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By Rabbi Gershom Barnard

Of the contemporary readings which have been written for our liturgy, one of the most enduring is “We Remember Them,” by Rabbis Sylvan Kamins and Jack Riemer.  It accurately picks up on the workings of our memories of those who are gone:

At the rising of the sun and at its going down, we remember them.
At the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter, we remember them…
When we have joy we crave to share, we remember them.
When we have decisions that are difficult to make, we remember them.

All kinds of things and occasions are likely to call forth a memory of the person who is no longer living.  A birthday, a seder, Thanksgiving, the High Holidays – we remember what those occasions were like with the one who has been lost. Of course, the person’s yahrzeit, the anniversary of his or her death, does so as well. Anniversaries of important events call forth memories, too, and I am thinking of Yom Kippur of 40 years ago, 5734/1973.

I was a student rabbi for the Holidays in Aiken, SC. At some point during the Yom Kippur service, someone brought in word that there was fighting in Israel. At the next break in the service, I passed the message on to the congregation, with the comment that there are incidents on the borders all the time, and that the whole thing would probably be over by the end of the day.  I had a hard time getting a significant news report that night; it seemed that the television stations had only high school and college football games.

On Sunday, a member of the congregation took me to the airport in Augusta, GA, and, from there, I flew to Atlanta, to get a plane to New York. In the Atlanta airport, I was able to get the Sunday New York Times, which gave a full report of the beginning of the Yom Kippur War. On the floor of the taxi which I took from LaGuardia into the city, there was a flyer announcing a rally in support of Israel. 

Now, I was in New York, but Sarah, my fiancée at the time, was in Jerusalem. In those days, not so many people in Israel had home phones, and one had to order an international call from the operator. I ordered a call to a mutual friend of ours in Jerusalem, who had a phone, and who would, I thought, know what Sarah was doing; she might even be at his apartment. An hour or two later (the phone lines from the US to Israel were very busy that day), my phone rang, and the operator told me that my call to Jerusalem was going through. I spoke to the mutual friend, who told me that Sarah had gone to donate blood, and that things were under control in Israel.

In fact, things, on those first few days, were not under control. Things looked very bad. There was an assembly at my school, and a speaker from the UJA told us what was being done by American Jews to help Israel. He could not get through his talk without crying. He passed around a basket, and people put in cash or checks.

As you know, very soon after Yom Kippur comes Sukkot. I went to the Lower East Side to get a lulav. Sarah had sent me an etrog from Israel, but I needed to get the other three species. Vendors on Canal St. had stands on the sidewalk, and everybody was listening to the news on the radio. 

The word went around that we should donate blood, so I went to the Red Cross and donated blood. At first, we thought that our blood would be sent to Israel. Later, it was said that the American Red Cross would credit our donations to the Magen David Adom. Some people said that even that did not happen. I don’t know what the truth was, but donating blood is a mitzvah anyway.

That year, as this year, the first days of Sukkot were on Thursday and Friday, which meant that I would be largely incommunicado for three days. On my way to shul, I would stop at newsstands and read the headlines, and, in the afternoon, I would walk to the public library to read the newspapers. I met quite a few Jews there.  The rabbi, unaccountably, did not refer to the war at all. When we read the haftarah of the first day, from the Book of Zechariah, which speaks of all the nations making war against Jerusalem, capturing it, and plundering it, and the haftarah for the intermediate Shabbat, about the war of Gog and Magog on the soil of Israel, I could hardly stand it.

I taught Hebrew School in Westchester County, and I tried to do something with my class about Israel. I was shocked that they were not interested. I realize now that I had not prepared them properly. I had spent the last two years in Israel, and my fiancée was there. The kids were in a totally different place. They were only vaguely aware of what was going on. I assumed that they would share my feelings, but I hadn’t given them any reason to do so.

Israel, of course, was able to hold its own and even turned the tide of the war. My last story from 1973 comes from the time, in mid-October, when an Israeli force led by General Ariel Sharon had crossed the Suez Canal and surrounded the Egyptian Third Army. At that time, the United Nations arranged a cease-fire…. My friend, Charlie (later Chaim) Cohen used to go to the morning minyan at the Lincoln Square Synagogue. He told me that someone at the minyan suggested that they say a prayer for the collapse of the cease-fire. Rabbi Steven (later Shlomo) Riskin replied that you can’t pray for fighting to start. “But,” the man persisted, “It would be very good if Israel could destroy the Egyptian Army.” Rabbi Riskin agreed, but he insisted that you can’t pray for fighting to start.

As I reflect on the Yom Kippur War, I draw three quick conclusions. I must say that they are all unwelcome to me, and they go against my inclinations, but they are what they are. The first is that Israel, despite its impressive military force, remains somewhat insecure, and Israel’s security needs must be taken very seriously. The two years which I spent in Israel, 1971-1973, in the period between the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War, were a time of optimism in Israel.  The establishment of the State of Israel and Israel’s fighting off the Arab armies in 1948 changed the image of Jews from being perpetual victims to a people who were able to fight and take care of themselves.

Leon Uris’s Exodus is a symbol of that changed image. However, Israel was a very small country, it remained in some ways a poor country, and it was surrounded by enemies. The victory in the Six Day War cemented this new image of Israel, and, by extension, of Jews.  People said extravagant things. An American rabbi wrote that the Six Day War had shown that the IDF was invincible – not good, or powerful, or skillful, but invincible, that it could never be defeated.  The Yom Kippur War changed that, and it brought Israelis, and Jews generally, back to a more sober assessment of the situation.

