Ariel's Jerusalem: An Interview with Rabbi Yisrael Ariel
He remembers the Kotel, or Western Wall, from its small, pre-statehood days, when the Arabs used to humiliate the faithful. He was there when they liberated the
One Sabbath, in the middle of the "Keter" prayer, an Arab passed right through the praying congregants on his donkey, spurring it onward.
40 years after the city's liberation, we listened as Rabbi Yisrael Ariel recalled his feelings about the Kotel as a boy, then as a fighter, and later from the point of view of the man most closely identified with the
Donkeys at the Kotel
The Italians are the ones who caused Rabbi Ariel to grow up in
The boy Yisrael Ariel lived in the
The plaza was small and crowded back then, and the Jews, who did not want to move from their place in the middle of the "Kedusha" prayer, were pushed back. It was a trauma, one big insult," he says, but on second thought adds: "It's not like I'm happy with what we have now, maybe today it's worse, because then we were under the British Diaspora and now we are independent."
He completed high school at Kfar HaRoeh and from there went to Kerem Beyavneh. His class was the second one to graduate from the hesder yeshiva. He later joined Merkaz Harav.
The Dream Fulfilled
During the time known as the "Waiting Period" before the Six Day War – when
"During the Waiting Period people had a very dark feeling, that a holocaust was imminent," the rabbi recalls. It was said that they had prepared cemeteries for 30,000 people in Tel Aviv, and were preparing for a poison gas attack." The rabbi says that in those days, the Paratrooper Brigade was the most religious one in the IDF, because that was where the "hesder" yeshiva students (whose military service combined yeshiva time with army time) and the Bnei Akiva Nahal groups wound up.
On the Shabat of Parshat Behukotai, Lag BaOmer 5727, when training was at its most intense, the paratroopers sat down for the Third Meal and then began dancing excitedly. "We started singing 'leshana haba'a biyrushalayim habnuya' – next year in rebuilt
On that Shabat, the guys asked the yeshiva student from Merkaz Harav to give a sermon. Ariel had only a chumash in his hands, and he read from it: "I said that it is written: 'if you follow my laws… five of you shall chase away one hundred [of the enemy], and a hundred of you shall chase away ten thousand.' Rashi immediately speaks of the mathematical problem in the verse, and says 'a few who fulfill the Torah are not like many who fulfill the Torah,' i.e. unity increases power exponentially.
"I described the reality of that day to the soldiers. I spoke of the Jews from the Diaspora who sent jewelry to the Ministry of Defense to buy tanks with, and of the unity government which had been formed, in which [Menachem Begin's] 'Herut' was included for the first time. The feeling was that the nation of
Rabbi Ariel strengthened his listeners and told them that unity would cause the verses to come true, despite the difficult reality. "I didn't really believe that is what would happen in this war," he reveals today, "but I wanted to strengthen them. In the end I saw the things happen in reality."
Mistakes that Cost Blood
The beginning looked grim. When the war broke out, the soldiers all listened to Kol Yisrael's broadcasts, which quoted the 'Voice of Thunder' from
Then came the order to board the buses. "But instead of the buses going towards
Rabbi Ariel was in the older group ("among the paratroopers, 27 is considered old") which was called the Regimental Guard and was attached to the Regiment Commander, Mota Gur.
After the battle at the
After the battle at the
In the morning, a misdirected IDF artillery barrage began hitting the Rockefeller. There were about 1,000 soldiers there at the time. "I had just put on tefillin, and suddenly we were being shelled. I took them off quickly and ran for cover." 13 men were killed in this tragic incident. "It was a tough blow. We started collecting the dead. Mota Gur understood what was happening. He put himself at risk, jumped out and started shouting and waving his hands: 'everyone get in the building! Everyone get in the building!' several times, and then he ran away. This saved many lives because many more could have been killed."
Later that day Rabbi Ariel was asked to go and collect the bodies of dozens of tank crewmen who had taken the wrong turn at the Rockefeller Junction, just as his platoon had almost done the day before. Rabbi Ariel got the job because the regimental rabbi was not present. The sights were shocking, and they were etched deeply into the rabbi's memory. He had received no mental preparation for the task. Several years later, as the Rabbi for Northern Command in the Yom Kippur War, he became commander of what he calls 'the biggest Hevre Kadisha in the world,' but that belongs in a different story.
