The thundering sounds of artillery fire echoed through the valleys beneath the Golan Heights and across the Sea of Galilee. All across the Northern border with Syria, civilians were huddled in their bunkers and bomb shelters, wondering when this latest round of violence would abate.
On the face of it, this was nothing new; for nineteen years the Israeli citizens of the North had endured an almost daily barrage of shellfire from the Syrian guns perched in the Heights above. In fact, an average of one thousand shells a day fell on the Kibbutzim, towns, and villages within range of the Golan, when the Syrian army had control of the Heights.
But this time it was different. It was June of 1967, and Israel had finally decided enough was enough.
For five weeks, Israel, in response to the Arab armies massed on her borders, had mobilized her reserves, and the economy had ground to a halt; it was a situation Israel could not hope to maintain.
For months now, the radio waves all across the Arab Middle East were filled with calls for Israel’s destruction, and Nasser, the president of Egypt, vowed daily that the Arab armies would, finally push Israel into the Sea; the entire country was waiting for war.
And so, on June 6, 1967, the Six-Day War finally began, with Israel’s lightning strike against the Egyptian air force. Catching over eighty percent of the Egyptian air force on the ground, the war was practically won in the first few hours of fighting, as Israel took uncontested control of the skies.
On the third day of the war, a delegation of citizens from the North came to see the Israeli Prime minister, Levi Eshkol. They demanded a solution once and for all, to the constant, unprovoked Syrian artillery barrages stemming almost daily from atop the Golan Heights. Things had gotten so bad, parents didn’t even bother putting children to sleep in their own beds, preferring to tuck them into beds in the bomb shelters, rather than wake them up in the middle of the night when the sirens went off. Farmers went to the fields in armored tractors, and the fishermen on the lake plowed the waters in armored boats.
Which was why this time the artillery howling down off the Golan was different; it was no longer unprovoked. The Israelis had done the unthinkable; they had decided to take the Golan Heights. Gambling that the Syrians would never expect a surprise attack on such strategically superior positions, the Israelis were climbing the hills in an attempt to remove, once and for all, the Syrian guns terrorizing the citizens of the North.
The battle was not just about a piece of real estate; at stake was Israel’s right to live in peace, and her responsibility to protect her citizens from aggression. Finally, after nineteen years of unremitting terror, Israel had an opportunity to set the North free; there would be no second chance.
In the northern thrust, the elite Golani brigade was in trouble. Apparently, aerial reconnaissance photos, which had been misinterpreted as pathways across the mountain terraces capable of supporting tanks, proved to be an illusion. The lines were really the marks separating the terraces up the side of the mountain, and were completely impassable to armor, so the infantry found themselves all alone.
Everything came to a head on the slopes beneath the Syrian fortifications at Tel Facher. The Syrians had spent an inordinate amount of time building this defensive position, as it was clear that this was the gateway to the entire Golan Heights. The Israelis, caught in an impossibly exposed position, with no armor support, and with quarters too close for real artillery and air support were being forced into almost single file up the mountain path, as they encountered intense defensive positions including mines and barbed wire.
Tel Facher was dangerously close to becoming the turning point of the war. The advance up the mountain ground to a halt.
The Syrian artillery was now concentrating on a single three-foot wide stretch of dirt where the Israelis were stuck on the barbed wire, within range of the Syrian machine-gun nests above. The boys from Golani were being cut to pieces.
Enter one David Shirazzi. Shirazzi, not an officer, and in fact not even a sergeant, had already been wounded in the fighting but refused to let the platoon medic evacuate him, insisting on staying with his unit moving their way up the hill. He had spent the better part of three years with these men, and they were more than just members of his unit; they were his brothers.
They say he looked up that hill, and knew there was no way he would make it to the top; the climb was too steep, his wounds were too great, and the merciless hammering of the artillery and machine gun fire meant there was nowhere to go.
The rows of barbed wire, normally such a simple obstacle, were, because of the terrain, proving to be the undoing of the Golani brigade. The narrow approach meant only one man at a time could approach the wire, which gave the Syrian machine gunners more than enough time to cut the Israelis down, one by one.
There is a powerful teaching in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the fathers):
“Be’makom She’Ein Ish, Hishtadel Le’hiyot Ish.”
