When the Tests are Miracles
Divine Providence or coincidence? The choice – and challenge – is yours.
The Talmud relates that after the destruction of our Holy Temple, Rabbi Akiva and the Sages of Israel were walking on the streets of Jerusalem. As they came to the Temple Mount, they beheld a devastating sight. There, where the Sanctuary had once stood in majesty and splendor, where the Holy of Holies had been, were only ruins, and wild foxes were roaming about.
The Sages broke down and wept.
"Woe is us," they wailed, "that we have seen this with our own eyes."
But Rabbi Akiva did not weep. Instead, he smiled.
"How can you smile at such a time?" his colleagues asked, shocked.
"I smile," Rabbi Akiva answered, "because today I have seen the fulfillment of prophecy, for the same prophet who foretold the destruction also foretold that the Temple shall be rebuilt. The same prophet who prophesied our exile, also prophesied that we shall return to Jerusalem in joy. And so I smile, for now that the first part of our prophecy has come to pass, the second part will surely come to be."
"Akiva," the Sages declared, "you have comforted us."
Even in the darkest moments, we knew that God did not forget us.
That smile of Rabbi Akiva kept our people going throughout the centuries, and even in the darkest moments, we knew that God did not forget us.
From the ashes of Auschwitz we rose like a phoenix, and, by the grace of God, reinvented ourselves as a nation. We rebuilt the Torah academies that were once the pride and glory of European Jewry and raised a new generation of sons and daughters to live by the Law of God.
After almost 2,000 years, we returned to our ancient land, and we, the dry bones of the Holocaust, were joined by Jews from the four corners of the world. They came from the most remote places – places where we were unaware that Jews even existed – the sick, the lame, the battered, the downtrodden, the poor, and the broken-hearted – they all came. And also the strong, the wise, the learned, the successful, the idealistic. Together, we formed a mighty company and were witness to the beginning of the fulfillment of the prophetic ingathering of the exiles.
"Fear not, My people, Israel, for I am with you.
"I will bring your seed from the east and gather them from the west, and I will say to the north, 'give up,' and to the south, 'Keep not back, bring My sons from afar and My daughters from the ends of the earth" (Isaiah 43:5-6).
At the genesis of our history, the Land of Israel was a paradise on earth, and we lovingly tilled her soil. When we were taken into exile, God made a promise that the land would revert to a wasteland and await our homecoming. Many nations tried to settle her, to rebuild her ruins, and bring forth her fruit, but the land would not yield to any of them and stubbornly remained a desert of thistles and stones. Throughout the long, painful centuries of our exile, we were denied the right to own land and all but forgot how to work the soil, and yet, when we returned, overnight, we converted that desert into a garden; planted orchards, vineyards, and forests; built highways and cities; and were witness to the miracle of a dormant land come to life again.
"I will restore the fortune of My people, Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them. They shall plant vineyards and drink the wine and they shall plant gardens and eat the fruit" (Amos 9:14).
Even as we were blind to the wake-up calls of suffering, we were even more blind to the wake-up calls of blessings and victory.
During our infancy as a nation we defeated mighty kingdoms and were led in battle by valorous men like Joshua and David, but during our long torturous exile, we became fair game, to be reviled, attacked, and killed, and were denied the right to defend ourselves. And yet overnight, we, the battered remnant of the Holocaust, who had long forgotten how to fight, enlisted a powerful army and triumphed over more than one hundred million Arabs who had sworn to drive us into the sea. The awesomeness of it all should have given us pause, should have made us realize that God did not forget us, but even as we were blind to the wake-up calls of suffering, we were even more blind to the wake-up calls of blessings and victory.
In days of darkness, there are always those who turn to God, but in times of prosperity and success, it is easy to take God's blessings for granted. It is easy to become arrogant, easy to declare God's miracles "ordinary events," easy to delude ourselves into believing that "my strength and my might did all this" (Deuteronomy 8:17).
Nothing that occurs in life is a random event, that which we would term coincidence is also part of God's master plan. There are times, however, when the hand of God is hidden, but there are other moments when it is easier to discern His providence. Such was the time of the Six Day War. Not since Biblical times did we see miracles such as those we witnessed during that period. The combined forces of the Arab nations united to annihilate Israel. But it wasn't only the Arabs – former Nazi officers who had fled Germany at the end of WW II were ensconced in Cairo and Damascus and only too willing to share their Holocaust expertise. Russia not only encouraged and supported the Arabs, but provided them with the most sophisticated weaponry, as well as "advisors" to train them. Those were the days of the Cold War and the Communist countries eagerly supplied the Arabs with all the arms they needed. DeGaulle of France openly endorsed the Arabs and refused to deliver planes that Israel had paid for; England mouthed empty platitudes (they had already done their damage by training and equipping the crack Jordanian Arab Legion). The U.S. was mired in the war in Vietnam and President Lyndon Johnson told Abba Eban, the Israeli Foreign Minister, to practice restraint, while the State Department advised that U.S. involvement be limited to the framework of the UN. In short, the entire world was arrayed against Israel, and the Arabs were armed to the teeth.
