O Jerusalem! Parashat Bahaalotecha

Isn’t it amazing the things from childhood that stick in one’s mind?  Why do we remember some things, and not others?  Psychologists tell us that events which are emotionally charged with surprise, joy, anger, shame, or fear are more frequently recalled than neutral ones.  As Maya Angelou says, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

I remember one such event with my father that occurred on April 12, 1963. That night, my dad and I were watching the Jack Paar show. I know the date, because I was able to find information on the broadcast of this particular show on the internet.  It was a Friday night, and there was no school the next day, so I got to stay up late! Jack Paar was showing some home movies of his recent trip to Jerusalem in honor of Good Friday. I remember watching with my dad as donkeys carried satchels on their backs through the dusty streets of the Old City. That is all I can remember of the show. But I clearly can remember the conversation that occurred afterwards.  Turning to my father I asked, “Wouldn’t you love to go visit Jerusalem someday?” My father answered, that no, he did not want to visit Jerusalem someday. He had been there as a soldier during World War ll and he had not been impressed. It was hot, and dusty, and smelly, he said. It was not a place to which he had any desire to return.

I have to admit that I felt deeply disappointed and let down by my Father’s response. And I felt confused, because I knew Judaism was very important to my father. How could he NOT want to visit Israel? We had been learning about Israel in our Hebrew School and I, at least, was very interested in going. I remember in the 6th grade scouring the current events magazine for schoolchildren, “My Weekly Reader” for news of Israel, and never finding a mention of it. That disappointed me too!  Now my Dad not only said he did not wish to visit Israel, but he had strong negative feelings about Jerusalem, our Holy City! I did not yet understand that the Old City was under Jordanian rule and was not part of Israel proper. I also did not understand that, while,  Jack Paar , a Christian, was permitted to visit Christian holy sites in the Old City,  Jews were barred from visiting any of the Jewish holy sites that the Jordanians had been unable to destroy when they captured the city in 1948.

A few weeks ago, Rabbi Mitch Wohlberg of Baltimore wrote a sermon that helped me to understand my father’s attitude toward Israel so many years ago. In 1966, Mitch Wohlberg was a 22 year old graduate of Yeshivah University with a Master’s Degree in English. His father, a prominent Orthodox rabbi, had been a delegate to the World Zionist Congress in 1935 and rose to become President of the Religious Zionists of America, an Orthodox Israel advocacy group. As a child and young adult, Rabbi Wohlberg recalls prominent Israeli religious and political figures speaking at his father’s synagogue and having dinner at their home. Yet Rabbi Wohlberg writes that he felt very little connection with these people. Israel, he says, seemed so distant to him. His father’s guests might have been from Afghanistan, or China for all it mattered!   When he married in 1966, he and his wife were given Israel Bonds that, they were told, could be cashed in when they went to Israel. But they had no intention of going to Israel either! They were honeymooning in Caribbean!

Rabbi Wohlberg goes on to tell us how his feelings towards Israel changed a year later. On June 7, 1967, Israeli Defense Forces Paratroopers advanced through the Old City of Jerusalem toward the Western Wall, bringing this holiest of Jewish sites under Jewish control for the first time in 2000 years. The lightening victory in the Six Day War of Israel over the combined forces of Egypt, Syria and Jordan captured the imagination of people all over the world. Overnight the image of the Jew as weak cowards was replaced by one of the Israeli soldier, combat helmet in hand, Uzi slung over his shoulder, gazing in awe at the Western Wall. Shortly after the victory, Rabbi Wohlberg and his wife did travel to Israel. In his sermon he writes about the transformative effect that this post Six Day War visit to Israel had on his life:

“All of a sudden, words of Torah that I had been taught as a child were unfolding before my very eyes.  All of a sudden, there was talk of the Temple Mount and the Beit Ha-mikadesh.  All of a sudden, there were victorious Jewish soldiers and there was talk of the return of the Maccabees……….And I was never the same.  Being Jewish was no longer an accident of birth.  It was a source of pride!”  …………. “All of a sudden,” he writes, “I could trade in the bonds and was loaded with cash.  All of a sudden, my Masters in English lost all meaning and I wanted to be a rabbi.”

If the son of a leading Orthodox rabbi so involved in Israel could feel so disengaged from Israel prior to the Six Day War in 1967, I can understand how my Dad, the son of a small grocer in Northeastern Pennsylvania, could have felt so detached  from the Jewish state back in 1963. For many Jews around the world, that apathy was transformed into pride fifty years ago this week. Whereas in 1963 I longed to see Israel featured at least one time in “My Weekly Reader”, suddenly Israel was all over the news – and it has stayed that way!

 The news of Israel’s victory even penetrated the Iron Curtain. Natan Sharansky, who would go on to achieve world-wide fame as a symbol of Soviet Jewry, was a 19 year old at the time of the Six Day War. He writes about the effect the Israeli capture of Jerusalem had on Soviet Jews who were denied the right of religious expression by the communist government:

“And while we had no idea what the Temple Mount was, we did know that the fact that it was in our hands had won us respect. Like a cry from our distant past, it told us that we were no longer displaced and isolated. We belonged to something, even if we did not yet know what, or why.”

Our Haftorah for this week, from the Prophet Zachariah, begins with the stirring words, “Rejoice and be glad, O Jerusalem, for G-d returns to dwell in your midst….. G-d will choose Jerusalem once more.” Fifty years ago this week that hope for a return to Jerusalem expressed by the Prophet Zacheriah was fulfilled as the young nation-state of Israel captured the Holy City and began a new chapter in the story of the Jewish people.

Shabbat Shalom