Running in Place

(Originally published on May 25, 2017)

Parashat Bemidbar 5777

Rabbi Meir Sendor

We ended up staying in Tzfat during this week of festivities for the fiftieth anniversary of the Six Day War and the Liberation of Yerushalayim. Certainly Yerushalayim was the place to be, but we had a consolation prize: one of the renowned Israeli historians and tour guides, Elyada Bar Shaul, came to Tzfat to give a “talk” in the courtyard of the cultural center. I put this in quotes because this was a real “chavayah” as they say, not a lecture but a total experience. Elyada did not just reminisce about the extraordinary events of the Liberation of Yerushalayim. He inhabited his subjects, he brought people to life, he sang songs and got people singing, he recited reams of poetry by heart, he was riotously funny, he brought tears from the depths, he was by turns insightful and inspiring. The cultural references and allusions and associations came fast and furious. This was insider history to an insider audience which was spellbound and thrilled. As Olim Hadashim, even fairly knowledgeable ones, we caught maybe about half his references, but even that was enough to bring the extraordinary events of those amazing Six Days into vivid, high definition focus.

A central motif of his talk was how unprepared the Israelis were for what occurred. This assessment is echoed in many of the analyses that have been published recently. In the weeks leading up to the war, the government, the army, the Israeli people watched with mounting anxiety the noose of the gathering Arab armies tightening around them and agonized over how they were going to survive. When they not only survived but fought courageously and effectively and triumphed decisively, they were caught off balance by their success. Yerushalayim liberated, the Golan Heights in their hands, the West Bank in their hands – they had no real plan for all this, and had to improvise as they went along.

[In the 1972 film “The Candidate,” Robert Redford plays novice politician Bill McKay, chosen by the party to run in a hopeless Senate race. At the very end, when he wins the race against all odds, in the midst of the euphoria of the celebration, he turns to his campaign manager and asks: “Now what do we do?”]

Elyada acted out some of moments emblematic of the excitement and surprise. When the 55th Paratroopers Brigade entered the Old City, fought their way through the alleys and took control of the Temple Mount and their Commander Motta Gur announced “Har ha-Bayit be-yadenu – the Temple Mount is in our hands,” the rest of the units of soldiers ran towards the Kotel. As soldiers gathered there, Rabbi Goren, Chief Rabbi of the Military, famously blew the shofar. It was a deeply moving moment, with soldiers crying, tears of joy for the magnitude of what had occurred and tears of pain for fallen comrades. But it was also getting close to time for Tefillat Minchah. A heated discussion arose among the army chaplains. Some said “we should pray Minchah,” others said “this is not a regular day, this is a historic moment. After 2000 years Yerushalayim is back in our hands. We need to recite Hallel.” They recited Hallel from a tiny Army-issue Siddur. Then, according to Elyada, while most of the crowd prayed Mincha at the Kotel, Rabbi Goren and a small group of soldiers ran to the Temple Mount. Rabbi Goren was especially concerned to find the place of the Even ha-Shetiah, the Foundation Stone, site of the spot in the Holy of Holies upon which the Aron, the Holy Ark was placed – the holiest spot in the world. It does not correspond to the rock venerated by the Muslims (and there continues to be scholarly debate on its precise location). One of the soldiers came running up and announced he had found the Even he-Shetiah. Now it really was time to pray Minchah. The soldier was told to go be Shaliach Tzibbur, so he ran and stood on the stone, and was about to start to daven, then suddenly froze. He looked over to Rabbi Goren, shoulders shrugged, hands out and a look of perplexity on his face, and shouted: “What direction do I face?!”

In the Gemara Berakhot it lays out the principle for which direction to face when praying:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף ל עמוד א

היה עומד בחוץ לארץ – יכוין את לבו כנגד ארץ ישראל שנאמר: והתפללו אליך דרך ארצם; היה עומד בארץ ישראל – יכוין את לבו כנגד ירושלים, שנאמר: והתפללו אל ה’ דרך העיר אשר בחרת; היה עומד בירושלים – יכוין את לבו כנגד בית המקדש, שנאמר: והתפללו אל הבית הזה; היה עומד בבית המקדש – יכוין את לבו כנגד בית קדשי הקדשים, שנאמר: והתפללו אל המקום הזה; היה עומד בבית קדשי הקדשים – יכוין את לבו כנגד בית הכפורת; היה עומד אחורי בית הכפורת – יראה עצמו כאילו לפני הכפורת; נמצא: עומד במזרח – מחזיר פניו למערב, במערב – מחזיר פניו למזרח, בדרום – מחזיר פניו לצפון, בצפון – מחזיר פניו לדרום; נמצאו כל ישראל מכוונין את לבם למקום אחד.

If a person is standing outside the Land of Israel, he should direct his heart towards the Land of Israel… If he is standing in the Land of Israel, he should direct his heart towards Yerushalayim… If he is standing in Yerushalayim, he should direct his heart towards the Holy Temple… If he is standing in the Holy Temple, he should direct his heart towards the Holy of Holies… If he is standing in the Holy of Holies, he should direct his heart towards the covering of the Ark… If he is standing behind the covering of the Ark, he should see himself as standing before the covering of the Ark. So it turns out: standing in the East, he turns his face to the West; in the West, he turns his face to the East; in the South, he turns his face to the North; in the North, he turns his face to the South. So it turns out that all Israel directs their hearts to one place.