After collecting the tank crewmen's bodies Rabbi Ariel returned to the museum, and the guys started asking around, to find out what had happened to friends and acquaintances from the regiment. The rumors about the casualties began trickling in, and they included names of good friends who were no longer alive. This bad news fit in with what they already thought they knew about the situation: the propaganda from 'The Voice of Thunder.' "It's true that we were in the Rockefeller Museum, which is close to the Old City walls, but there was still a feeling of holocaust, and that we are next in line."
Rabbis Under Fire
This was where Rabbi Shlomo Goren, then the IDF's Chief Rabbi, came into the picture. "He came in and said he had come from Gaza, that there are battles there and his car caught fire, and that when he heard they had reached Jerusalem, he caught the first jeep and came up to the city."
The soldiers' low morale was evident in their faces, and Rabbi Goren strengthened them with words of truth, as Rabbi Ariel recalls with admiration. These words became a central perception of Ariel's, as years went by and his study deepened. "He said that of all the mitzvot, the only mitzvah for which a person may endanger himself lechatchila – on purpose – is the conquest of Eretz Yisrael. Shabat, Yom Kippur and other important commandments are cancelled in the face of mortal danger – pikuach nefesh – but not the conquest of the land. 'Therefore you should know,' he said, "that those who are gone died for kiddush Hashem, for the sanctification of the Lord's Name, and those who died for the Kingdom – no entity can stand next to them.'"
"'You can be happy with one thing,' he went on and said. 'Jews were killed in the Diaspora for no other reason than hatred. You at least are in
"'He started praying, and in the middle of the shemone-esre prayer some kind of rocket came in directly at us. In a split second people scattered themselves all over the place. Rabbi Goren was the only one who continued praying. At the moment the rocket passed over his head he bent his knees, as we do when we start to bow in hishtachavaya, and when it had passed he continued his prayer, standing alone in the courtyard."
Then a conversation developed. The soldiers understood that they were only a few meters away from the city's wall and began asking the Chief Rabbi what the rules were regarding ascent to the
"Now I know that there is a halacha that if a little plaster falls in the Holy of Holies, if there is a kohen who can go in and take care of it – he should go in, and if there is not – an Israelite who has purified himself, and if he is impure – let the impure person go in, as long as the Holy of Holies not stay unclean. This is a principle that undoubtedly applies when the Arabs need to be driven out, and certainly in a case of pikuach nefesh." But this explanation was not given to the soldiers then, and Rabbi Ariel cannot forget how he agonized over this. "The Chief Rabbinate should have left contingency plans for such a day."
Unprepared for Victory
Later on, Rabbi Ariel understood that Rabbi Goren really did not know what the government wanted, and that the government's plans were different from what actually occurred. "They put loudspeakers around the
"After the fact, Rabbi Goren told us that he, Mota Gur and others spent the entire night shuttling between the government's ministers in order to persuade them to go in [to the Old City]. Moshe Dayan said: 'what do I need all this
At a certain point, the soldier Yisrael Ariel was asked to stand guard and observe the
Immediately afterwards all of the battalions and companies began storming the
In the background one could still hear gunshots and bursts of fire, but the
From where he stood he heard the conversation between Goren and Gur. Rabbi Goren suggested that the Paratrooper's dead be buried in the
"Mota Gur's famous words on the radio, 'the
This talk only depressed Rabbi Ariel even more. He felt that the Mount had indeed been conquered, but would soon be abandoned. "But suddenly I head a soldier say to his friend: 'two old men from
Shehecheyanu at the Kotel
A short time later the guys started streaming from the
The rabbis hugged each other and cried for joy, but Rabbi Goren is the one who gave the meaning. Today we speak of leadership. Not anyone can be a leader. There is the one who seizes the moment and lifts it up, and there is another who does not understand what is going on. In that respect, inside the whole mess, when nobody knew if we were staying or going, suddenly I hear a shear blast and a call: 'all the soldiers, repeat after me – shehecheyanu vekiymanu…' This was not shehecheyanu on a new fruit. When you conquer new territory this is a mitzvah from the Torah, and here, when you conquer the
Rabbi Ariel describes a great joy, to the point of euphoria. People who did not know each other danced and hugged each other, and there was great excitement.