Conventional wisdom saw Israel's defeat as a foregone conclusion. How could tiny Israel, overwhelmingly outnumbered, surrounded by enemies, prevail when no nation in the entire world was willing to help her? Once again, there was silence as the world readied itself for another Holocaust. But we, the Jewish people, were not silent, and in an unprecedented moment of unity turned to God in prayer and supplication.
I recall those days vividly. I remember how Jews who never went to synagogue, even on the High Holy Days, came to pray, and this held true not only for our community, but for Jews throughout the world. And more, we, the nation that had always been splintered, polarized, and divided, put aside our differences and became one in our love for Israel. Lines formed in front of every Israeli embassy, volunteers by the thousands offered their resources, their strength, their very lives.
In Israel itself, the nation responded above and beyond the call of duty. Debts were suspended and disputes were forgiven. Most adults were at the front. Youngsters took over the running of the social services and those who were in distant lands returned home to do battle for their country.
And then, the miracle occurred. In six lightning days, Israel vanquished all her foes and saw her enemies flee before her. The stories of the many miracles that took place in those days are legion and have yet to be recorded in the annals of history.
When the war began on June 5, 1967, the miracles quickly unfolded. The Israeli Air Force went forth on a hazardous mission. The Egyptians had prepared hundreds of missiles for their attack on Israel, but before their planes could take off or their missiles could be launched, Israel destroyed the combined air power of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq! Israel, with her outdated French Super Mystere fighters, destroyed the most sophisticated Russian MIGs on the ground.
Miracles are part of God's architectural plan. God does not have to overturn the laws of nature or create something that never before existed.
Many tried to explain the Israel Air Force's success rationally: "The Israelis flew below the Egyptian radar" – "Egyptian intelligence reports on the advancing Israeli aircraft never reached the Egyptian Commander in Chief" – "The night before Israel attacked, there was a big bash for the Egyptian brass, and early the next morning, the Egyptians met with a distinguished Iraqi delegation, so when Israel struck, the Egyptian High Command was not at its post," and so on.
But miracles do not mean that God has to overturn the laws of nature or create something that never before existed. On the contrary, miracles are part of God's architectural plan. On the sixth day, as God was about to complete His creation, He added supernatural events, making miracles part of nature. Nature itself is a miracle in which God's hand is constantly manifest. The very fact that Egyptian radar did not detect the Israeli planes, that intelligence reports failed to reach the proper ears, that commanding officers were busy partying on the night prior to the attack and were again diverted the following morning by a high level meeting with Iraqis, were all coincidences that were not coincidences, but miracles of God.
I have often had discussions with people who insisted that the miracle of the splitting of the Reed Sea was not a miracle at all, but low tide. Instead of arguing, I would tell them that, if the tide was low at the precise moment that the Jewish people had to cross, and suddenly rose again when the Egyptians entered the sea, that was miracle enough for me!
Call it what you will, but all the well-laid plans of the Arabs, the Russians, and their hate-mongering supporters, were foiled. As in days of yore, when Pharaoh and his host drowned in the sea while Israel went forth to the Promised Land, so too, Nasser, the modern Pharaoh, and his cohorts drowned and the Jewish people went forth to reclaim their ancient land.
When God's miracles are hidden in natural events, when we are far removed from spirituality, miracles can be dismissed as "luck," "coincidence," or just smart moves made by clever people.
As generations move farther away from that awesome spiritual moment when God spoke at Sinai, they also become less spiritual, less capable of believing in His involvement in their daily lives. But nature itself is no less miraculous than the supernatural. This concept is reinforced throughout our Torah and prayers. For example, in the second blessing of Shemoneh Esrei, the Silent Meditation, in which we praise God for bringing souls back to life, we also pronounce the blessing for rain, teaching us that one is no more difficult for God than the other.
There is a famous story in the Talmud about Rabbi Chanina's daughter, who was heartbroken when she discovered that she had mistakenly bought vinegar rather than oil for the Sabbath lamps.
