Is G-d truly in our midst-or not?

“היש ד ‘ בקרבינו-אם אין?”

“Is G-d truly in our midst-or not?”

I have always found the past fascinating.  I love studying history which is why I continue to lecture in Jewish History, as I have over the years.  Perhaps that is one reason why I feel so privileged to live in Jerusalem.  Walking on the very stones Rabbi Akiva tread upon before entering the Temple Mount, standing in front of the wall where Jews prayed 2,000 years ago and descending into the cave where the Kohanim (priests) purified themselves before participating in the Temple service connects me to my people around the world and throughout the ages.  Our story is truly a remarkable one!  In fact, I invariably begin my history lectures by stating that anyone who does not believe in God should study Jewish History to rekindle his faith.

In keeping with this passion, my wife and I walked through an ancient aqueduct, found near the UN complex of Armon HaNetziv, that was created during the Hasmonean era about 2100 years ago, to carry water from the heights of (what is now called) Gush Etzion to the Second Temple. As much as we would have taken this tour on any day it was particularly fitting that we did this just 2 days before Yom Yerushalayim.

Yom Yerushalayim, the day marking the liberation and unification of our Holy City, is one of great emotion and significance to me.  Perhaps that is true because I am old enough to recall the events of that day-and the difficult days that led up to the war.  Perhaps it is because I remember the prophecies of doom offered by Israel’s enemies, as well as by respected military analysts, that preceded the remarkable victory. Or perhaps it is because, in some degree, I re-experience the emotions I felt when hearing that the Jewish army had raised her flag over holiest place in the Jewish world.

Yet, upon further consideration, I believe that the reason may be far simpler: the events of this day, the 28th of Iyar, were, for me, the first true miracles I ever witnessed.  I had read of the splitting of the sea, I had learned of the water gushing forth from a rock and I had heard of the Sinaitic theophany.

But I SAW the victory of the Six Day War and the return of Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem. I SAW the masses making their way to pray the Kotel that was finally in Jewish hands for the first time in 1,897 years.

I SAW G-d’s hand as the miracles unfolded before my very eyes.

It was not history for me; it was reality.

And that, truly, is a very emotional experience.

But, to our dismay, not everyone recognizes miracles when they occur.

A few weeks after the Israelites crossed the Red Sea they were attacked by the Amalekites.  It was an unprovoked attack against the weaker elements of the nation. Our Rabbis, however, suggest that there was indeed provocation-but it was not Amalek who was provoked-it was G-d Himself!  Our scholars point to the event that preceded the attack in which the Israelites complained of a lack of water.  After Moses struck the rock as G-d commanded and brought forth water from the stone, he named the place “Massa U’Meriva” for Israel had argued with G-d (“Meriva”) and tested Him (“Massa”), asking: “Is G-d truly in our midst-or not?” (Exodus 17; 7).  Rashi quotes the Midrash Tanchuma in explaining how Israel “provoked” G-d with their question.

“I have been here providing all of your needs and you ask: ‘Is G-d truly in our midst-or not?’ I swear, I shall have a “dog” come and bite you and you will cry out to Me and see if I am here!’ “

The Israelites had experienced the most obvious revelations of G-d’s power, from the ten plagues to the splitting of the sea, from providing manna from heaven each day and meat in the evenings to defeating the Egyptian army and sweetening the bitter waters of Marah…yet NOW they question whether G-d is there for them!!! They failed to open their eyes and see what stood right before them.  G-d was provoked by their lack of awareness of His protection and His miraculous intervention on their behalf. So he allowed the Amalekites to attack to teach Israel what would happen if G-d removed His protection.

But He also taught them another lesson.

No longer would G-d do FOR them; He will now only do WITH them.  When the Egyptian army pursued the escaping Israelites Moses proclaimed: “G-d will fight FOR you and you (just) remain silent”.  Yet when Amalek hordes attack the nation Moses calls upon Joshua to gather an army and fight the enemy.  G-d is still there, as Moses miraculously controls the battle and insures victory by keeping his arms raised, but G-d will no longer fight for-only with.  The Israelites learned the lesson to act as if there would be no miracle but, at the same time, recognize that behind their efforts, behind their successes, there is G-d’s hand, G-d’s miracles.  More subtle miracles-perhaps, but miracles nonetheless.

Yesterday, I gathered with 30,000 others to celebrate Yom Yerushalayim with the “Parade of Flags.” It was an emotional high as young men and women-primarily high school students-danced and sang down the streets of Jerusalem until they and their flags made their way to the Old City.  It was a wonderful celebration but it was not a nationwide celebration.  It was a day observed, primarily, by the nationalist/religious community and, for the most part, ignored by the rest of the country.  It is a troubling phenomenon that tells us we have failed to teach the message of the day.

Consider the following:  In early June of 1967 hospitals around the country were preparing for an influx of casualties while graves were being prepared in expectation of thousands being killed.  Sandbags were being filled by schoolchildren to slow the expected invasion of enemy troops and parents sobbed in the streets as their young sons went to battle.  And yet, in six days, Israel had vanquished three armies, destroyed two air forces and liberated the Biblical cities that had been denied Jewish presence for years.

History had been changed in less than a week. And I recall the posters and stickers I saw during my first visit to Israel just one month after war: “Kol HaKavod L’Tzhal!” – “The IDF deserves all the glory (credit)!”  And I really understood that immediate reaction.  But when the rejoicing died down, I had hoped there would have been a more sober reaction-perhaps the reaction reflected in the stickers I saw after the Yom Kippur War: “Yisrael B’tach BaShem!” – “Israel-trust in God!”

In truth, I believe that the failure to “spread the word” of the significance of this day is ours-that is, we who DO celebrate the 28th of Iyar.  We still have too many who are blind to the miracles and still ask: “Is G-d truly in our midst-or not?” We can open their eyes by recalling and retelling the miracles of this day, especially we who, like myself, SAW the miracles and lived through those wondrous days.  We must help teach the lesson God taught us at the battle against Amalek: we will fight as if G-d is not there but recognize that any victory was wrought by God alone.

And in closing:

The Torah tells us that the Israelites entered the Wilderness of Sin on the fifteenth of Iyar, a Shabbat, according to the Rabbis.  The Manna fell for them during that week and the next Shabbat, the 22nd of Iyar, some of the nation searched to collect Manna, against God’s directive.  During the following week the people complained of a lack of water and “tested” God – so God allowed Amalek to attack.  That attack, according to tradition, took place on Friday, the 28th of Iyar, that was destined, thousands of years later, to become Yom Yerushalayim!!

The challenge of the Israelites remains our challenge too-especially on Yom Yerushalayim.  Living in the Holy City I am surrounded with miracles.  I simply must remember to open my eyes and see what stands before me.