The second conclusion is that Israel must keep a nuclear deterrent.  I was part of the anti-war, quasi-pacifist, trend of the 1960s. Reacting against the Cold War, against the strategy of mutually assured destruction, I saw nuclear weapons as a great evil.  However, some of you have seen the play Golda’s Balcony.  Many people believe that Golda Meir, who was Prime Minister of Israel at the time, pushed the Nixon administration, and, in particular, Secretary of State Kissinger, to send Israel the arms that it needed in the Yom Kippur War, by threatening to use Israel’s nuclear weapons, which, as we all know, don’t officially exist. 

I was reminded of that point within the past few years by Rabbi Richard Rubenstein. Rabbi Rubenstein is a senior rabbi and an important theologian. He contributes frequently to the Rabbinical Assembly’s list-serve, mostly on current events, and, I must say that I hardly ever agree with him. However, he wrote that Israel must keep its nuclear weapons, not just because of Iran’s nuclear program, but because of the conventional armed forces of the surrounding Arab countries, and I believe that he is right about that.

The third quick conclusion that I would draw is that it doesn’t take much to get anti-Semitism going. In response to the American support for Israel, the Arab members of OPEC plus Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia, declared an oil embargo of the United States. The price of gasoline rose, and there were supply shortages. For a while, there was odd-even day gasoline rationing –the days on which you could refuel depended on your license plate number. During that time, I saw signs in New York which said, “Burn Jews, not oil”.  Of course, people didn’t burn Jews in the United States, there were no pogroms, and anti-Semitism here, while it rises and falls, remains at historically low levels. But still … the virus is always there, ready to break out for one reason or another.

Those three conclusions – Israel’s insecurity, the importance of Israel’s nuclear deterrent, and the persistence of anti-Semitism – came from my memories of the war. In Israel, the Agranat Commission, headed by the Chief Justice of Israel’s Supreme Court, was established to study the failings which had led to a lack of preparedness by the IDF and to Israel’s initial difficulty in the war. Although the report, controversially, exonerated the political leadership of the country from responsibility for the situation, when the commission published its interim report in April, 1974, Prime Minister Meir resigned.

Let us step back further now and consider what lessons the experience of the Yom Kippur War might have for all of us, personal more than political lessons, befitting the Day of Atonement. I would say that the main personal ethical lesson which we should draw from remembering the Yom Kippur War is that we should take care of our own people.  We must repent for ignoring the plight of other Jews and act to repair that situation.  There is a major division among us over the question which is, poorly, phrased as whether we should be universalistic or particularistic. The question is poorly phrased because the answer, of course, is that we should be both. However, that simple answer leads then to the question of how to balance appropriately our universalistic and our particularistic concerns, and that question is very difficult to answer.

Maimonides, following Aristotle, saw right conduct and good character as lying in the mean between two extremes. However, he noted, if someone tends to go to one extreme, it is not sufficient to urge him to moderate his behavior; we should emphasize the other extreme, so that the resultant of his inclination and our urging will have him follow the mean. I believe that most people are liable to limit the range of their concern too much to those who are close to them. That is why, inspired by Maimonides, I often warn against excessive ethnocentricity and particularism.  However, if we look at the issue on another level, we can see the opposite slant as well. Sometimes, Jews bend over backwards not to be narrowly focused on Jewish matters. 

Many years ago, I read an obituary of a Jewish man who had been active in the civil rights movement (a very worthy cause). One sentence in the obituary, which was perhaps simply the result of poor writing, but was still memorable, was “When so-and-so saw a sign on a hotel that said ‘No Jews allowed,’ he decided to dedicate himself to the cause of the Negro.” 

Bernard Malamud, in The Assistant, had the grocer Morris Bober say, “To be a Jew is to take the side of the underdog.”  Once, when I tried to get my high school class to do the exercise of dividing a hypothetical sum of tzedakah between Jewish and general charities, they rejected the premise of the exercise, saying that there should be no specifically Jewish charities.

Prof. Jack Wertheimer of JTS complained a few years ago that we always refer to Abraham Joshua Heschel’s activities on behalf of civil rights and against the Vietnam War, but we don’t speak of his involvement in the struggle for Soviet Jewry. Rabbi Daniel Gordis, who strikes this theme often, wrote last November, “Universalism, Cynthia Ozick once noted, has become the particularism of the Jews. Increasingly, our most fundamental belief about ourselves is that we dare not care about ourselves any more than we can about others.” 

Bearing in mind this common distortion of Jewish values, and thinking of the Yom Kippur War, I want to say today that we should be sure not to neglect our own people. Today’s Torah reading and the Avodah section of the Musaf service, which is based on it, set forth the sequence of confessions of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, on Yom Kippur. First, he confessed his own sins and those of his household. Then, the confessed the sins of all the kohanim. Finally, he confessed the sins of the entire people.

This image of concern radiating out from a personal center is very compelling, and it can be applied to many situations. Today, I want to apply it to the issue of Jewish particularism and universalism. All people have been created in the image of God, and we have to be concerned about all people, from Mexico to Mali to Sudan to Syria to Afghanistan.  However, we should be concerned first, with regard to our time, our money, and our attention, to our own people, the Jewish people.


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