Yom Kippur of 1973 was my third Yom Kippur in Eretz Yisrael. Dizzy from fasting, I had returned home to take a short nap, when I was abruptly awakened by the sound of a plane flying low over the buildings, shaking the furniture with repeated sonic booms. It seemed strange; only military planes are allowed to fly over Yerushalayim. Why would a military plane be flying on Yom Kippur?
Ten minutes later, I was startled out of my bed by the shrill wail of an air-raid siren. I rushed upstairs to ask my more experienced Israeli neighbor what was going on. Trying to be heard over the siren, I attempted to sound as nonchalant as possible as I said, "Excuse me for bothering you, but do you hear some strange noise outside?"
My elderly neighbor nodded. I could sense the beginnings of a smile.
"Um, wh…what is it?" I knew the answer, but I needed to hear it from someone older and wiser than myself.
"It's an air-raid siren. It means we're at war."
"Wh…what are we supposed to do?"
"We're supposed to go down to a bomb shelter, but they're all locked up. So just stay home until it stops."
Which is exactly what I did.
Fifteen minutes later, as I was racing along the streets of Bayit Vegan (sticking close to the building to protect myself from the falling bombs, just like in all the World War Two novels) to return to Kol Torah Yeshivah, the sirens went off again. I dashed into the nearest building, a beit hachlamah, (a mother-and-baby convalescent home) and found refuge in the basement together with a few dozen mothers and their newborns. The mothers held their babies tight as we recited Tehillim together and tried to contain our fear.
When the siren stopped, I left the building and continued running toward the yeshivah. Although more than 40 years have passed since that day, I still find myself crying at the memory of the scene in the street: dozens of men, still wearing their kittels, were dashing toward waiting army trucks. Some were eating sandwiches as they ran. Sheitel-bedecked women, bearing thermoses of hot, sugar-laden coffee and freshly made sandwiches, rushed toward the trucks to make sure their husbands had nourishment before being sent directly to the front. (Since this was a case of pikuach nefesh, the rabbanim paskened that the wives of the soldiers should return home and prepare food for their husbands, and that the men must eat before going out to combat.)
As the trucks pulled away, the women returned home with tear-streaked faces, now carrying hats and kittels. My elderly neighbor owned one of the few cars in Jerusalem. He was called up to transport goods to the front, less than 45 minutes away. Many of the men who left that day never returned.
I slipped into my seat at the yeshivah. Kaddish was being recited, there was a bang on the bimah, and we all took three steps to begin the Shemoneh Esrei. I was surrounded by the soft sound of weeping.
It was Yom Kippur. Our fate was being sealed. Who will live and who will die? Who by water and who by fire? Who by sword and who by wild beast? Who by gunfire and who by mines? Who by hand grenade and who by a tank shell? Our lives, and the lives of our young men, were hanging in the balance. Only teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah could change the evil decree.
And then the siren went off, again. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach signaled to the gabai to continue. Another bang on the bimah, and then utter silence. No one moved.* The sirens wailed, shaking us out of our lethargy and prodding us to daven with the awesome intensity of one who actually feels the hard, cold metal of the sword's blade pressing against his neck. Slach lanu, machal lanu, kaper lanu…. Hashem was determining our fate. And it was up to each one of us to do our utmost to tip the scale in Am Yisrael's favor.
It is beyond the scope of this short piece to expand on the miracles of the Yom Kippur War. But on the first couple of days of the war, there was nothing, absolutely nothing, stopping the Syrian Army from overrunning Haifa, and the Egyptian army, Beer Sheva. Nothing, except the power of Am Yisrael's tefillos.
Teshuvah, tefillah, u’tzedakah ma’avirin es ro’ah hagezeirah.
*Disclaimer: This p’sak was a one-time horaas sha’ah, as per Harav Shlomo Zalman Aurbach, zt”l, and readers should not extrapolate from this incident a general p’sak to not go to the miklat during an air-raid siren.