They say that every generation, every nation, has its defining moment – one single moment of great joy or great horror or great despair – or great hope – when, for the rest of their lives, everyone will remember where they were at that given moment. They used to say that one such moment was that instant when the news broke of the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy. Another was when the Berlin Wall was torn down. Yesterday marked another – the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
For many of us, it is the moment on Yom Kippur, 40 years ago, when we learned that Egypt and Syria had attacked Israel on the holiest day in the Jewish calendar and that the tiny Jewish state was once again fighting for her life.
I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news – in shul at the Central Synagogue in Great Portland Street, London. I don’t know how the rumour started circulating. Possibly someone had gone home for the break between Mussaf and Mincha and heard the news or seen the newspaper headlines. At any rate, I remember Mrs Simons, who sat next to my mother, telling her “It’s very bad, fighting on both fronts”. I remember, in the evening, at the end of Yom Kippur, when certain “privileged” members of the congregation would be invited to break their fast on tea and cakes prepared by the non-Jewish caretakers (Mr and Mrs Nolan, if I recall their names correctly), that it was news we craved, not food and drink, but they could tell us little that we did not already know and we rushed home as fast as we could to switch on the television.
Two of my Israeli cousins were visiting us at the time – the elder had recently finished his military service and the younger, his sister, was between high school and army. Despite the fact that nearly all flights to Israel had been cancelled – only El Al was still flying to Tel Aviv – they managed to exchange their tickets and fly home, the boy straight to his artillery unit and the girl, to gnaw her fingernails and worry about the fate of her boyfriend, a fighter pilot. (Both young men safely survived the war, thank God).
That war was traumatic for Israel, and even today, four decades later, new victims of the psychological scars are still being discovered. I did not serve in the war, I was spared that kind of trauma. But, like many of us living in the Diaspora, it was brought home to us forcefully, in what danger the Jewish state still stood. After the dazzling victory of the 1967 Six Day War, Israel had seemed invincible, but this time, there was real fear in our hearts that she might not survive – and not being there, being in the Galut (Exile) and unable to do anything to help her, was unbearable.
Less than a year later, I came on aliyah with my family.
I have other, sweeter memories of Yom Kippur – memories of snuggling up next to my father (may he live to 120) under his tallit when, as a little girl of three or four, I was still allowed to join him in the men’s section of our (orthodox) synagogue and of twisting and braiding the fringe as we listened to the mellifluous tenor voice of the chazan (cantor), the Rev. Simon Hass, intoning the Kol Nidrei prayer.
I remember also my mother, whose Hebrew birthday was on the eve of Yom Kippur and, in fact, would have coincided with her civil birthday in 5734, for she was born on October 5th – only that year, 1973 according the civil calendar, was the first Yom Kippur without her.
Forty years ago, the armies of Egypt and Syria chose this holiest of days to attack Israel, continuing an unholy tradition of our enemies, to attack us when we are at prayer and unprepared. Since then, we have made peace with Egypt – but now both those countries are in turmoil. Arab leaders have developed, to a fine art, the practice of uniting their people by making Israel a scapegoat – and even now, both sides (or perhaps I should say all sides) in the Syrian dispute, are attempting to embroil Israel in their mess.
The very last words of the Ne’ilah service, the closing service of Yom Kippur, are a prayer for peace: May he who maketh peace in his high places, make peace for us and for all Israel; and say ye, Amen.”
The peace we pray for is not only for Israel. Implicit in our prayer for peace for Israel, is a prayer for peace for all Mankind. On Yom Kippur, we believe, the Almighty will judge, not only individuals, but the nations also. We do not desire the destruction of our Arab neighbours. True peace can only come when both – or all – parties earnestly desire peace with the other side and not a “peace” which exists only because the other side has been totally subjugated or no longer exists. We do not wish to subjugate our Arab neighbours, nor do we wish to annihilate them. In the Ne’ilah service, we refer, several times, each time in a slightly different format, to the words of the prophet Ezekiel: “Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord God: and not that he should return from his ways and live?” (Ezekiel 18:23).
It is often difficult for me to believe that Peace will come in my lifetime. But I will continue to pray for it, as do all the House of Israel. I will continue to pray that our enemies will come to their senses, will see the error of their ways, will understand that the God that we and they worship is the same God.
And I will wish you all – as, it appears, even the buses do in Israel – a Good Final Sealing.
גמר חתימה טובה – G’mar Chatima Tova