In 1973, in the days leading up to the tragic Yom Kippur War in Israel, I was in California, just entering the 4th grade. A transition occurred for the students between 3rd and 4th grades when we all moved from the lower grade teachers to the upper grade teachers. Since the students were separated into two distinct groups, I went from being the big man on campus, to the small one. I remember it being a little scary, as the 6th graders roved the campus looking for a little newbie to pick on. This was paramount in my mind, as you can imagine, but I also have a vague memory of my dad watching the news in the evening and wondering out-loud about the Middle East and its chaotic state. I don’t remember what he said, as much as the feeling that he exuded into the atmosphere. He was at a loss as to why the world was like it was. It just didn’t make any sense. I mean, even today it doesn’t seem to make any sense and the world is still enmeshed, smack in the middle of the chaos of the Middle East. Everyone is still saying that they want peace and everyone is still saying that if everyone else would just do what they say, there would be peace. And now that the world stage is engaged in another round of forced dialog for peace in the Middle East, I can’t seem to get away from the idea that all these players seem to just want the lime-light in order to claim their 15 minutes of fame. And all ‘the little people’ you ask? They are all left feeling helpless, like 4th graders on the playground, ducking for cover and pretending that the 6th graders don’t exist, just to feel a sense of peace, however brief.
At the same time that I was entering the 4th grade, a discussion was taking place in New York. For many years, Israelis had been familiar with a sage in Brooklyn who, in the words of IDF General Ariel Sharon, was "interested and well versed" in the Israeli military and "deeply worried" about the current situation in Israel. The Lubavitcher Rebbe (of blessed memory) was, at the time, the current head of the Lubavitcher Chasidim movement and according to some, destined to usher in the age of the Mashiach. The Rebbe’s approach to the, then and still, escalating conflict in the Middle East was that fierce, preemptive military action, along with elevated spiritual focus asking G‑D for mercy in order to minimize the impending loss of life and injuries in Israel, was necessary. His thoughts and ideas went mostly to deaf ears, as we all know that the Israeli top brass at the time were busily engaged in all sorts of nation building efforts, leaving national security on the sidelines in many respects.
Let me illustrate:
Prime Minister Meir had traveled to France for the Council of Europe, as if everything was sailing smooth in the Middle East. Israeli Intelligence had predicted that a war would begin around 6pm on October 5, 1973, and that the country should prepare for it. A ‘C’ alert was in effect, the highest alert just short of war, and the military on the ground felt that immediate deployment of all reserves was essential. Then, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan refused to deploy the entire combat reserve, agreeing to only 50,000 to 60,000 men. By 6am the morning of Yom Kippur, most in the army felt that an immediate need for a preemptive air strike was vital. General David Elazar had been arguing for a preemptive air strike against Syrian airfields with Prime Minister Golda Meir, believing that a preemptive strike would save many lives.
The prime minister is said to have thought for a few moments before announcing that there would absolutely be no preemptive strike; and this was after she was personally and secretly warned by Jordan's King Hussein that the Syrians were in a “pre-jump-off position” for war." The Syrians had, by the way, already positioned their most advanced surface-to-air missiles opposite the Golan Heights and transferred more ammunition to a central depot at the Golan border. The Egyptians had told their soldiers to break their Ramadan fast and then deployed more boats to the Egyptian side of the Suez Canal. The Soviets had, in the middle of the night, evacuated the families of their citizens, most of whom were assisting the Egyptians with military exercises and training. Yet, the political apparatus (the Israeli Government) continued to believe that war was not imminent, regardless of what the military apparatus (the IDF) said.
Meanwhile, back in the 4th grade, I was sitting on the bench with my three best friends when four 6th graders swaggered up to us. We chose a spot to sit at the far reaches of the playground, where we thought we would be out-of-sight, which really just made us a target. We moved our location periodically, looking for a place with peace and quiet, but these boys always knew where to find us. The ring leader of the group had a special affinity for me. He would always approach me first, with his friends giggling behind him, and ask me something like, “So, who won the races?”
Of course, not having heard that one yet, I said I don’t know, and bam! He would yell, “Charlie Horse!” as he smashed me in the thigh, causing reluctant tears to flow down my face… The big kids would saunter away, self satisfied and laughing at me and the little kids would grovel and feel sheepish, even with each other.
On the other side of the country, in Brooklyn, The Rebbe had begun a program to encourage parents to teach their children additional Torah during the summer months. He cited the verse from Psalms (8:3), “Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings, You have established strength because of Your adversaries, in order to put an end to the enemy and avenger.”
On July 12, 1973, the former president of Israel, Zalman Shazar visited the Lubavitch World Headquarters for a chassidic meeting and met with the Rebbe. We don’t know much about their discussion, however Ex-Israeli President Zalman Shazar shared afterwards that when the Rebbe encouraged the extra Torah learning for children, he had a specific danger in mind that was looming over Israel. It seemed strange to Shazar that there was no prediction of any danger; on the contrary, based on the status quo of the political apparatus (described above), everything seemed quite normal in Israel, (you know, just like today with all of the infighting and stiff-necked…ness).
Shazar asked The Rebbe what had happened to prompt such a prediction of imminent danger in Israel and The Rebbe didn’t respond. Shazar said that, "He (just) looked at me with a very serious look and tears began to flow from his eyes." The Rebbe continued to encourage an increase in children's Torah learning and prayer throughout the summer and on September 21st, the same time that Israeli intelligence was receiving even more warnings of the impending war, the Yediot Achronot newspaper reported that, "Tens of thousands of children will travel up to Jerusalem on Sunday for a special prayer service, following the call of the Lubavitcher Rebbe to his disciples in the town of Kfar Chabad. The Rebbe called for boys under the age of 13 and girls under the age of 12 to travel up to Jerusalem, to organize for a special prayer and to give charity near the Western Wall."