Later a mincha prayer was organized and Rabbi Goren stood from the side and looked on. "At the end of the prayer I meant to say tachnun, and suddenly I heard a voice thunder out: 'today we do not say tachnun, we say hallel.' It's not just that I was about to say tachnun. I had not yet entered into the feeling that we are at 'hallel'. I had not yet freed myself from the feeling of catastrophe.'" But the Rabbi said so, and Ariel began praying 'hallel'.
Mota Gur later 'retouched' this situation and turned it into a struggle between two rabbis, one who sees the joy in the accomplishments and the other who sees the sadness in losing friends. Gur described it like that in his book but "it was not quite like that," Rabbi Ariel smiles.
The next command given Rabbi Ariel was to go and guard the western entrance to the Dome of the Rock. Today he knows that this is the closest place to the Holy of Holies, but even then he knew that this was the Kohen Gadol's exclusive territory. "Thoughts passed in my head: I am not a kohen nor a Levite, and any child knows that one may not enter this place with the shoes and dust on the feet – and here I am standing here, with the shoes and the gun and the dust."
The Temple Institute was only founded 20 years after that war, but the seeds were planted in Rabbi Ariel's heart in those two or three hours, when he stood guard on the Mount. "I thought that a real Military Rabbinate should have in its storehouse what we have in the Institute today: the Menorah, vessels for the
Five Chased Away a Hundred
So he never got to see the Mashiach King that day, but he did see the verses that he had taught the soldiers a few days earlier come true. As he stood guard on the
"Suddenly at the end of the line I see a sloppily dressed soldier walking with an Uzi. When they reached me they received the order to halt, and then the soldier sits them down in groups: one group of a hundred, and another hundred, and another. And I see before me that their hands are trembling. Then two or three more IDF officers came, and started calling the people who were sitting. One was a lieutenant colonel, another was a major, etc." The seated people were the Jordanian soldiers who had manned the fire-spitting artillery on the walls, and they had fled to the nearby houses and dressed up as sick people.
"I said to myself, here are 2,000 people from the Jordanian army, which was an excellent army. Here, the verse 'and five of you shall chase away a hundred' has come true. One of the next verses, by the way, is a blessing, 'and I shall give my Sanctuary in you.' We did not get to see that."
Despite everything that Rabbi Ariel's eyes had seen, at that time he still did not know that the stories he had heard in the beginning of the war, about Tel Aviv burning, were untrue. Only on Friday, when his company climbed aboard buses to assist in the fighting in the north, some civilians threw inside challah bread, sweets and a newspaper.
"Suddenly I look at the paper that is on the floor, and then I see an Egyptian airfield full of smoke, and headlines: 'our soldiers reached the
The drive northward was already carried out in a totally different mood, and the Shabbat morning 'hallel' was said with great joy.
The Temple Institute – Thanks to the Shabak
Last Friday, a group of Indonesian tourists came to the Temple Institute. Admittedly, this doesn't happen every day, but the Institute's people are used to seeing people from all over the world visit them, even hareidim, who used to shun the Institute in its first years.
The Temple Institute works on many planes to increase knowledge and yearning for the
It all started 25 years ago when Yamit, in the Sinai desert, was demolished and Rabbi Ariel, who had been the town's unofficial rabbi, was exiled from it to
On the appointed day, 30 young men came to the Ariel home, armed with Uzis for self defense. "They placed the guns under the beds, and I went to prepare something for them to drink. Suddenly we heard a stampede in the staircase, and just like in the movies, Shabak men and policemen entered, got up on the chairs with drawn pistols and announced: 'nobody move, put the guns on the floor, you are all under arrest.'"