” In a place where there is no man, try to be that man.”
Someone had to do something, and in that place at that moment, with the Golan and the entire Seventh Brigade hanging in the balance, Shirazzi was that man.
Shouting out one word, “Alai” (“On me”) over and over again, he leapt forward and threw himself on top of the barbed wire transforming himself into a human bridge over which the men could run across and storm the Syrian positions. With tears in their eyes as they trampled over his body, the men of Golani took heart from Shirazzi’s example, and reclaimed the Golan Heights.
Only three men eventually reached the top of Tel Facher, but it was enough. On June 12, 1967, the Syrian guns on the Golan Heights finally went silent. Two thousand years after the Roman legions had exiled them; the Jewish people had finally come home to the ancient mountaintops of the Bashan.
One wonders what gives a man the strength to pursue something he knows he will not finish. David Shirazzi, who is memorialized for eternity in the Golani museum at Tsomet Golani, had no illusions that he would ever reach the top of the Golan, yet he kept moving up that hill to get as far as he could, clinging to the belief that he could still make a difference.
Last week we read the weekly portion, Ha’azinu. The song of Ha’azinu, is Moshe’s swan song. Moshe shares Judaism’s vision of the future with the second generation, poised on the banks of the Jordan River, ready to enter, at long last, theland ofIsrael. But Moshe himself will not be going with them.
Having appointed Joshua (at G-d’s command) as his successor, Moshe is getting ready to say goodbye; he will not enter the landof Israelwith his beloved people. With the song of Ha’azinu, he is leaving them his legacy: the recipe for what the world is meant to be, and how to avoid the pitfalls of what it so often ends up becoming.
The song of Ha’azinu has as its theme the idea that as a people, no matter what mistakes we make, we can always go back and become the people we are meant to be.
One wonders what gave Moshe, perhaps the most tragic figure in the Bible, the strength to go on, knowing he would never get to finish what he had started.
Even more challenging is the fact that the following week we will read the Torah’s last portion (Ve’zot HaBeracha), and the Torah will end before the Jewish people even enter theland ofIsrael.
The Torah speaks so often of “Ki Tavo’u El Ha’Aretz”, “When you will come to the land”, and seems to have as its goal the return of the nation Israel to its homeland, which it had left as the family of Yaakov nearly three hundred years earlier. So why does it end now? Why isn’t the book of Joshua, which sees the Jewish people cross the Jordan River and enter theland ofIsrael, included in the Torah?
How can we spend so much time preparing for the realization of the dream to be a nation in our own land, and then stop short of seeing it come true?
In truth, Jewish tradition is replete with instances of individuals who do not see their dreams through to fruition, as well as tasks begun but not completed.
Joshua, Moshe’s successor, is given the mission of both conquering thelandofIsrael(whose borders are defined not by committee but by G-d,) and dividing the land amongst the tribes. But most of the land is neither conquered nor apportioned in his lifetime. In fact, some portions of thelandofIsraelas defined in the Bible were never conquered!
The Jewish people, prior to entering the land are given the mission of building a Mikdash, a permanent edifice as G-d’s sanctuary, something that does not happen for nearly four hundred years, and King David himself, who dreamed of building this Temple, does not live to see it happen, just as Abraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov do not live to see the birth of the nation of Israel.
And this pattern continues, as with Eliyahu (Elijah) the prophet, whose mission to reform the nation ofIsraeland rid her of idolatry is not only ever realized, but may well be described as an abysmal failure, at least within the context of the plain text.
All of which must challenge us to consider the very nature of setting goals in the first place. What does it mean to set goals?
We find ourselves at the beginning of a new Jewish year, with the power of resolutions, goals, and objectives very much on our minds. It has become an accepted truism in our society, that in order to accomplish things one needs to set goals and objectives. But what is the nature of these goals? How does one arrive at goals that are realistic, and is there a system for ensuring that such goals are achieved? If one cannot or does not achieve some or all of those goals, does that necessarily imply failure?
There is a fascinating statement in Ethics of the Fathers (Avot 2:21) that may shed light on this topic:
“Lo Alecha HaMelacha Ligmor, Velo’ Atah ben Chorin Le’Hibatel Mimenah’”
“It is neither incumbent upon you to finish the task, nor are you free to desist from it.”
