Editor’s Note: Rabbi Goren (1917-1994) was the first chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces and served during the liberation of Jerusalem in 1967. He also served as chief rabbi of Tel Aviv and chief rabbi of Israel. In the newly released English edition of his autobiography “With Might and Strength” (Maggid Books), Rabbi Goren recounts his trials and triumphs during such formative events as the pre-Holocaust period, the waves of immigration to Eretz Yisrael, the Holocaust, the Jewish underground movement, the establishment of the IDF and the state of Israel, as well as the wars that followed.
The following excerpt describes the battle during the 1967 Six-Day war to reclaim the Kotel (Western Wall), the subsequent emotion-filled prayers, and the liberation of the Cave of the Patriarchs.
* * * * *
“Return in mercy to Jerusalem Your city and dwell therein as You have promised…” (Shemoneh Esrei prayer)
I began running toward Lions’ Gate. The battalion of paratroopers was spread out along both sides of the road, because artillery fire was raining down incessantly on the road itself. Stranded at the entrance to Lions’ Gate was a bus engulfed in flames and one of our tanks was stuck. Suddenly, I heard the battalion commander shouting at me, “Rabbi Goren, you’ll get yourself killed. Come with us and stick close to the wall.”
I felt as if I were flying. I walked out into the middle of the road. To my right, paratroopers from one company hugged one wall, and to my left, paratroopers from another company hugged the other. I heard the battalion commander send out his company commander toward me, telling him, “Go to Rabbi Goren and force him against the wall.”
“I am the highest ranking officer here,” I told them. “Don’t force me against anything.”
According to Jewish law, when Jews go out to battle they blow trumpets or shofars to assure their victory, as the Torah states: “And if you go to war in your land, against the enemy that oppresses you, then you shall blow an alarm with the trumpets, and you shall be remembered before the Lord your God and you shall be saved from your enemies” (Numbers 10:9). It was for this reason that I had brought a shofar with me.
The moment we drew close to the gate, I began blowing the shofar, sounding it loudly in this battle for the liberation of Jerusalem. I continued to blow the shofar until we reached the tank that was stuck at the gate, blocking the entry to the Temple Mount. I quickly climbed up onto the tank and slid down the other side, finding myself at the entrance to the Temple Mount. As I made my way forward, I began to utter a prayer in between shofar blasts and shouted to the soldiers, “In the name of God, take action and succeed. In the name of God, liberate Jerusalem, go up and be successful.”
I kept shouting until we were right on top of the Temple Mount, where I found [Commander] Motta Gur standing surrounded by his soldiers. I had prepared a proclamation, which I then recited.
I decided that I was going to attempt to go down to the Kotel, which at that stage no one had yet reached. I was not familiar with the way from the Temple Mount to the Kotel, but there were two paratroopers who were. I took them and my driver with me and we exited from Mugrabi Gate. We reached a gate at the top of the stairs leading down to the Kotel, but it was locked with an iron chain and a padlock. I suggested forcing it open with our shoulders. The four of us began to push, and we broke the lock.
I went down to the area in front of the Kotel, and as if in a dream, a flash of light blinded me. An Arab suddenly appeared from a tunnel on the left and offered me a chair. I began to daven and recited the psalm for Wednesday: “A psalm of Asaph. Truly God is good to Israel, to such as are of a clean heart. But as of me, my feet were almost gone; my steps had well-nigh slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked…. I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may relate all Your works” (Ps. 73). I then blew the shofar once again, as more soldiers and paratroopers began descending from the Temple Mount to the Kotel, through the gate we had broken open.
As soon as there were ten men present, I began to daven for the memory of the fallen soldiers and recited [Kel] Maleh Rachamim. I proposed that we daven Minchah with Hallel and Nachem beside the Kotel, which for nineteen years had not been the site of any Jewish prayers, but then I realized that it was only half past eleven in the morning and we could not daven Minchah yet. We began to recite psalms and sang, “This year in rebuilt Jerusalem.” By that time, the entire division had reached the Kotel. Motta Gur and [Commander] Uzi Narkiss had also arrived and I repeated the service for the memory of the fallen while everyone cried. I found that I, too, could not hold back my tears.
* * * * *
Lt. Col. Tzvika Ofer and the forces with him were planning to set out toward Hebron at six o’clock in the morning.
As part of the preparations for going into battle, I asked the commander if I could speak with the soldiers. He answered in the affirmative and said he would assemble his entire brigade at three o’clock in the morning. At the appointed hour, the soldiers assembled on a small hill near the vehicles and the commander handed me a megaphone. This is what I said to the soldiers:
Dear soldiers, today we liberated our nation’s Holy of Holies in Jerusalem – the Temple Mount and the Kotel. Tomorrow, we are going to liberate the second-holiest city in Eretz Yisrael. You are going to liberate the Jewish people’s city of the patriarchs, which is the foundation of the Kingdom of David. King David ruled for seven years in Hebron before he ruled in Jerusalem. You are going to fight against the worst and wildest murderers. They carried out the pogroms all over the country and killed 164 fighters right here, where we are now, after they surrendered and laid down their arms. There is no absolution for that! Know how to behave with them and in the name of the Lord, take action and succeed, and go from victory to victory! From the victory in Jerusalem and Judea to the victory in Hebron!
