(EJNews) –Rabbanit Batya Friedman from Edmonton’s Beth Israel Synagogue will be co-leading a Jewish National Fund Mission in January 2017 with a group of Rabbis from a cross-section of Canadian congregations. She spoke from the bima on Yom Kippur last month, about the Mission. Her heartfelt address appears below:
The year was 1948. The United Nations had voted just a few months prior for the partition of British-mandate Palestine into two states, one Jewish, one Arab. The big day had come and the final officer of His Majesty was packing up and readying to leave Jerusalem.
Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre eloquently recount the story in their classic, O Jerusalem:
“Suddenly, as the last British column moved down the street, it stopped and veered left up a twisting cobblestone alley leading toward the vast domain of the Armenian Patriarchate. It stopped in front of the arched stones crowning the entry to No. 3 Or Chayim Street.
Inside, surrounded by his collection of ancient books and silver Jewish artifacts, Rabbi Mordechai Weingarten, the senior citizen of the Jewish Quarter, had passed the afternoon in the reassuring company of his sacred texts. Lost in his thoughts, he hesitated a moment at the knock at his door.
He got up, put on his black vest and jacket, adjusted his gold-rimmed spectacles and his black hat, and stepped into the courtyard. There before Weingarten stood a middle aged British major wearing the yellow and red insignia of the Suffolk Regiment. From his right hand dangled a bar of rusted iron almost a foot long. With a solemn gesture he offered it to the elderly rabbi. It was a key, the key to the Zion Gate, one of the seven gates to the Old City of Jerusalem
“From the year 70 AD until today, “he said, “a key to the gates of Jerusalem has never been in Jewish hands. This is the first time in eighteen centuries that your people have been so privileged.”
Weingarten extended a trembling hand to accept the key. Jewish legend held that on the night the Roman Emperor Titus destroyed the Temple, its despairing priests had thrown the keys of Jerusalem to heaven crying “G-d, henceforth be Thou the guardian of the keys”. Now the improbable agent of their return to Jewish hands stood to attention and saluted.
“Our relations have not always been easy,” he said “but let us part as friends. Good luck and goodbye.”
“Blessed art Thou, O Lord,” murmured Weingarten. “Who had granted us life and sustenance and permitted us to reach this day.”
Then, addressing the Englishman, he said, “I accept this key in the name of my people”.
Continuing the story, Rav Doron Perez of Mizrachi narrates: “As we all know, the keys to Jerusalem would not remain in Rav Weingarten’s hands for long. The Old City would fall barely two weeks later and all Jewish residents of the Old City were banished. The ancient Hurva Synagogue was detonated and blown up, and all but one of the dozens of synagogues of the Old City were destroyed. The commander of the Arab Legion of the Old City Colonel Abdulla El-Tell was moved to see the final Jew leave the Old City and was quoted saying, “For the first time in 1,000 years not a single Jew remains in the Jewish Quarter. Not a single building remains intact. This makes the Jews’ return here impossible.”
This year is a momentous year – 5777 – as the Rabbi spoke on the first night of Rosh Hashanah on how we’re on a 50-year cycle – something big happens. 150 years ago Canada became a country, 100 years ago Balfour issued his historic Declaration – “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” – that was huge; it is huge for a secular government to recognize our own country as our own – we can appreciate this now more than ever when we have our neighbors telling us we don’t have a right to exist. And then just fifty years ago the reunification of Jerusalem occurred. On the third day of the six-day war in 1967 Jerusalem – Yerushalayim was returned to us.
In order to appreciate what this means, let me remind you that our holy capital has been in the hands many, captured and recaptured 44 times, attacked 52 times, besieged 22 times and destroyed twice! Prior to the 1967 event – for 1900 years we did not have sovereign control on Jerusalem. Since our holy temple – the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed – there have been kings, rulers, sheikhs, pontiffs, who have been controlling the city. Even in 1948 when the State of Israel was established, Jerusalem was divided between Israel and Jordan. And so when Colonel El-Tell removed every single Jew from the Jewish quarter it felt even worse.
As Rabbi Perez continues: “Of course El-Tell was wrong to even think for a second we could not return. Only 19 years later, during the miraculous Six Day War and through an extraordinary and unexpected turn of events, the Old City of Jerusalem, the Kotel and Temple Mount would return to Jewish sovereign control for the first time in almost two millennia. This time, the person to receive ‘the keys’, so to speak, was not the elderly Rabbi Weingarten, but the Chief Rabbi of the Israel Defence Forces, Rav Shlomo Goren who, along with the young paratroopers, were the emissaries of the Jewish people to be the guardians of ‘the keys’ once again.