Apparently, the Mishnah is suggesting here, that while I cannot ignore projects, challenges, perhaps even mitzvoth that come my way, I am not responsible to see such items through to their satisfactory completion.
Why not? Why am I not responsible to complete any and every project that comes my way, especially once I have taken on such responsibilities?
Can there be nothing wrong with a person who makes a commitment to take on a given project and then backs out in the middle, without seeing it through? Indeed what value is there to the enterprise if there is no obligation to attain the goals that have been set?
Perhaps the issue at stake here is not whether we complete our goals and tasks, but rather how we achieve them.
The idea that I can complete something, anything, on my own, stems from the illusion that in this world we are ever really alone.
Imagine setting the goal of climbing Mount Everestthis year. Could such a goal ever really be yours to complete alone? So much thought, effort and work goes into the planning for such an expedition. And so many different people have to commit to do so many different things, to see such a project through to its natural conclusion. How arrogant would it be to declare publicly ‘this year I will climb Mount Everest’? And what a healthy dose of reality it would be to realize in all of the goals that we set for ourselves, just how much we really need each other, to really achieve them. In fact, perhaps this Mishnah (teaching) in Ethics of the Fathers is suggesting just how valuable a habit it would be to recognize this truth in everything we do.
Whether we are setting the goal of studying Torah or losing weight, do we really take the time to stop and consider just how much I need help to successfully achieve this goal? If there is salad in the fridge for me to cut up, in order to have a healthier lunch, who went to the supermarket and bought the salad? And what a gift that we live in a world where such food is so readily available? Do we ever thank the farmers who toil in the fields so that we have such bounty so readily available?
And of course, there would be no crops in the fields, let alone vegetables in the supermarket if there were no rain. When we walk out of the house in the morning only to discover the rain beginning to fall, do we really appreciate what a gift that is? If G-d did not provide the rain, in the end, where would be? How many people in Africa orIndia take rainfall for granted?
Are we ever really alone, in anything we do?
This is not to say, of course that we are not meant to take responsibility for our role in any given venture, and even to imagine we are alone when we do our bit.
Confronted with G-d’s conclusion (in the sin of the Golden calf), “Heref Mimeni Va’Ashmidem”, “Leave me be and I will destroy them”, The Talmud (Berachot 5a) has Moshe responding: “Ein Ha’Davar Talui Elah Bi”, “This thing then, is dependent only on me”.
It is certainly important in life to recognize that we make a difference, and that we have the power to climb mountains and change the world, all on our own. But this must always be coupled with a healthy dose of reality concerning just how much we really do need each other. And of course when this idea begins to permeate my thought consciousness on a constant basis, it changes the way I look at the world, and everything and everyone in it.
Anyone who has ever built a company will agree that any successful business venture depends on teamwork. The attitude that the company is ‘mine’ is not just unhealthy, it also isn’t true. And the best way to inspire the people who work with you is to do away with the illusion that they work for you. The successful surgeon recognizes that all alone in an operating room, he could never be all that he was meant to be. It is only with the nurses and interns, the anesthesiologists and technicians upon whom he or she absolutely depends, that the operation can be a complete success. And however skilled his or her hands are, they too, are in the end, a gift from the ultimate One upon whom we all depend; the only true One.
What an incredible world this could be, if only we could all embrace this idea. The absurdity of war would be akin to my hand fighting with my foot as to who is really in charge. In the end, if my hands and feet were fighting with each other, I would never be able to get out the door, much less get anything done.
The isolationist policy, as an example, of theUnited Statesprior to World War II, was not just a mistake; it simply wasn’t true. We are not really separate nations, we are in the end all of us, one world, and we are all partners in building that world.
Perhaps this is at the root of the way in which the Torah ends.
When one man accomplishes so much, it is easy to forget how much he still needs to be perceived as part of the team. Of all the individuals that ever walked the earth, Moshe reached a level that most people never come close to even comprehending. Moshe somehow achieves the ultimate ‘I-Thou’ relationship, speaking to G-d face to face, (whatever that means). And when you get that high, it is easy to forget that you don’t get there on your own.