"Don't worry, my daughter," the Rabbi assured her. "The same God Who decrees that oil should burn, can command that vinegar should do so as well." Hence the popular Yiddish saying, "If God wills it, a broom can shoot, but if not, even the most powerful weapon is of no avail."
A close study of the Torah will reveal that supernatural miracles are always couched in the natural: God feeds us manna in the desert, but He sandwiches the manna between two layers of dew so that their freshness appears natural. Prior to his death, God tells Moses to ascend to the mountain so that he may behold the entire land of Israel and the future history of our people.
But why? Why did Moses have to ascend to the mountain top to see all that? After all, it wasn't the height of the mountain that granted him vision. Nevertheless, the Almighty wished for Moses to ascend, thus clothing the supernatural in the natural.
And even the oft-quoted miracle of the splitting of the Reed Sea – this, too, was presented in the framework of the natural. The Torah tells us that an east wind blew the entire night prior to the onset of that miracle. Now surely, God could have split the sea without the east wind blowing. Nevertheless, God wanted us to understand that nature is equally miraculous.
Once we were exiled from our Holy Land, however, the equation changed. God's miracles became hidden, and the Purim story is a prime example of that. At first glance, there is nothing miraculous about the events that unfold in the Book of Esther. Everything could be attributed to natural causes, and to add to the enigma, God's Name is not even mentioned in the Megillah. Yet we know that the story of Purim is a miracle of colossal dimensions, so much so that our Sages declared it a holiday for all eternity, when we proclaim God's miracles with rejoicing, gratitude, and thanksgiving.
If, however, someone wishes to take the path of the agnostic, he can remain blind to God's role in history and deny that there is anything miraculous in that which unfolds before his very eyes. The choice is his or hers to make. Thus, if you wish, you can see the miracles inherent in the survival of the Jewish people – the ingathering of the exiles, the redemption of the soil, Israel's stunning victories in battle – or you can choose to ignore them all and declare them to be "ordinary events."
Our fate as Jews is not contingent on miracles, but on commitment.
Having said all this, I must point out that our fate as Jews is not contingent on miracles, but on commitment – Torah study, service and sacrifice. Whether we see God's beneficence or feel the sting of His rod, our loyalty remains constant.
If so, you might ask, what is the purpose of miracles? There are two popular words in the Hebrew language for miracles, "nes" and "os." Literally translated, "nes" means a "banner" and "os" means a "sign." Miracles serve as banners and signs through which God's Holy Name is glorified and sanctified – banners and signs that inspire people to sing His praises. And that was accomplished above and beyond all expectations during the Six Day War. The banners flew high, and we all saw the signs. There was a great Jewish spiritual awakening throughout the world – even if, shortly afterward, we reverted to our old ways. But those signs are there even if we have lost sight of them, and it is that which I would like to recall for us and for future generations in this, my concluding chapter.
THE MIRACLE OF JERUSALEM
As a little girl in Hungary, I knew very little of world geography. I had never heard of Paris, New York, or London, but I knew all about Jerusalem. The very words evoked a song in my soul and joy in my heart. It is written that Jerusalem received her name from the Almighty God Himself. It is comprised of two words: yira, to see, and shalem, which means peace, complete. When the patriarch Abraham ascended to Mount Moriah with his son Isaac, and perceived its sanctity, he proclaimed, "This is the place where God was seen!" And indeed, in Jerusalem you can feel and see holiness – you can feel God. It is like no other city. Throughout our long and painful exile, we never forgot her, but sang the immortal words of David, "If I forget you O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning...."
And Jerusalem, the Holy City, never forgot us, her children, but waited in solitude for our return.
In the early fifties, I made my first trip to Israel. I went to study and to teach newly arrived immigrants from Yemen. In those days, Jerusalem was a divided city. To see the Holy Wall in the Old City, we had to climb the tower of the YMCA building located opposite the King David Hotel, and there, armed with a pair of binoculars, we were able to catch a glimpse. The Old City was occupied by the Jordanian army, which savagely destroyed many of the gravesites on the Mount of Olives and used the monuments to pave roads and build latrines. Officially, Jordan had agreed that Jews would have the right to pray at the Wall, the only remnant of our ancient Temple, but they never kept that promise and defiled that holy site with refuse and the dung of donkeys.
