From Bamidbar to Reunification: The Eternal Bond of Jerusalem
We just celebrated Yom Yerushalayim, marking the 56th anniversary of Jerusalem’s reunification. Yom Yerushalayim usually falls around the time we read Parshat Bamidbar which opens with a census, a counting of the Jewish people. I always wondered whether there was a connection between the day we celebrate the reunification of Jerusalem in modernity and the counting of the Jewish people in the wilderness.
Rashi tells us that the reason God counted the Jewish people is because of His great love for the Jewish people. Rashi then goes on to say, “When God took the Jews out of Egypt, He counted them, and when they fell in the sin of the golden calf, He counted them, and when God caused His presence to dwell among them”, after they built the Mishkan, “God counted them”.
The common denominator of each of these times in our history is that they are moments of crisis and vulnerability. When the Jewish people left Egypt, they were anxious as to what would happen to them now that they were free, and their destiny was in their own hands. After the sin of the golden calf, the people felt totally rejected by God and by Moses who left the camp, wondering whether they were still worthy of Hashem’s love. And finally, after the Jewish people built the Tabernacle and God caused His presence to dwell among them, that too created a level of insecurity among the people, causing them to ask whether they were worthy to live amongst the Divine presence.
You count something you love. At each juncture when God sees the Jewish people doubting themselves and their relationship with Him, Hashem counts them to show them He still loves them. Later in Jewish history at other times of uncertainty, God continued to demonstrate that He is still “there” for the Jewish people. In modern history, the reunification of Jerusalem was such a time.
If there ever was a moment in Israel’s history when the Jewish people felt vulnerable and unsure of their future, it was the weeks before the Six-Day War. On May 15, 1967, Egyptian troops began mobilizing at the Israeli border, and by May 18, Syrian troops were preparing for battle along the Golan Heights. Egypt’s belligerent leader Abdul Nasser ordered the UN Emergency Force to withdraw and over the airways, he proclaimed: “As of today there no longer exists an international emergency force to protect Israel…The sole method we shall apply against Israel is total war, which will result in the extermination of Zionist existence”. On May 20th, Syrian Defense Minister Hafez Assad declared: “Our forces are now entirely ready not only to repulse the aggression…but to explode the Zionist presence in the Arab homeland.…the time has come to enter a battle of annihilation.”
On May 22, Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran to all Israeli shipping, cutting off Israel’s only supply route with Asia and stopping the flow of oil. King Hussein of Jordan entered a defense pact with Egypt and Nasser announced: “The armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon are poised on the border of Israel…to face the challenge, while standing behind us are the armies of Iraq, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and the whole Arab nation…we have reached the stage of serious action and not declarations”. The President of Iraq declared: “Our goal is clear-to wipe Israel off the map”. On June 4, Iraq joined the military alliance with Egypt, Jordan, and Syria.
465,000 troops, 2800 tanks, and 800 aircraft encircled the tiny, infant State of Israel. Israelis began preparing for the worst, digging graves in Tel Aviv, and preparing for a huge refugee crisis.
In a matter of six days, everything changed. On June 5th, the order was given to preemptively strike rather than wait to be attacked. At 7:14am, virtually the entire Israeli air force took off and within less than two hours approximately 300 Egyptian aircraft were destroyed. A few hours later Israeli fighters were sent to attack the Jordanian and Syrian air- forces as well as one airfield in Iraq. By the end of the first day, almost the entire Egyptian and Jordanian air forces and half of Syria’s had been destroyed.
The battle then moved to the ground and some of history’s greatest tank battles were fought between Egyptian and Israeli armor in the torrid conditions of the Sinai desert. While most IDF forces were fighting the Egyptians and Jordanians, a small heroic group of soldiers was left to defend the north against the Syrians. It wasn’t until the Jordanians and the Egyptians were defeated that Israel was able to send reinforcements to the Golan Heights where Syrian gunners had control of strategic high ground. After two days of heavy air bombardment, Israeli forces finally succeeded in breaking through Syrian lines. Ultimately the Jordanians joined the attack and in only three days, Israeli forces defeated the well-reputed Jordanian legions.
On the morning of June 7, the order was given to recapture the Old City of Jerusalem. Israeli paratroopers secured the city before Defense Minister Moshe Dayan arrived with Chief of Staff Yitzchak Rabin to formally mark the Jewish people’s return to their historic capital and holiest site. At the Kotel, Chief Rabbi Moshe Goren, blew a shofar to celebrate the event as the Jewish people stood praying at the Kotel for the first time in 2000 years.
In a completely defensive war - a war that nearly meant the end of the Jewish State - Israel not only defended herself but it had conquered three times as much territory as it had before. She unified Jerusalem and captured the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank. As David Sprung, who fought in the Six-Day War tells the MJE group I bring to Israel each summer: “What I saw was nothing short of a miracle”.
The Six-Day War was God’s way of reminding us that He is still with the Jewish people. As Jews were preparing for the worst, God demonstrated to us and to the entire world that we are not alone. As in the wilderness, when God counted the Jewish people, the success of the war demonstrated Hashem’s love for us by blessing the IDF with a great victory and with the gift of Yerushalayim. If we view Yerushalayim’s reunification as a modern expression of Hashem’s love for the Jewish people, we will cherish it that much more.
Im ehskachech yerushalayim, tishkach yimini - “if I forget thee O Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten”. To forget Jerusalem is to forget a part of who we are, and Hashem’s special love for His people.