As dawn approached, the soldiers started organizing for their departure. At 6:00 a.m. I went out onto the road to look for Tzvika Ofer’s battalion, but I didn’t see anyone there. I thought they might already have left, but the line of tanks was still there. I thought that perhaps he had taken the first tank and gone toward Hebron to get there first. I told my driver that we should advance toward Hebron, regardless of what the battalion was doing. There was my vehicle and the Military Rabbinate jeep that escorted us. On the way we met the battalion’s reconnaissance company and passed it. We turned on our vehicle’s siren and everyone let me pass.
Suddenly my driver said, “Rabbi, we’re the first ones here. There are no soldiers ahead of us. The entire brigade is behind us. We could get stuck in Hebron alone, and who knows what they’ll do to us.”
“Drive on,” I told him.
When we drew closer to Hebron, I saw white flags waving over all the houses along the way. I realized that there was no war here. There wasn’t a single Jordanian flag, so there was nothing to fear and no reason to be afraid – we were entering Hebron as victors, without a war and without having fired a single shot.
“There’s a Jordanian flag flying from the third floor of one of the houses,” my driver said as we drove past Halhul. “They might fire on us.”
“Take the Uzi and cover me,” I said. “I’m going up there to take down the flag.”
My driver said they might kill me, so he would go.
“You’re still young,” I told him. “You still have to build a home and a family. I’ve already lived my life. I’ll go up, and whatever happens, happens.”
One of the drivers accompanied me to the second floor, and from there I went up to the third floor. I reached the flag and took it down.
“Salaam Alaikum,” I said to the tenants. I took the flag and they didn’t say a word.
We advanced toward Hebron, and when we entered the city we saw that all the houses along the main road were festooned with white sheets, hung from all the balconies. The Hebron municipality and the military forces in Hebron had decided on a self-imposed curfew and ordered that no one leave their homes. I wanted to inform them that the IDF had already conquered Hebron, even though at this stage the IDF force was only me and the jeep.
There was a podium in the middle of the city, where a policeman usually stood, directing the traffic. I mounted the podium, took the Uzi and fired a whole magazine of bullets into the air, to notify the residents of the city that the Israel Defense Forces was inside the city and that we had captured Hebron.
My declared goal had been to be the first to reach the Cave of the Patriarchs. I saw an Arab boy of about sixteen or seventeen standing at one of the windows. I called out to him to come down to me.
“Where is the grave of our Avraham Avinu [that’s what the Arabs called the Cave of the Patriarchs]?” I shouted up to him, but he replied that he was afraid to come down because of the curfew; he wouldn’t be able to get back home. I promised him that my driver would bring him back, and the boy agreed to show us.
We reached the site and began to climb the stairs toward the gates on both sides of the building, at the top of the two staircases. I climbed to the top of the staircase on the north side, where everyone prayed, and saw that the gate was locked.
“Ifta el-bab!” I shouted in Arabic. “Open the gates!” I heard voices inside.
“Mefish maftuah,” they said. “We don’t have a key.”
If they don’t have a key, I thought to myself, how did they get inside? I knew there were people in there, and that the gates were closed from the inside with bolts. They had thirty-six keys, and they were holding onto them. I began firing hundreds of bullets at the gates, but they didn’t budge. To this day you can see the holes I made in the gates, which the Arabs call “Rabbi Goren’s holes.” (Years later, the Arabs tried to fill in the holes so that there would be no trace of our liberation of the Cave of the Patriarchs. I phoned the governor of Hebron and he sent an officer to stop the holes from being filled in.)
For three hours, we tried to break down and open the gates, but without success, until I heard the sound of a tank approaching the site. That was the first tank that entered Hebron, and it was adorned with an improvised flag – a sheet on which the soldiers had drawn a blue Star of David. The soldiers had taken the flag from David’s Citadel. Here’s what had happened:
During the liberation of Jerusalem there was no flag to hang on David’s Citadel. A Jewish family from England lived nearby, and the wife gave a white sheet to the soldiers and told them they could draw a Star of David on it. At first, this improvised flag was hung on David’s Citadel, and after several hours it was taken down and hung on the tank that would be the first to enter Hebron and reach the Cave of the Patriarchs.
There was a small flagpole on the main gate in front of the Cave of the Patriarchs. We drove the tank up against the wall beside the gate, and from there I climbed up onto the tank’s turret and hung the flag at the entrance to the compound. Many pictures of me hanging that flag were later published in Israel and around the world.
We wanted to break through the gate to the Cave of the Patriarchs. Despite the hundreds of bullets I had fired, we had not managed to dislodge the gate. When the tank arrived, I saw the soldiers had a crow bar. My driver and I put the bar into the gate and worked it off its hinges until the gate fell to the ground and we could enter the Cave of the Patriarchs. We saw two Arabs inside, so scared they were trembling like a lulav, and one of them was holding the dozens of keys to the gate – even though they had shouted to me from inside that they didn’t have any keys. My driver went over to him, took the keys, and we went into the Cave of the Patriarchs, where I blew the shofar.
I took the sefer Torah that I had brought with me and read the weekly portion of Chayei Sarah, which relates how Abraham bought the Cave of the Patriarchs from the sons of Chet. It was still early in the morning and we were able to daven Shacharit there. That was the first time after more than a thousand years that Jews were inside the Cave of the Patriarchs…
Rabbi Shlomo Goren