The Fullness of a Day in Israel by Judy Lash Balint Israel National News Radio commentary
October 4, 2001
The intermediate days of a festival are supposed to be joyous times of thanksgiving and celebration. This past 24 hours of the holiday of Sukkot has been packed with events that could indeed be described as festive, but on this extraordinary day we also experienced terror, sadness, indignation, surprise and resolve.
The throngs who make their way to the Western Wall this morning to receive the traditional blessing of the Kohanim (priests) take part in an ancient ritual. Hundreds of descendants of the priestly tribe stand in front of the last piece of the retaining wall of the Temple, cover themselves with their prayer shawls, extend their hands with fingers separated according to biblical tradition, and recite the blessing of peace over the crowd.
Just a few hours later, thousands of Christian supporters of Israel from all over the world don their national costumes and extend their blessings on the people of Israel as they march through the Jerusalem streets together with representatives of every major Israeli workers organization. Traffic grinds to a halt as the enthusiastic marchers take over the center of the city in their annual Feast of Tabernacles show of support.
But just as the lovers of Israel were making their way toward the Old City, those bent on our destruction were making themselves felt to the north. Every news outlet quickly picks up news of a terrorist attack at the central bus station in Afula. Three Israelis lay dead, seven wounded in the latest cease-fire action.
Around the same time, we learn of yet another tragedy to befall Israel and our large population of immigrants from the FSU. A plane carrying Israelis heading to visit family and friends in their native land exploded and fell out of the sky into the Black Sea. All 66 passengers and 12 crew are presumed dead. Throughout the day speculation about the cause of the disaster ranges from a terrorist attack to a deadly accident caused by a mistake during a Ukrainian military exercise or an on board explosion.
Ben Gurion airport is immediately closed to international flights and a stunned nation struggles to make sense of the barrage of events. Was it just yesterday that two Jerusalem women were shot by Arab snipers as they took part in a Sukkot celebration in front of the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron? Was it only last night that the Cohen family was injured by Arab fire as they drove on the Ramot-French Hill road? Did terrorists infiltrate the Gaza Strip community of Alei Sinai killing a young courting couple just the night before?
Despite the tragic events of the day, a long awaited ceremony goes on as scheduled at the Wall. It’s the Hakhel, a revival of a ritual that took place during Temple times. Every seven years, during the Sukkot festival following a Shmitta (Sabbatical) year, the king would assemble the people of Israel at the Temple and read portions of the Torah before the masses. For more than two thousand years the tradition was not practiced, but in 1989 then President Chaim Herzog revived the idea of the gathering, with the President of the state taking on the kingly role.
Today, the masses did gather. I have never seen so many people cram into every corner of the plaza in front of the Wall. According to police estimates more than 25,000 are assembled to witness the popular President Moshe Katzav fulfill his duties.
On the dais in front of the northern part of the plaza, sit all the present and former chief rabbis; the rabbi of the Kotel; Knesset speaker Avraham Burg; Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert and representatives of the Jewish community of France.
Security is haphazard as police are overwhelmed with the number of people pressing through the checkpoints and flooding down the stairs from the Jewish Quarter and the Moslem Quarter entrances. There’s no way they can keep any kind of sterile area for the arriving presidential limousine as the crowds fill every available inch of space.
With song from Sephardic chazan Yechiel Naari, wearing black suit and hat and Ashkenazic chazzan Chaim Adler decked out in silk caftan and fur shtreimel, the programs starts with a prayer for the Israeli soldiers missing in action. Knesset speaker Burg reads a section of Rambam relating to the positive commandment to observe the Hakhel and then a new Torah scroll is dedicated for the special reading.
Shas leader Rabbi Ovadya Yosef, easily recognizable in his black and gold robe and trademark dark glasses, makes a grand late entrance and sits down next to President Katzav.
The new Torah scroll is encased in an ornate Sephardic-style, round cover adorned with gold bells. All the chief rabbis are called up to read, each in his own style. Finally President Katzav, the down-to-earth, man of the people leader, is called to the Torah. He chants effortlessly and fluently in a clear, deep voice. I can’t help wondering how the secular former president Ezer Weizman would have handled the task.
As the late afternoon light turns the stones of the Wall a dusky pink, the ceremony concludes with prayers for the state, the IDF, the MIAs and a special word of sympathy with victims of terror all over the world. Finally Rabbi Yosef calls out the Shema and a prayer for the welfare of the community.
It takes hours for the crowd to disperse through the Old City, and I make it home just in time to catch the Tel Aviv news conference dealing with the day’s events.
Prime Minister Sharon, Transportation Minister Ephraim Sneh and Deputy Absorption Minister Yuli Edelshtein all speak. It’s Arik Sharon who is as blunt as he’s ever been in public. Addressing the developed nations of the world, “particularly the United States,” Sharon states categorically: “Don’t repeat the dreadful mistake of 1938 when enlightened European democracies decided to sacrifice Czechoslovakia for a convenient temporary solution. Do not try to appease Arabs at our expense. We won’t be Czechoslovakia. Israel will fight terrorism.” He goes on: “The refusal to pressure Arafat to rein in Hamas encourages the war of terror against us. There’s no such thing as good terror and bad terror. We have not had even one day of ceasefire—the ceasefire is over,” Sharon declares. “From this day on we can only trust ourselves,” he continues.
A stunned Yaakov Ahimeir, Channel I TV anchor, turns to Mayor Ehud Olmert in the studio and asks if he’s heard right. Olmert avers that perhaps the Prime Minister wasn’t quite aware of how he had come across with his Czechoslovakia analogy.
Now we wait to see if and when the words will turn into action.