So the Torah ends before we get into thelandofIsrael, making the point that for all his greatness, he didn’t do it all; he merely set the stage. Moshe gets the Jewish people out ofEgyptand through forty years in the desert with all the challenges that entails. But in the end, even he can’t do it all, he has simply prepared the way for Joshua to bring the Jewish people home. Moshe alone, without Joshua, would be teaching Torah to a Jewish people still languishing in the desert. The book of Yehoshua, coming as it does after the five books of Moses are completed, sends a powerful message that we are always part of a larger picture.
And in the beginning of this week’s portion, Ha’azinu, Moshe very clearly introduces this idea to the Jewish people before they enter theland ofIsrael.
Shortly, when the Jewish people enter the land, the miracles that are obviously apparent in the desert, will cease. There will be no more Manna from heaven that provide food daily, no clouds of glory to protect the warriors as they conquer the land, and no pillar of fire to light the way. And it will be so easy to forget that we are not alone, and it is not really us who are doing all the work. Moshe exhorts the second generation, who did not grow up inEgyptnor see the wonders of the Exodus and the splitting of the Sea, never to forget that they are not alone. That in all that we do, Hashem is always there.
Incredibly, Hashem says to us, that He does not want to be alone either. Hashem wants us to participate in this world as partners, building the land, and making this a better world.
“Ha’azinu Hashamayim Va’adabera, Ve’Tishma Ha’Aretz Imrei Phi.”
“Hearken heavens, and I will speak, and let the land hear the words of my mouth.”(Devarim 32:1)
The heavens and the earth are a balance, between all that we can do here on earth, and the fact that we on earth, are ultimately in a partnership with heaven. And if we think that we of the earth are doing it all, then ultimately we will not be doing it at all.
“Ya’arof Ka’Matar Likchi, Tizal KaTal Imrati….”
“Let my sayings slice down like the rain, and let my words flow like the dew.” (32:2)
Rainfall is the ultimate reminder that we are not alone. However much we plan, however hard we work in cultivating our fields, in the end, it will depend on the rainfall, which is completely out of our control.
And of course, this is true for all the ‘fields’ we cultivate: Our businesses and projects, our homes and our families; ultimately they are all ‘rain’ from heaven.
“Ki Shem Hashem Ekra, Havu’ Godel Le’Elokeinu.”
“For I will call out the name of G-d; bring greatness to G-d.”( 32:3)
Greatest of all, Hashem allows us, even wants us to be His partners, allowing His greatness to be dependent on us. It is not accidental, suggests Jewish tradition that the rain inIsraelfalls so intermittently. It teaches us to appreciate it, and reminds us of how much we need it. Ultimately we develop a healthy desire for it. This, in the end, is all Hashem asks for: Hashem just wants us to want what He wants to give. How alone or together we really are in this world, will ultimately depend on us. We have the ability to bring G-d into this world so that one day the entire world will rejoice in the knowledge that we are never really alone.
Our goals this year will become valuable not by virtue of what they are, but rather by virtue of how they are. If my goals for this year are not jut about me, but about all of us, and if even those goals that are about me, are really about the ‘me’ that wants to be there for all of us, then those goals are not just mine; they have the potential to be everyone’s. And what an incredible year that would bring.
Whenever I found myself in difficult battle situations, whether inLebanonor the Gaza Strip, there was a particular sentence of Maimonides that stayed with me.
In his Laws of Kings, (7:15) Maimonides suggests that when a soldier enters the battlefield in a war to protect the people of Israel, “Yish’an Al Mikveh Yisrael”, “Let him lean on the wellspring of Israel”.
However lonely and desperate it may become on the field of battle, a Jewish soldier draws his strength from the sanctity and love of the entire Jewish people, who are mystically carrying him on their shoulders.
For David Shirazzi it was never about whether he made it up that hill, and I suspect it wasn’t even about his entire unit, or even his brigade. On that terrible afternoon at Tel Fachar, David Shirazzi was carrying the entire Jewish people on his shoulders. And while some of us might consider that a burden too heavy to bear, I suspect for Shirazzi it just made it clear that he was not alone. He was leaning on the wellspring of the entire nation ofIsrael.
Wishing all of us a sweet, happy, and healthy New Year, full of Joy and blessing for us all,
Gemar Chatimah Tovah,
Rav Binny Freedman