One of the people who expressed this moment so beautifully was General Uzi Narkis, the Head of the Central Command at the time and commander of the liberating forces of Jerusalem. In his book The Liberation of Jerusalem, he describes the moment of his arrival at the Western Wall:
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 millennia 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.’”
For the last ten days we have been in a mode of self reflection, repentance, thinking about the past year and how we can improve in the next. We ask Hashem to forgive us for the sins we committed and we pray for health, happiness and prosperity. But there’s one kind of sin that our Sages tell us that no matter how hard we pray, we cannot rectify. What is that?
One of the earliest stories in the Bible is that of Noah and the Great Flood. The world was corrupt. People were stealing from each other. Immorality was rampant. Murder was commonplace. And so G-d decided that enough was enough. He called upon Noah to build a great ark, a boat that would protect his family and the animals from the total destruction he would bring upon the inhabitants of planet Earth.
Fast forward just a few generations and the world is full of people once again. This time, the people gather in Bavel and decide to build a tower to reach the Heavens. They thought they could be G-dlike, they thought they could conquer G-d. Can you imagine the chutzpah, the audacity of these mortal men? To think they could in any way relate as equals to Heaven? What does G-d do? He disperses them to the four corners of the earth and creates 70 distinct languages.
Why didn’t He destroy them? After all, they had rebelled against Him! Think about it, if a mortal king found a movement that had staged coup, it would be off with their heads! Why did G-d destroy the generation of the Flood but showed mercy to the generation of the Tower of Bavel?
Because, while they might have rebelled against their Father in Heaven, they cooperated with each other and tolerated one another’s differences. Although the people of all different stripes were going up against the Creator trying to build a tower to reach Him –there was unity!
That is the one sin that Yom Kippur cannot atone for – misdeeds between man and man – the only way to atone for those sins is to ask forgiveness from the individual.
The last time we had sovereignty over Jerusalem was when we had our holy temple. Our sages tell us that the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed because of sinat chinam – intolerance of one another. And the way it will be rebuilt is with ahavat yisrael – love for each other, no matter their background or beliefs. On that incredible day in June 1967, we came one step closer by having a unified holy city.
For the past half century, we have celebrated Yom Yerushalayim on the 28th of Iyar. Here in Edmonton for the last couple of years the Jewish community united to commemorate the reunification of Jerusalem. Organizations across the city came together and presented a fun family event to celebrate this momentous occasion. This year it falls on May 24th and we look forward to an epic event celebrating the 50-year anniversary together with our brothers and sisters around the world.
Why do we blow the shofar at the conclusion of Yom Kippur? The call of the shofar is the call of return. Not only for teshuvah but to return to our roots, our homeland, the return to Zion, our primordial state of perfection. And so we cry out in unison, “L’shana haba b’Yerushalayim!” Our Rabbis explain that it symbolizes the sounding of the shofar in the Jubilee year – in Temple times, on the 50th year, the shofar was blown on Yom Kippur in Jerusalem declaring freedom for all.
But it’s not enough to merely pay lip service to Jerusalem and unity. Tonight, when we hear the sounding of the shofar, I will be putting my proverbial money where my mouth is, and I am asking you to join me.
In January, JNF Canada is organizing a Unity Mission to Israel with all denominations to travel together. When they asked me to join the leadership in this mission – I knew this was the ultimate way to please our Father in Heaven. While I may not see eye to eye with the reform or conservative movement it doesn’t mean that I can’t love another fellow Jew and be alongside him in the holy city. Even though I don’t see eye to eye with some of the charedi lifestyle doesn’t mean I can’t respect them or love them just the same. Hashem cares that we love each other even more than he cares that we love Him. We need to come together and accept our differences and learn to love each other instead of constantly judging one another.
In our short lifetimes, fifty years may feel like a long time, but in the great course of history, it’s a blip. It’s a miracle and we mustn’t take it for granted. If we fail to love one another, nothing is guaranteed. Let’s resolve to put our differences aside and unite in Jerusalem.
Let me conclude by clearing up a mistranslation that a lot of people make. L’shana haba b’Yerushalayim doesn’t mean ‘Next year in Jerusalem;’ it means ‘For the coming year in Jerusalem.’ Not next year. Not in ten years. But in the coming year. Right now. We are honoured that Edmonton is being recognized by JNF for this mission, now let’s show them they made the right choice!
Batya Friedman is Rabbanit at the Beth Israel Synagogue in Edmonton. She is also the coordinator for the Capital Region Interfaith Housing Initiative – Religious and spiritual communities working together to end homelessness in Edmonton and area.