My good friends and former employers at Chabad.org have utilized Ariel Sharon ZL’s passing to educate the public about the latter’s relationship with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. I’m grateful to them for that, even though their obituary comes close to suggesting that Sharon was a hidden Chabadnik. He really wasn’t, and I don’t think the good people of the Lubavitch News Service believe it either.
But they did remind me of two events in Sharon’s life that came in close proximity and had to have influenced his life.
Right after the Six Day War, Sharon led a group of South African military officers—the bad kind—on a tour of liberated Jerusalem, and stopped at the Western Wall. Lubavitch had just set up their tefillin booth there, and the chassid operating it, Reb Aharon Rabinowitz ZL, a former Soviet prisoner, wanted very much to get Arik to roll up his sleeve for Judaism, but was too timid to ask. And so a religious Jerusalemite journalist named Noach Zevuluni, who was writing for the Histadrut trade union’s daily Davar, approached the general with the request. Arik—reluctantly, according to Zevuluni ZL—acquiesced.
There are apocryphal versions of this story, a noted one in which David Ben Gurion is also in the group and refuses to put on tefillin. Another version gathers the entire IDF leadership for the sake of the anecdote, and Arik’s proud example inspires all of them to wrap the straps. The version I cited above is directly from Zevuluni’s writing. Bottom line is: shortly after the war ended, Sharon put on tefillin at the Kotel.
Then tragedy struck. In October, 1967, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, Sharon’s 11-year-old son Gur and his friend, Yaakov Keren, took down an old hunting rifle belonging to Sharon, that hung on display on the wall. They stuffed gunpowder into the gun, and, during play, Yaakov pointed the barrel at Gur’s head and squeezed the trigger. Arik came rushing to the room to find his son lying unconscious on the floor, bleeding from his head. He picked him up in his arms and drove to the nearest hospital, where the doctors declare him dead. (Sharon continued to blame Yaakov Keren of killing his son intentionally, to the point where the Kerens had to leave the neighborhood to avoid the general’s wrath).
These two events, coming so close to each other, raised the interest of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who wrote Sharon a touching and beautiful letter of condolences during the Shiva week that followed his son’s death. Chabad.org offers the entire text online, but I will concentrate on what I believe are the late Rebbe’s poignant observations which he saw fit to share with Sharon.
The Rebbe wrote:
I was deeply grieved to read in the newspaper about the tragic loss of your tender young son, may he rest in peace. We cannot fathom the ways of the Creator. During a time of war and peril you were saved—indeed, you were among those who secured the victory for our nation, the Children of Israel, against our enemies, in which “the many were delivered into the hands of the few, etc.”—and yet, during a time of quiet and in your own home, such an immense tragedy occurred!
It’s the two men’s first encounter, entirely initiated by the Rebbe, and yet he, relentless educator that he was, didn’t waste a beat in launching into a lesson that offered condolences, praise for the general’s military victories, and direction. The document in its entirety is brilliant and daring in equal amounts. To me, it’s obvious that the Rebbe had spotted in Sharon a potential for good that must be cultivated. This was nothing new—the Lubavitcher Rebbe was an unstoppable turbine of inspiration and influence, laboring to change the world from his small chambers on Eastern Parkway, Crown Heights. It’s just that when he was love bombing a notable historical figure, he reached greater heights.
In a seemingly honest and open language, the Rebbe first explained his reason for writing a complete stranger: “…the fame that you received served to reveal something that existed even before, i.e., the interconnectedness of all Jews, whether of the Holy Land or of the Diaspora.”
And he proceeded to praise Sharon for putting on tefillin for all the world to see: “the tremendous inspiration that you aroused in the hearts of many of our Jewish brethren when you put on tefillin at the Western Wall, an act which merited great publicity and echoed powerfully and positively into the various strata of our nation, in places both near and far.”
