past experience, when he had prayed out on the ramparts of the Suez Canal in face of Egyptian fire, had proven this to him. Rabbi Goren said that in this fantastic race to the Lions Gate he felt as if he was flying to heaven. He believed the demonstration of fearlessness would be of inspiration to the soldiers.
At the Lion’s Gate, Rabbi Goren began to blow the shofar and to pray out loud as the halacha requires in a time of war. After a long run, he came to the Temple Mount, where he began to pray Psalm 24, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” And then he blew the shofar – Tekia! Terua! Shevarim! Tekia! – and read the manifest he had prepared that morning declaring that all the holy places are now open to people of all faiths. A short time earlier, at 10 a.m., Colonel Gur, the commander of the operation, had reached the Temple Mount and from there spoke the words that stirred Israel and the Jewish people throughout the world: “The Temple Mount is in our hands.”
After an hour on the Temple Mount, Rabbi Goren went down to the Western Wall, which had begun to fill up with Israeli paratroopers. As the hour was early, Rabbi Goren said Tehillim; at 12:20 he could begin to pray the afternoon Mincha prayer. At the repetition of the Amida, Rabbi Goren inserted the Nachem prayer, which is usually said only on Tisha B’Av. But he changed the nusach, and instead of saying “the mourning city,” he said “the liberated city, joyful and exultant, whose children have returned to her.” After this, he said Hallel Gadol and made the blessing with Shem and Malkhut. Hundreds of soldiers, religious and not, joined in the saying of the Hallel.
A most moving description of this same event at the Kotel is given in Uzi Narkiss’s book, The Liberation of Jerusalem.
We made our excited way through the streets to the Mugrabi Gate, along a dim alley, turned right down a flight of steps, impatiently faced another right turn – and there it was: The Wailing Wall. I quivered with memory. Tall and awesome and glorious, with the same ferns creeping between the great stones, some of them inscribed.
Silently, I bowed my head. In the narrow space were paratroopers, begrimed, fatigued, overburdened with weapons. And they wept. They were not “wailing at the Western Wall,” not lamenting in the fashion familiar during the Wall’s millenia of being. These were tears of joy, of love, of passion, of an undreamed first reunion with their ancient monument to devotion and prayer. They clung to its stones, kissed them, these rough battle-weary paratroopers, their lips framing the Shema.
But more exalted, prouder than all of them, was Rabbi Goren. Wrapped in a tallit (prayer shawl), blowing the ram’s horn, and roaring like a lion: ‘Blessed be the Lord God, Comforter of Zion and Builder of Jerusalem. Amen.’ Suddenly he saw me, embraced me, and planted a ringing kiss on my cheek, a signal to everyone to hug and kiss and join hands. The rabbi, like one who had waited all his life for this moment, intoned the Kaddish, the Kel Maleh Rachamim in memory of those who had fallen to liberate the Temple Mount and Jerusalem, the City of the Lord: ‘May they find their peace in Heaven. And let us say Amen.’
The restrained weeping became full-throated sobs, an uncurbed emotional outburst. Sorrow, fervor, happiness, and pain combined to produce this mass of grieving and joyous men, their cheeks wet, their voices unsteady. Again the shofar was blown: tekiya (a short, but unbroken sound) followed by the shevarim (a short but tremolo sound). And Rabbi Goren heralded, “This year, at this hour, in Jerusalem!”
During this time, Rav Goren sent a special army vehicle to bring his father-in-law, the nazir, and Rabbi Zvi Yehuda HaKohen Kook. Nineteen years before, the Nazir had vowed not to leave his home except for the purpose of going to pray at the liberated Temple Mount and Western Wall. Now he could at last leave his home.
The Jewish people had, in Defense Minister Moshe Dayan’s words – which were to become a central article of the national faith – “returned to their holy places, never to be parted from them again.” For the first time in 2,000 years, the most holy site of the Jewish people was in Jewish hands. The city, which had been divided was reunited again.
What had begun with the threat of the destruction of the Jewish state ended with the realization of a dream the Jewish people had fervently maintained for 2,000 years.
Rabbi Shlomo Goren had long prepared for, and prayed for this moment. He understood its significance not simply as a moment in a nation’s history, but as part of a worldwide process of redemption. For him, this great moment was a moment of deepest religious fulfillment.
Yet Rabbi Goren’s prayers and actions, even at these moments of great exaltation, were not unmixed with pain and grief. Even on the day of greatest triumph, Rabbi Goren was weighed down with the pain of those who had lost loved ones.
When he returned home, exhausted, for the first time after the battle for Jerusalem, the first thing he did was find the addresses and phone numbers of, and set out to begin his visits of consolation to, the families of the fallen.
The nation and the people had been delivered, but 679 Israeli soldiers were killed in the war’s battles and over 2,500 injured.