The Yom Kippur War – 40 Years Later

Yom Kippur 5774 – September 14, 2013

Or Chadash – Rabbi Joseph M. Forman


40 years. It’s a long time. In dog years it’s an eternity. According to Jewish tradition, the number 40 represents something significant.  In Biblical parlance, 40  – whether it is 40 years and therefore an epoch: a span of time that crosses multiple generations or 40 days, a period of time when an individual is perhaps able to change within — 40 signifies that some sort of transformation has taken place.  

The flooding rains Noah endured lasted 40 days and 40 nights.

In the Book of Exodus, Moses went up to Mount Sinai and was there for 40 days before he was able to receive the 10 Commandments and return with them. 

The ancient Hebrews wandered in the wilderness for 40 years before they could fully embrace the change from slavery in Egypt to leadership of their own land in Israel.

In the Haftarah reading for the Yom Kippur Afternoon service, Jonah spent 40 days in the city of Nineveh, successfully encouraging its inhabitants to repent of their sinful ways.  

The Talmud teaches that the study of Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, begins at age 40.

It’s an age, our sages taught, when we can begin to understand our world.

Whether we speak of 40 days or 40 years, it is a long time – long enough for something to change.

This morning, on this Day of Atonement, we mark the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War in 1973 in Israel.  

40 years ago, on Judaism’s holiest day, while many Israelis were in synagogues, fasting and praying for God’s forgiveness, or reflecting on their lives, Israel was attacked by surprise. Some of you here are too young to remember it. 

I myself was just starting third grade. 

So allow me to offer a bit of a reminder for many of us.

During the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel had captured Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, nearly 24,000-square-miles, and the Gaza Strip.  Israel took control of Syria’s Golan Heights, and Jordan lost the West Bank and East Jerusalem.  Israel’s stunning victory in the Six-Day War left the Jewish nation in control of territory four times its previous size.  When Anwar Sadat became president of Egypt in 1970, he found himself leader of an economically troubled nation that could ill afford to continue its endless crusade against Israel. Sadat wanted to make peace with Israel – a goal that ultimately cost him his life.  He wanted to bring stability to his country and recover the Sinai.  But after Israel’s 1967 victory it was unlikely that Israel’s peace terms would be favorable to Egypt. So President Sadat conceived of a daring plan to attack Israel again.

On October 6, 1973, Egypt and Syria joined forces and, with the help of their neighboring Arab countries, they attacked Israel  — on Yom Kippur –40 years ago today.  Egyptian armored forces crossed the Suez Canal and entered the Sinai Peninsula in the south. Syrian tanks crossed the cease-fire lines along the Golan Heights in the north.  On the Golan Heights alone, 150 Israeli tanks faced 1,400 Syria tanks, and in the Suez region in the south, just 500 Israeli soldiers faced 80,000 Egyptian soldiers.  Very quickly, the thin Israeli defense lines were swamped by massive Arab forces.

 Unlike other armies, most of the Israeli Defense Forces are made up of reserve forces called milu’im. These reservists were and still are the everyday citizens of Israel, who work in the public and private sectors.

Many of us know one of them who served a bit more recently.  Writer and comedian Joel Chasnoff served in the Israeli military and was at Or Chadash a few summers ago.

Like Joel, many of these ordinary Israeli citizens were praying in their synagogues on Yom Kippur when they were suddenly called on to defend their country. 

After a few days of fierce fighting, Israeli forces managed to stop the invasion and found ways to infiltrate behind enemy lines. 

In a surprise move, the Israeli military, under the command of Ariel Sharon, ‫ crossed the Suez Canal into Egypt, effectively cutting off supply lines to the invading Egyptian army. Facing no opponents, the Israeli army stopped voluntarily, 65 miles from Cairo.  In the north, in Syria, the army stopped just 25 miles from Damascus.

The successful defense of Israel in just 19 days of battle, with tremendous assistance from the United States, was not without cost.  Over 2500 Israeli soldiers lost their lives.  7000 more were wounded. 

And, embarrassed by the failure of their government to have been prepared for this attack,

Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan both resigned in the months after the conflict.

The 1978 Camp David Accords that followed the cease-fire led to the return of the Sinai to Egypt and normalized Israel’s relations with that country—the first peaceful recognition of Israel by an Arab country. 

Syria, though, did not regain the strategic Golan Heights.  It still remains in Israeli hands as a defense against any future invasions from the north.  And the leadership of Syria has never made peace with Israel.  Syria has been a haven to terrorism of all kinds – the worst, perhaps, as we have learned in recent days, from its own government against its own people.

In the coming days and weeks we will all be watching as the US and other nations respond to the Syrian government’s gassing of Syrian citizens.  It is a painful reminder to Jews and to the world that the inhumanity of tyrants, that profound evil, must not be ignored by the world.