The guiding principle is that in prayer, wherever we are, we direct our hearts to God by way of facing towards the location of ultimate holiness on Earth, the place of the Holy Ark. What if you are standing on that very place? The Gemara doesn’t mention that possibility – because it’s unthinkable to stand there. In fact, most halakhic authorities hold that in our present time, without the ability to purify ourselves from contact with the dead through the ritual of the Red Heifer, no one is permitted to enter the more holy precincts of the Temple Mount, and certainly not the area of the Holy of Holies. They follow the position articulated by Maimonides that the Temple Mount, even in its state of destruction, retains its sanctity. There is a minority opinion of Rabbi Avraham ben David of Posquierres that when the Temple is in a state of destruction the Temple Mount loses its sanctity, and Rabbi Goren apparently held to that position. But no one had dreamed this moment would really come and no one looked ahead to address the questions it would raise. So it was with so many aspects of the new reality, the new world in which Israelis found themselves in those heady days. So they improvised.

This week’s parashah describes the layout of the Machaneh, the organized encampment that Bnei Yisrael maintained throughout their wanderings in the wilderness. The twelve tribes were positioned in four groups in the four cardinal directions around the camp of the Levi’im. The camp of the Levi’im was positioned in the four directions around the camp of the Kohanim, which surrounded the camp of the Shekhinah, the place of the divine Presence and divine revelation, in the Miskhan in the center. When the camp travelled, they also travelled in order, as it says in the Gemara Yerushalmi Eruvin 5:1: “As they encamped, so they travelled (Num. 2:17) – it connects their travelling to their encampment: just as their encampment was by the Divine Word, so their travelling by the Divine Word.” Whether set in place or on the move, Israel is guided by God.

When Bnei Yisrael settle in the Land of Israel, they face the challenge of transforming their nomadic existence into an agrarian society fixed in place. It’s not an easy transition. When King David plans to build a solid Temple for God in Yerushalayim, instead of the modest Mishkan of curtains and animal skins, God, through the prophet Natan, chides him:

Thus says the Lord: shall you build Me a house for me to dwell in? I have not dwelt in any house since that time I brought up the Children of Israel out of Egypt, even unto this day, but I have travelled in tent and tabernacle. In all the places where I have travelled with all the Children of Israel, did I speak a word with any of the rulers of Israel, whom I commanded as shepherds of my people Israel, saying ‘why do you not build Me a house of cedar (2 Sam. 7: 6-7)?”

Ultimately, Bnei Yisrael map the structure of the wilderness encampment onto the Land itself. According to the Mishnah Kelim 1:6-9, the ten levels of holiness of the encampment in the wilderness are projected onto the Land, starting with the basic holiness of Land of Israel itself and proceeding to the higher levels of Yerushalayim, the Temple Mount, the Temple courtyard, the Temple building and the Holy of Holies, corresponding to the structures of the wilderness camp and the moveable Mishkan. In this way, the settled nation retains a nomadic character: even while in place we are still like a camp the move.

The late great poet Yehuda Amichai understood this. In his cycle “Jerusalem, 1967,” he gives a dynamic description of the holy city:

יְרוּשָׁלַיִם עִיר נָמָל עַל שְׂפַת הַנֵּצַח.

הַר-הַבַּיִת אֳנִיָּה גְּדוֹלָה, סְפִינַת שַׁעֲשׁוּעִים

מְפֹאֶרֶת. מֵאֶשְׁנַבֵּי כָּתְלָהּ הַמַּעֲרָבִי מִסְתַּכְּלִים קְדוֹשִׁים

עַלִּיזִים, נוֹסְעִים. חֲסִידִים בָּרָצִיף מְנַפְנְפִים

לְשָׁלוֹם, צוֹעֲקִים הֵידָד לְהִתְרָאוֹת. הִיא

תָּמִיד מַגִּיעָה, תָּמִיד מַפְלִיגָה.

Jerusalem is a port city on the shore of eternity.

The Temple Mount is a great ship, a pleasure yacht

Magnificent. From the portholes of her Western Wall peer holy ones,

Jubilant, travellers. Hasidim on the pier wave

Goodbye, yelling hurrah, be-seeing-you. She

Is always docking, always embarking…


Yerushalayim among the Judean hills is a ship bobbing on waves. Starting with this image, Amichai goes deep into the spirit of Yerushalayim, of Israel, always on the move, even in place.

The fifty years since the Six Day War certainly have been complicated. The general approach of the Israeli government and military in the aftermath of the Six Day War was to try to be gracious in victory and extend a hand to the Palestinian population in its territory. The generosity was not appreciated and was turned against us. Politically, militarily, you could say that the great promise of those days has gotten bogged down in the continuing struggle against stubborn and cruel enemies. President Trump’s visit during this celebratory week, positive as it was in tone, reminds us that Israel is not entirely self-confident and self-reliant.

But this is not loss of promise. This is an ongoing war of moral principle in a morally corrupt region that needs to be engaged. Also this week Ruth Schwartz of Sharon, mother of Ezra, zekher kadosh livrakhah, spoke at the United Nations against the rewards the Palestinian Authority gives to terrorists who murder Jews, incentivizing further terror. We are deeply proud of Ruth, a gentle, modest, soft-spoken mother, for her courage in standing up and speaking out against those who have committed, aided and abetted the murder of her son and so many other innocent human beings. Ruth spoke not just for herself and her family but for all families who have lost loved ones to the cruelty of terrorism. In this way she exemplified the Jewish spirit, the Israeli spirit. We don’t just fight for ourselves. The struggle of Israel is for humanity, and it’s a long road.

So which way do you face when you are in the center of holiness? Every way – out to the whole world. In place, on the move.


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