Of all the Arab armies, Jordan's Arab Legion was the best trained and fiercest. Moreover, the border with Jordan was the most difficult to defend, so it was no surprise that, when King Hussein's army first attacked, the Israeli military was convinced that the shots were just tokens to accommodate Nasser, and that Hussein would not risk war. But Jordan kept pounding away, its artillery and bullets raining upon Jerusalem. Still, Israel requested the UN Truce Supervision Office to convey to Jordan assurances of peace. But it was all to no avail, and Israel had no choice but to open a second front. The Jordanians possessed hundreds of Patton tanks, and tens of thousands of Legionnaires, powerful warriors, equipped with the most sophisticated weapons, who were prepared to fight to the end. The battles were fierce and savage, made all the more complicated by orders given to Israeli paratroopers to avoid damaging the many sites in the Old City. Many brave young men were injured or lost their lives – the sacrifice was great, but so were the miracles.
The Holy City was not prepared for battle. There were hardly any bomb shelters to protect the civilian population. Shells fell and did not explode, and many that fell and did explode caused no injury. A shell landed on Shaarei Tzedek Hospital's baby nursery. Fearing the worst, nurses rushed in to save the infants, but miraculously, they were all unharmed. A shell penetrated the roof of the Mirrer Yeshivah but did not explode.
Over the centuries, Jerusalem was ravaged and sacked many times, but God made a promise that the Wall, the remnant of the Holy Temple, would stand eternally and bear witness to the homecoming of our people. And now, almost two thousand years later, the moment had come. I have read countless reports from journalists and soldiers who participated in the battle for Jerusalem, and all their stories had one focus – "the Wall."
Moshe Amirav, a paratrooper, describes the first minutes at the Wall: "Forward! Forward! Hurriedly, we pushed our way through the Magreb Gate, and suddenly we stopped, thunderstruck. There it was, before our eyes! Gray and massive, silent and restrained. The Western Wall!
"Slowly, slowly, I began to approach the Wall in fear and trembling, like a pious cantor going to the lectern to lead the prayers. I approached it as the messenger of my father and my grandfather, of my great-grandfather and of all the generations in all the exiles who had never merited seeing it – and so they had sent me to represent them. Somebody recited the festive blessing, 'Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who has kept us alive and maintained us and brought us to this time.' I put my hand on the stones and wept, but the tears that started to flow were not my tears. They were the tears of all Israel, tears of hope and prayer, tears of Hasidic tunes, tears of Jewish dances, tears that scorched and burned the heavy gray stone."
And who can forget the photograph of our soldiers standing in awe – just looking up at the Wall? And who can forget the report of the IDF radio announcer: "...Suddenly, we recognized the familiar voice of the commander of the paratroops brigade, Colonel Mordechai 'Motta' Gur, giving orders to the battalion commanders to occupy the Old City: 'Attention, all battalion commanders! We are sitting on the mountain range that looks down on the Old City, and are about to enter it. The Old City of Jerusalem that all generations have been dreaming about and striving toward. We will be the first to enter it.'
"With us on the roof," the announcer continued, "was General Shlomo Goren, at that time, the Chief Rabbi of the Israeli Army. Rabbi Goren informed Gur over the walkie talkie that he was on his way to meet him so as to be among the first to enter the Old City. As far as I remember, we were the only ones in the whole area running without helmets or weapons. Goren was armed only with a shofar and a prayer book and we carried only a tape recorder and a knapsack filled with batteries and rolls of recording tape.
"We ran, while trying to stay as close as we could to the Old City Wall to our right, but exposed to the sniper fire coming from the Mount of Olives on our left. As we ran, we passed two lines of paratroopers who were progressing carefully toward the Lions Gate. Goren was determined to get to the head of the line as quickly as possible. At the top of the street leading to the Lions Gate, we passed a still-smoking Jordanian bus. We stopped only at the Gate itself, which was blocked by an Israeli Sherman tank that had gotten stuck in the entrance. We climbed over the tank and entered into the Old City.
"Now the excitement reached its peak. Goren did not stop blowing the shofar and reciting prayers. His enthusiasm infected the soldiers, and from every direction came cries of 'Amen!'"
The shofar was sounded in Jerusalem and its call reached Jewish hearts in the four corners of the world. The effect was magical. Our people became spiritually rejuvenated. Even those who had never believed, those who were hardened agnostics, felt something in their hearts. The Wall called them, and despite themselves, they felt a need to respond, to touch its stones, to place a note with a prayer in its crevices, to pour out their hearts and cry.