The group was taken to the Russian Compound police station, where it was held for 11 days. The authorities feared that that this was an underground group that wanted to create a disturbance or make the Pesach sacrifice on the Mount. "There were apparently some guys who were thinking of more than ascent and prayer," Ariel says, in defense of the Shabak. The media had a field day, naturally.
During their time in jail, Ariel suggested to the boys that they study the
In the course of those days, Rabbi Ariel and Moshe Asher, who was there with him, agreed that once the publicity faded and the smoke cleared, they would meet and decide what to do. "We registered a nonprofit organization and called it "The Institute for Study, Research and Building of the Temple,' putting things in that order on purpose. We started with a small exhibition and step by step things developed, until they reached their present state. We reached places we never thought we'd reach. Children and adults study and discuss the Temple and ask us questions, some of them so great that we cannot answer."
The Historic Betrayal
The circle which starts with childhood, passes through the Six Day War and reaches the Temple Institute cannot be summed up without asking Rabbi Ariel about the Israeli decision to give up control of the Temple Mount.
In discussing this subject, one needs to go back to that historic moment, with Rabbi Goren, the 'Hallel' and the shofar. Had the rabbis conducted that scene on the Mount and not at the Kotel, perhaps the Mount would have been perceived by the public and the leaders as the place that we must not abandon.
"In a time of mayhem, when you are dealing with a complicated mess, things take their own course. The Kotel was in people's minds: this is the Kotel where Father and Grandfather prayed, and it immediately connects you with tradition, with what is familiar. The Temple mount was not in people's minds, and so it was left untended."
To emphasize this point, Rabbi Ariel tells the story of a man who handed out pictures of the Kotel several weeks before the war, in what was seen as a semi-clandestine operation. "As a Jerusalemite you knew that the Kotel was unmentionable, and the thought of reaching it was as distant as reaching the moon. But the Temple Mount? That wasn't even in spoken Hebrew. There was the Beit Hamikdash or the Kotel. But the term Har Habayit, the Temple Mount, only entered the Hebrew language during the war."
At this point, surprisingly, the rabbi comes to the defense of Moshe Dayan. "He handed over the key [to the Temple Mount], because he was the one who held it, but someone persuaded him to do this." Rabbi Ariel learned this from a 'Bamishpacha' magazine article, and then verified the truth of the claim with hareidi former Knesset member Rabbi Menachem Porush, who was quoted in the article. "According to what he says, the greatest hareidi rabbis, led by Rabbi Yechezkel Abramsky, went to Dayan and told him to tell Levi Eshkol to give the Arabs the Temple Mount. 'The People of Israel have no interest in the Temple Mount.' They also said the UN should be notified that we have no interest in the Temple Mount."
Rabbi Ariel uses the word "treason" to describe what he thinks about giving the keys to the Arabs. "This is a mission that was given to our generation after 2,000 years. We prayed: 'bring us up to our land and plant us in our borders and there we shall carry out our necessary sacrifices.' So the Lord heard the prayer. He brought us up and gave us part of the land but we did not fulfill our obligation. We expect him to do that, too, and bring the Temple down from the sky, and on top of all that, we give others the keys we were handed.
"The betrayal is of those who prayed and made an effort throughout the generations to make aliyah and renew the avodah, the work of the Temple: Rabbi Ashtori Hafarchi, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, Harav Kalisher and others. Why did the Second Temple people – who were little more than 42,000 when they arrived, like a small Jerusalem neighborhood – know how to resume the avodah immediately, without budgets and despite wars and mixed marriages? They had all of the problems we have, and we are six million Jews, 40 years after the conquest of Har Habayit, yet shamelessly we go to pray at the Kotel!
"Every day when I see the people's estrangement and alienation, I look with disbelief upon what is happening. A generation will come and say that there was a great failure. The religious Judaism, which calls itself Zionist – and Zion is the Temple – has to look in the mirror. A person needs to ask himself where he is and what he is doing with 'and they shall build me a Temple and I shall dwell within them' and many other mitzvot. If, after 40 years, all religious Zionism has to show for its efforts is another flag-dance march on Jerusalem Day, we are in critical condition."