Then he taught him about the blessing to the mourner: “May the Omnipresent comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”
At first glance, the connection between the mourner at whom this blessing is directed and the mourners of Jerusalem’s destruction appears to be quite puzzling. In truth, however, they are connected. For the main consolation embodied by this phrase is in its inner content, namely: The grief over Zion and Jerusalem is common to all the sons and daughters of our people, Israel, wherever they may be (although it is more palpable to those who dwell in Jerusalem and actually see the Western Wall and the ruins of our Holy Temple than to those who are far away from it; nonetheless, even those who are far experience great pain and grief over the destruction). So too is the grief of a single individual Jew or Jewish family shared by the entire nation. For, as the sages have taught, all of the Jewish people comprise one integral organism.
The Rebbe assured the mourning Sharon that just as God would, without a doubt, rebuild the ruins of Zion and Jerusalem and bring our redemption, so will He, again without a doubt, heal his on grief.
With eloquence and an economy of words, the great man wrapped Sharon’s personal loss with the nation’s historic loss, to generate a truly powerful call to arms. I’ve no idea whether Sharon, who was never accused of being a fool, but fell short of being a scholar, got the message. It’s possible that his relationship with the Rebbe, born in this letter of condolences, wasn’t nearly as important to him as Chabd.org would have us believe. It’s entirely possible that all Sharon wanted from the Rebbe was a practical and concrete value: make friends with the old man and secure the support of some religious politicians—and that everything else was lost on him.
But look at the brilliance and the nuance in the Rebbe’s concluding paragraph, tying the tangible victory of 1967 with a much greater, spiritual victory which is yet to come:
…The Romans—and before them, the Babylonians—were given dominion only over the wood and stone, silver and gold of the Temple’s physical manifestation, but not over its inner spiritual essence, contained within the heart of each and every Jew—for the nations have no dominion over this, and it stands eternally.
As I read it, the subtext for the above colorful paragraph appeared to me to be: You liberated some nice, historically significant stones, General Sharon. But other generals have done it before you, with only pain and destruction to show for it. You, on the other hand, are a Jewish general, and so you have the power to transform your physical victory into a glorious act of redemption, for the Jewish nation and for the world.
I don’t think the Lubavtcher Rebbe had any illusions about the narcissistic qualities of the enormously powerful and charismatic Jewish soul with whom he had struck a relationship. I believe he set out to teach and influence this brave and heroic Jewish general in the hope that his gifts of spirit and intellect would bring good to the world. I would be the first to agree that the results of the Rebbe’s “project” were dubious. But I also shudder to think what might reality have been like without the Rebbe’s influence.
Another very powerful and faithful man I worked for, former MK Yaakov Katz (Ketzaleh), who was Sharon’s liaison to the Haredi politicians and their leaders in Israel, also—much like the Libavitcher Rebbe—had few illusions about Sharon’s personality. While working as the man’s right hand in rebuilding our homeland, and greatly expanding Jewish life east of the “green line” from a measly few thousands to upwards of three quarters of a million, if we include East Jerusalem, Ketzaleh knew, and shared this with close friends, that Arik would turn on the settlements in an instant, if it served his ends.
Both these religious men, whom I’ve admired for many years, tried as best they could, each in his own way, to harness Arik’s larger-than-life soul and to point it in a direction that would serve God. I suspect that both of them knew that, like the rest of us, Arik Sharon was equally capable of serving God and of doing the opposite.
He ended up doing a lot of both.
About the Author: Yori Yanover has been a working journalist since age 17, before he enlisted and worked for Ba'Machane Nachal. Since then he has worked for Israel Shelanu, the US supplement of Yedioth, JCN18.com, USAJewish.com, Lubavitch News Service, Arutz 7 (as DJ on the high seas), and the Grand Street News. He has published Dancing and Crying, a colorful and intimate portrait of the last two years in the life of the late Lubavitch Rebbe, (in Hebrew), and two fun books in English: The Cabalist's Daughter: A Novel of Practical Messianic Redemption, and How Would God REALLY Vote.
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