When I was 13, supposedly joining the ranks of manhood, I got really tall. My dad was 6’ 6” in his prime and a little of that height seemed to rub off on me. By the time I was in High School, I was over 6’ and climbing. One day, while walking across the street, I spotted the bully that tormented me in elementary school. He was coming towards me and I noticed that, evidently, his father was not as tall as mine and I began to gloat and puff up, dredging to the surface all of the pain that I had stuffed down over the years. As we approached each other, I could see him recoil as he recognized me. He tried to make a wide birth, subtly veering out of my way, as I determinately strode forward and barreled down on him. His eyes got larger as I approached; evidently sensing what was to come. In the last second, he tried to pass by me, but I would not let him. All the stored-up pain was now coursing through my veins and I channeled it out through my arms, reaching out and shoving him out of my way as I crossed the street. I kept on going and when I looked back, I saw him give a furtive glance in my direction. It felt SO good… But, it was SO not a good thing.
Here... Let me explain:
There is a mysterious encounter between Hashem and Moses on Mount Sinai described in Exodus 33:18-22. According to Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, of blessed memory, it goes like this:
“Please let me have a vision of Your Glory,” begged (Moses).
(G-D) replied, “I will make all My good pass before you and reveal the Divine Name in your presence. (But still,) I will have mercy and show kindness to whomever I desire.”
(G-D then) explained, “You cannot have a vision of My Presence. A man cannot have a vision of Me and still exist.”
G-d then said, “I have a special place where you can stand on the rocky mountain, protecting you with My power until I pass by (“all space is under my domain,” (Rashi; Baaley Tosafot) or, “there is a way of reaching up to me,” (Moreh Nevukhim 1:8). I will then remove My protective power and you will have a vision of what follows from My existence. My essence itself, however, will not be seen.”
As you can see by the Hebrew (even if you are a fluent Modern Hebrew speaker), it is not easy to understand what is being said here. Moses seems to want to see Hashem—to see the inner dimension of Hashem, and G-D says that He will pass all His goodness in front of him. You have to remember that this mysterious dialogue takes place right after the giving of the entire Torah on Mount Sinai (See Maimonides, "The Foundations of the Torah" 9:1.), so what did Moses want? It could only be some inner secret or depth of the Torah that he already had received, but didn’t understand. We are much the same in this regard. We cannot see Hashem; we can only see Hashem’s ‘power’ in the world, and just like Moses, we have to reach out to Hashem in order to attain a deeper comprehension of the Universe. So, Hashem states it quite simply, “I will have mercy and show kindness to whomever I desire.” This is the inner dimension of Torah. We cannot see it until G-D’s hand (power) has played it out; like the old saying, ‘hindsight is 20/20.’ Once we have seen G-D’s hand in the world, we can see the result and make a determination like, ‘it is for the best’ or ‘if we only knew.’
Much later on, in the land of Israel, the Yediot Achronot newspaper reported that an "impressive gathering of thousands took place yesterday... The children arrived at the Western Wall in tens of buses, trains, trucks and private cars. With precise organization, the children filled the plaza before the Wall and the paths to the Wall, to capacity."
Torah verses that were selected by the Rebbe were recited at the rally at the Kotel. Every child received two 10 Agarote coins, one as a gift from the Rebbe (accompanied by a ‘suggestion’ to give it to charity), and the other with a ‘request’ to give it to charity. The paper reported, "(The) Bank of Israel prepared tens of thousands of shiny new coins for the occasion, amounting to several thousand Lirote." There were, evidently, similar gatherings that occurred around the planet.
So, while thousands of children around the globe were reaching up to Hashem together and praying for the protection of Israel, I was crying on the playground. I can’t help but wonder that if I had let it go for all those years and not let it get to me so bad, maybe I wouldn’t have reacted so poorly in the street years later. In that moment, when that bully was crossing the street towards me, instead of demanding justice from him, what if I had walked up to him and engaged him in a dialog. I could have said, “Hey! I remember you! How are you doing?”
He might have replied, “Um, yeah... I remember you too!? What are you doing these days?”
And I could have said, “Da-da-da-da-da-da...” You get my drift. I would have given him the chance to say sorry to me. I would have had enough compassion to know that he was also in pain when he did those things to me. I would have been able to tear down a wall (with his help) that we both built and in that brief moment of time, we would be One. Hindsight is 20/20...
This is the inner dimension of the closest place that we can even fathom, much less get to, of Hashem. It is a place where we are all One. We understand each other and have ultimate passion for and compassion with each other in that place. If the Rebbe knew and tried to tell us, and the politicians didn’t know and tried to listen, and we all stopped worrying about what we have and who is right or wrong, and ultimately, we all had total compassion for each other, regardless of faith, race, income, social status, belief in Hashem or not, or whatever... we would have peace on Earth.
After the war, The Rebbe wrote many letters to widows and to wounded soldiers, sighting their amazing sacrifice for the nation of Israel. The Rebbe also wrote letters to IDF generals and, as well, encouraged his followers to try to boost the morale of the troops. There were 3,000 plus dead Israelis from the war and many more wounded. It was a national tragedy similar in time frame and numbers to the World Trade Center collapsing into a heap of ash laden pain and sorrow from a terrorist that was looking for his 15 minutes of fame.
In the end, all we have is our faith and beliefs, our family, our friends, our countrymen, and our species. Peace is compassion and compassion is treating your neighbor like you would like to be treated. It all sounds so simple... doesn’t it?
If you fast and pray on Yom Kippur, may it be easy and productive for you.
Gamar Chatimah Tova!