A brilliant flash shatters the darkness. In that blink, the lonely climber sees he is nearing the top of the peek, and around him lays a gorgeous valley with lakes reflecting the awesome mountain. And then it is dark again.
Life flashes with those moments where everything is clear. So does Jewish history.
As the taxi started driving, I asked, "Can you please turn off the radio."
Usually you only see the back of the driver's head. This one turned around smiling: "Only if you sing to me," he answered in Hebrew.
"Simman tov u'mazal tov," I began happily.
"U'mazal tov u'simman tov," he joined in. Now he, my wife and I were all smiling.
I guess the song transported him back to a memory, because he suddenly asked: "Have you ever heard about the liberation of the Western Wall in 1967?"
"Sure" I answered.
"I was there. I was a soldier in a unit fighting the Jordanians. Our troop advanced into a section of the Old City. Although I had never been there before, and the Arabs had animals grazing in the narrow winding alleyways of the Old City, I seemed to recognize where I was. Suddenly I realized I was standing at the Western Wall.
"I went to a school that was not religious. We only had one textbook with anything religious in it. It had three pictures: the Tomb of Rachel, the burial site of the matriarchs and patriarchs in Hebron, and the Western Wall."
Standing at the Wall, I became completely paralyzed.
He continued: "And here I was, at the picture of the place from my schoolbook, standing at the Western Wall. Suddenly I couldn't move. My entire body was tingling, and I became overwhelmed by the holiness of where I was. Over my head I felt the presence of the Shechina (the presence of God which is said to always dwell at the Western Wall), and I became completely paralyzed. Meanwhile the Jordanians were shooting at us from the rooftops. My fellow soldier ran to me because he'd thought I'd been shot. He started checking me for bullet wounds, but he found none. Finally he realized that I was in shock. He started shaking me until I came to."
I was amazed at the story I was hearing, but it got even better.
"Out of nowhere, a rabbi appeared, Rabbi Goren. We were soldiers ready for battle, but he was a civilian, so we ran to cover him. He was carrying a shofar, and was headed straight for the Wall.
As he reached the Wall, he said the mourner's prayer, and then took his shofar and began to blow.
As I heard his story, it was as if it had been prophesized. It mirrored the words and events of a Jew who visited this same site nearly 4,000 years earlier:
Jacob encountered (bumped into) the place... and behold God was standing over him... Jacob said: "Surely God is in this place and I did not know!" And he became frightened and said: "How awesome is this place!... this is the gate of Heaven." (Genesis 28:10-17)
"You heard of Yitzhak Rabin?" the driver then asked. I couldn't tell if he meant the question seriously. "He arrived next, and soon after him Moshe Dayan.
I thought to myself that the textbooks probably don't sequence the events in the order he was telling me. "We bumped into the Wall, the rabbi blew the shofar, and then the generals showed up." Similarly, Jacob -- after whom we call ourselves "Israel" -- is described by the Torah as "bumping into the place." Perhaps that is always how it is with great spiritual discoveries -- the epiphany comes by surprise.
The beauty of the taxi driver's story was what he told me next. "It was summer time. After the liberation, first we invited all the rabbis to visit the Wall. The next week was Shavuot, and we opened it for all of Israel to come and visit."
This taxi driver was not wearing a kippah, yet he turned around and words of the Talmud flowed from his mouth:
"If you weren't there to see the joy of the Simchat Beit HaSho'eva (the Temple water-drawing festival on Sukkot), then you have never seen true joy."
I nodded, waiting to hear what he'd say next.
"If you were not there to see the joy of the Jews coming back to the Western Wall, then you have never seen true joy."
You could see that this true joy was alive within him now as it was when he experienced it 40 years earlier.
"People were weeping, embracing, falling to their feet. For the next six months, you couldn't get a plane ticket to Israel from abroad. Everyone was coming to see the Western Wall."
Every Shavuot in Jerusalem, a few hours before the sun rises over the distant hills, from every edge of the city, the deserted streets begin to fill with Jews of every kind streaming toward one central point -- the Western Wall. You can hear the roar of people -- old men, kids, groups of teenage girls, yeshiva students. And then in a single moment -- at sunrise, the moment at which God gave His beloved people his beloved Torah -- all these different Jews step into prayer, as one person with one heart, and all is silent.
It is a tradition that started on Shavuot in 1967 with the story of our taxi driver.
The rest of the ride home, I was thinking about all the holy people who cried bitterly to merit to see the Wall, and died with their dream unfulfilled. I wondered what it was about our taxi driver that he had been chosen. And I recalled a story that I heard from 1967:
As the soldiers ran to liberate the Wall, a certain non-religious soldier saw the religious soldiers crying. He too began to cry. One of the religious soldiers looked at him in surprise and asked:
"I know why I am crying. But why are you crying?"
The other soldier answered back: "I am crying because I don't know what to be crying about."
We again became like "one person with one heart."
The moment of the giving of the Torah ripples through the millennia to re-emerge in the subconscious of every Jew -- each leading his own separate life -- to again become like "one person with one heart" at the Wall on Shavuot. We each have two identities: the person we identify with day to day, and the picture of ourselves at the critical moments of life that flash with clarity. At those moments, we know who we are. The moment in the history of the Jewish people when we saw ourselves as Israel, as one person with one heart, was at the giving of Torah.
It was there, standing at Sinai, that we enjoyed our moment of greatest clarity. There we had no doubts about our purpose and direction. It was there that we experienced total connection with God, and total unity with our fellow Jews. Pure joy over the confidence in the justness of our cause. Sinai was a flash of light that has illuminated our nation until now.
Perhaps out of all the people in the world, God had chosen a 19-year-old boy from Haifa, our taxi driver, to redeem the Wall, enabling the flood of Jewish people to stream there once again, to give us all a broader vision of who we are in essence. The Torah is for all of us. It is our heart, and connects us even when we see ourselves as very far from it.
Each one of us is like a lone climber through the darkness of exile, struggling to cling to our Jewish heritage. The flash of light that puts us back in touch with our mission, and how close we are to achieving it, was the light that flashed for our driver and the entire Jewish world in 1967. It lit up our souls with a sense of who we truly are. It is the same light that echoes from Sinai.