When Bonaparte Was Right

Jake Davidson denies me poetic license. His version has to be the right one. My late wife used to say to me “It’s your way or the highway”. She was right (but only that one time!!!)

In reality, she knew that I was right. Always right. At any time, right. How could she know? Because I kept reminding her every day for our happy 56 married years together !!!!!

Thinking of right, my memory returns me to an old story… but it is a right one.

The French hero, Napoleon Bonaparte, was riding in his coach through the streets of Paris in the Marais district which was home to many Jewish families.

As they rode, Napoleon heard loud sounds of wailing and he asked his driver where the loud sounds were coming from.

“Your Majesty”, replied his driver. “The wailing and crying is coming from the small synagogue we are passing. The Jews inside are weeping for the destruction of their holy temple in Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians thousands of years ago”.

The Emperor Napoleon was astounded but much impressed. He remarked to his driver “a people who mourn for their lost temple in their lost homeland thousands of years ago are destined to return and to rebuild it.”

Contrary to what the no-sayers will tell us, that it is only a legend, a myth, it is a belief widely held by French Jews for centuries and is recorded in some histories of France.

I heard the story for the second or third time related by one of my highly esteemed professors, a French Jew, Dr. Andre Neher, when I was a doctoral student at the Universite de Poitiers and he was a guest professor.

Napoleon Bonaparte was right. Upon his return to Malmaison he asked one of his servants to bring him his bible from the bookshelf and he opened its pages to the verses of Jeremiah, “by the rivers of Babylon we sat and we wept when we remembered Zion. Our captives required of us a song of Zion accompanied by the melody of harps hanging on willow trees.”

They asked “how shall we sing God’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, o Jerusalem, let me forget my right hand; let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember thee, if I raise not Jerusalem up above my chiefest joy”.

The Babylonian monarch, Nebuchadnezzar, when he was told of this, remarked “the Hebrews are a strange people”.

At Jewish weddings, the groom is required (at the moment of his chiefest joy) to smash a glass under his foot in memory of the smashing destruction of the Jerusalem temple.

The tragedy occurred on the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av, corresponding this year to 30 th of July.

We mourn, we weep, we wail, but most important of all — we remember. We have never forgotten!

When the temple was destroyed it was replaced by the building of synagogues wherever Jewish communities lived.

The once great temple in Jerusalem (Zion) built by King David’s son and heir, King Solomon, cannot be rebuilt. Jews no longer practice offerings of animal sacrifices. They have been replaced by the offerings of our hearts— personal and communal prayer.

I may not say “Vive la France” but I do not hesitate to say “Vive l’Empereur Napoleon” because he was right. We have returned to our ancient homeland and we recite our ancient prayers and elegies composed many thousands of years ago in the language which we and every Jewish child in Israel speak today.

I have no intention of referring to Davidson again and I will never forget my wife’s words to me:

“When you are right, you are right” she said. And I replied, “yes dear. Always!”

I was a good pupil of Napoleon Bonaparte, except that both of my hands are always visible.

Unlike the great emperor, I did not hide one hand under my vest.

And I don’t reside in a palace nor ride in a gilded coach drawn by crowned white horses.

Ah, monsieur Bonaparte. La vie est dur, n’est-ce pas ?

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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