Of course every war brings painful memories for individuals and for society. Following the Yom Kippur War, during the decades of the 1970s, 80s and 90s, as Israel tended to the wounds of its deadliest war, American Jewry was energized by their devotion to rescue Israel from the threats of her near annihilation. Israel Bonds flourished.  UJA missions to Israel packed full planes.  And then peace broke out with Egypt and then with Jordan.  And then Israel, seemingly no longer needing American Jews to save her, faded from the forefront of our concerns.  Instead, we watched from afar, both physically and increasingly emotionally, as Israel settled into a kind of normalcy.

When terrorism (aimed at killing her people) and war (aimed at destroying the nation) were the major stories of Israel, we seemed more dedicated to her survival.  Now that the seemingly never-ending Palestinian conflict groans on and the image of Israel is confusing — at times one that appears to be an image of the aggressor, and at times still the target of senseless hatred – the American Jewish community has begun to grow weary from the conversations.

If I were to ask you to come up with five words to describe Israeli life, the first might be falafel, but the others on that list might include war, occupation, terrorism, conflict. 

Its no wonder that far too many of us have become tired and disinterested and even a bit put-off hearing about Israel’s turmoil. 

So what is there left to say about Israel?  Plenty.  And none of it has to do with war or politics or occupation.  Just ask anyone who has attended a Birthright trip, one of a handful of outstanding programs that is revitalizing the way we think of Israel.  Birthright trips are free 10-day excursions to Israel that have already transformed the lives of over 350,000 young adults.  This year I hope to transform your descriptions of Israel. 

For nearly 3,000 years the land of Israel has been the heart, the soul, and the foundation of the Jewish people—the homeland from where its ancient traditions, culture and values have emanated.

Since it was reestablished as a modern state in 1948, Israel has emerged as America’s most important strategic ally in the Middle East, a land of freedom and democracy, and a technological marvel that is one of the world leaders in science and innovation.

Israel’s Declaration of Independence proclaims many of the same democratic principles that the United States adheres to, including “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex…(and) freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture….”

Israel is an oasis of freedom in a desert of oppressors.  Perfection?  Hardly. But there is much to say about Israel that reveals she is a remarkable country that we can be proud of.

Yet, there is still so much misinformation bandied about.  

Sometimes we hear ignorant remarks claiming that Zionism is equivalent to racism.  Consider that Israel remains the only democracy in the Middle East with a robust free press with myriad publications representing all views within its society. Civil rights are guaranteed by law, and guarded by numerous groups that often openly challenge the government.

Perhaps we hear that Israel is oppressing the rights of its Arab citizens.  Consider for a moment that in most Middle East countries, minority religious groups suffer from persecution and discrimination. In Israel, each faith has its own religious council and courts, with jurisdiction over all religious affairs and matters of personal status.  You might be surprised to learn that Muslim and Christian Arabs have continuously served in the Knesset  — Israel’s parliament — since 1948.

Perhaps you have heard that the Jewish state is controlled by the Ultra Orthodox, subverting the rights of equality for women or gays.  Consider that unlike any other Middle Eastern nation, women are at the forefront of many aspects of Israeli society. Israel had a woman hold the highest elected office  — prime minister.  The U.S. still has yet to achieve that level of gender equality in government.   Israel has always had at least one woman on its Supreme Court, and, regardless of religion or ethnicity, all women in Israel enjoy equal rights —including serving alongside their male counterparts in the defense of the state.

Israel is a haven of tolerance for minorities of every faith, gender, sexual orientation and ethnic background — the most tolerant country in the Middle East protecting minority rights.

Consider that the only gay pride parade in the Middle East is in Israel. 

There is much to be said about Israel – words that have nothing to do with war or violence or occupation or conflict.

This year Or Chadash will be joining in the effort to refocus our conversations about Israel through the work of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and their program: iEngage.

Led by a team of internationally renowned scholars in the fields of Jewish studies, Middle East politics, and history, the iEngage Project is committed to addressing core questions pertaining to the necessity and significance of the Jewish national enterprise; how a Jewish state should exercise power; why a Jew who lives outside of Israel should care about Israel; and what the State of Israel can offer the world 

This year, beginning October 6th, I will be leading an iEngage class one Sunday morning each month.  In the words of Donniel Hartman:

“Now is the time to invite the Jewish community … to engage in thinking about the meaning that Israel can have in their lives and how they can be enriched and positively influenced by the reality of a Jewish nation. Only a narrative that gives meaning to Jewish statehood and sovereignty and that articulates a vision of Israel that lives up to the highest standard of Jewish values, morality, and democracy can form the basis for a new covenant for Jews around the world.”

On this 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, it is important to remember our Jewish history.  It is important to reflect on lessons learned and find inspiration and hope for the future.

One of my goals – and it’s a big one, with apologies to President Kennedy —  my goal is that before the end of 24 months Or Chadash will bring members of our congregation to Jerusalem and return them safely to Hunterdon County.

I want to hear from you in the coming weeks and months how you would like to see Israel, what you want to experience there, and what kind of trip you would imagine.  I look forward to hearing from you in the New Year.

But an even more important goal, I believe, is generating a conversation with all of you that will celebrate Israel for what it is and, more importantly, for what it can become for each of us.


Shanah Tova.