My husband and I made a decision. We knew that no matter what, we too had to be there, and so we took our four small children and traveled to Jerusalem. The city was congested with people – there wasn't a hotel room to be had. For a moment, I panicked, but then my husband reminded me of the teaching of our Talmud: In Jerusalem, no one ever complained of discomfort, in the City of God, every man had a place, everyone was welcome.
It was Friday, Erev Shabbos, when we arrived, and there was no time to lose – the Queen Sabbath was quickly approaching and the entire city was readying herself for the arrival of the royal guest. Everywhere, stores were closing and public transportation was coming to a halt. As the siren was sounded, a stillness descended on the Holy City.
Suddenly, scores of people spilled into the streets. They came from every direction: young and old, men and women, Israelis and tourists, students and soldiers, pious Chassidim in long black coats and westernized Jews in business suits. They spoke in many tongues, espoused many ideas, and wondrously, they all merged into one. All of them were rushing, running to the same place, to the Wall.
We too, melted into the crowd. We didn't know our way, but we followed the others. My heart beat faster and I clutched my children's hands. I saw tears in my husband's eyes. We were in Jerusalem.
"Jerusalem's time has come," I answered, "and God Himself opened the gates."
We made our way through the dark alleyways. My son tugged at my sleeve. "Eema," he asked, "how did our soldiers do it? How did they liberate the city? How did they get through these gates, these alleys?"
"Jerusalem's time has come," I answered, "and God Himself opened the gates."
Then suddenly, without warning, the Wall was before us, more majestic than I could ever have imagined. We could not speak; there were only tears. For two thousand years we had waited for this moment. Our ancestors had prayed for this day. What would they not have given to stand here, even for a fleeting second, and yet they were denied the privilege. How strange that our generation, which was unworthy and wanting in faith, was the one to stand here in the presence of sanctity.
I looked up at the Heavens and searched for my grandfather. Surely the angels had gathered his ashes from Auschwitz and brought them as an offering to this very spot.
"Zeide, Zeide," I cried into the night, "please walk with me, for here I cannot stand alone."
All around us, people were praying and our voices became one with theirs. I poured out my soul. I looked up at the greenery sprouting from the crevices. Strange, I thought to myself, how these little branches grow without being watered. But then I saw the people around me and I understood from whence the branches received their nourishment. They were watered by the tears of a nation that had been waiting for two thousand years.
Walking back to our hotel we met a young soldier who had been among those who liberated Jerusalem. He told us about his best friend who had fallen on the Temple Mount on the very spot where once, long ago, the Altar had stood.
"I ran to my friend," he told us. "I tried to help him, but it was too late. I broke down and wept, and as I cried, I heard an eerie sound. It was the braying of a donkey echoing in the night. The donkey actually seemed to sob with me, crying in pain as if imploring to be allowed to carry Messiah into the Holy City."
Never before in the annals of mankind did a war last only six days.
Coincidence? Or was the seventh day begging to come? The seventh day that is all Sabbath, the day that is Messiah.
For a very brief moment, it appeared as if our people might just understand and be prepared to respond to this awesome challenge. But all too soon, the magic of the moment evaporated, and once again, we failed the test.
We reverted to our old ways – we congratulated ourselves on our success and came to take all those miracles for granted. Those of us who lived it have forgotten, and those who were not yet born were never touched by it.
The fundamental law of Jewish survival stipulates that we cannot assimilate or become "like all the other nations of the world." This law holds true not only in the countries of our exile, but in Israel as well. God did not bring us back to our ancient land so that we might become like all the other nations and convert Jerusalem into New York, Paris, or London.
Just consider the tragedy that has befallen us. To live in the Land of the Patriarchs and yet spurn their legacy; to speak Hebrew impeccably, and yet not know how to pray; to live in the Land of God, and yet lack faith in Him.
We have failed the test.
But even if we failed the test, even if we forgot God, He does not forget us. His covenant and love are eternal and He will continue to call us. If we are blind to His miracles, He will find other ways to awaken us. So it is that since those heady days of the Six Day War, we have suffered many painful wake-up calls, but sadly, we have remained impervious to all. Nevertheless, God continues to call. Many of us have heard the call, many are committed and live genuine Torah lives, but there are still so, so many who have yet to hear the call.
As we enter the final stages of our history, we have a choice – to stand straight and tall, to embrace with open arms and loving hearts our God-given covenant and sing His praise, or to continue to be blind and obdurate and delude ourselves into believing that we can live our lives without Him. But even as we stumble through the darkness, He will be holding our hand. He will not let go. He will not forget us. He will not forsake us. So let us return to Him with willing hearts, with love. Let us pass our test.