by Sara Yoheved Rigler
The idealism and faith of Israel’s Army.
During the war in Lebanon last summer, while walking in my Jerusalem neighborhood, I ran into a friend whose 20-year-old daughter had been killed in a terrorist attack. The news that morning had reported four more Israeli soldiers dead. When I saw my friend, I paled. “I hope none of your sons are in Lebanon!” I exclaimed. Her family, who had made aliyah from South Africa, had certainly paid more than its share for the right of Jews to live in Israel.
My friend frowned. “Well, Tzvi is almost finished with the army, but my second son is serving now. He wanted to join a combat unit. You know, the law is that when a family has lost a child, the remaining children can’t join a combat unit unless both parents sign.”
“Well of course you’re not going to sign!” I blurted out.
She shook her head. “I really didn’t want to sign. But these kids are raised on the ideal of fighting to defend Israel. If I don’t let him live out his ideals, he’ll resent me for the rest of his life.”
“Let him resent you!” I implored, remembering how totally devastated this family had been by their terrible loss.
She shook her head resolutely and tears came to her eyes. “I signed this morning.”
Much has been written about “Post-Zionism” – the rejection by many Israelis, especially academics and the elite, of the ideal of creating a Jewish state in the Land of Israel. According to the latest statistics from 2006, some 25% of secular Israeli youth who are qualified to serve in the Israel Defense Forces (I.D.F.) avoid serving. Rock star Aviv Geffen, an icon of Israeli pop culture over the last decade, not only refused to do his army stint, but called for other youths to leave the country rather than serve.
Much less is written about those who, like my friend’s son, view serving the Jewish nation in the land of Israel as a sacred ideal. While religious Jews constitute a minority of Israel’s population, they have become the majority in I.D.F. elite combat units, and a growing proportion of officers comes from their ranks.
On the surface it seems that what divides post-Zionists from religious Israelis is politics and ideology: left vs. right, universalism vs. nationalism. In truth, their most trenchant difference is the value they assign to self-actualization vs. self-sacrifice for the collective. The Jewish ideal of mesirat nefesh refers to giving up what is dear to you. Mesirat nefesh is a continuum from simple dedication (such as giving your time to a worthy cause) to total self-sacrifice (such as giving up your life).
A glowing example of the latter is Major Ro’i Klein. His platoon was inside a building in Lebanon last summer when a Hizbullah terrorist tossed a grenade in the window. Ro’i knew that there was only one way to save his men. He threw himself on the grenade, shouting, “Shema Yisrael,” and let his own body absorb the force of the blast, saving everyone else in the room.
The opposite of mesirat nefesh is the “Me first” culture of the West, which has penetrated the discos of Tel Aviv but not the army of Israel. During last summer’s war, more reservists showed up to fight than the number called. Not all of them returned.
The Last Five Seconds
Among the Jewish reservists killed in Lebanon was Lieutenant Colonel Emanuel Moreno, age 35. Emanuel and his unit were sent into Lebanon to stop the flow of arms to Hizbullah from Syria and Iran.
When Emanuel’s wife and children were sitting shiva for him, a non-religious I.D.F. officer came and recounted a conversation he had had with Emanuel just before they embarked on the helicopter that took them into the war zone.
The two officers were sitting and discussing all the possible eventualities that might occur during the imminent battle, and how they would respond to them. Two weeks before, a Hizbullah missile had hit an I.D.F. helicopter and killed the five soldiers in it. As the officer recounted the conversation:
Emanuel asked me, “What would you do if, God forbid, our helicopter is hit by a missile and you have only five seconds left to live before it explodes?”
I answered him, “I don’t know. I guess I’d be very sad and scared. I would close my eyes and wait for it all to be over as fast as possible, with the least pain.”
Emanuel thought a moment and said: “What I would do, and that’s also what you should do, is say Shema Yisrael.”
I looked at him and said, “Okay, say Shema Yisrael, but what good does that do you? Anyway a moment later the helicopter will explode and we’ll all die.”
Then he answered with a statement that has stayed with me until now, and I believe that it will stay with me my whole life: “If a person has five seconds to live and he believes there’s still purpose to his life and is driven by the eternal consequences in the World to Come, then it means that his life has meaning. But if a person has five seconds left to live and he doesn’t understand the importance of those last five seconds, then it appears that his entire life had no meaning, because we don’t live only to fulfill our physical desires or to just have a good time. Rather, life is one stage on the way to the next.”
As Rabbi Noah Weinberg puts it: “If you have nothing you’re willing to die for, then you have nothing you’re willing to live for.”
In his new book, Am Yisrael Chai [Hebrew, published by Todah Tzahal], Reserve Major Moshe Kenan relates a story that gives us a glimpse behind the scenes of the Jewish army at war last summer.
Near the end of the war, in a particularly fierce battle three kilometers into Lebanon, four Israeli soldiers were killed and over 30 wounded. Major Moshe Kenan was the leader of the paratrooper rescue squad that brought the dead and injured and some of the materiel back into Israel. When the operation was over, they realized that they had left behind one dead soldier.
It was Sunday. They had been notified that a ceasefire with Hizbullah would go into effect at 8 AM Monday. They had scarcely 18 hours left to go back into the war zone and retrieve their fallen comrade, as well as the considerable arms and munitions left behind. As Moshe writes:
In the platoon, opinions were divided. Some of the officers held that there was no reason to go back in. Hizbullah was just waiting for the rescue force to return and would fire on it. It was not worth jeopardizing the lives of other soldiers to rescue the materiel and one dead soldier.
But the majority favored the opinion that they had to go back in, no matter what the cost, so that the body wouldn’t be captured and the materiel wouldn’t fall into the hands of Hizbullah.
In the evening, the decision was made: We’re going back in.
Shlomi, the assistant platoon commander, was skeptical about the operation, but Moshe forged ahead with the preparations. He requisitioned and received special night vision equipment, sappers trained to defuse landmines, and a hunting dog to sniff out the body easily and quickly, since they would be under Hizbullah fire throughout the mission.
Late that night, just before setting out, Moshe gathered his soldiers for a briefing. He explained the goal of the operation—to bring back the dead soldier for proper Jewish burial. “About the importance of the operation, there was no need to speak,” Moshe recalls. “I could see in the eyes of the pure soldiers the spark of faith.”
He concluded the briefing: “We’re going in to bring our comrade to Jewish burial. His pure and eternal soul sees and knows your mesirat nefesh (self-sacrifice). We, the nation of Israel, are not afraid of Hizbullah. They are exactly like Amalek, who fought with the Israelites after the Exodus from Egypt…”
Moshe went on to tell how Moses had led the Israelite army to victory. He sat on hill in the battlefield, and when he lifted his hands heavenward, Israel prevailed. When he dropped his hands down, the enemy prevailed.
A skeptic in the platoon asked how Moses’ hands could determine the outcome of the battle. Moshe answered that Moses had pointed out to the soldiers, “Look upward to God! The physical battle is important, but in order to win the battle one needs to subjugate the heart to our Father in Heaven. When Israel looked up and subjugated their hearts to God, they won. With God’s help, we will go out and we will win.”
As they started to move out, they were notified that Hizbullah had been identified in the precise area they were going, and therefore they could not take the dog. A single bark would reveal their whereabouts.
At the border fence, Moshe blessed his soldiers with the Priestly blessing from the Torah.
I am not a kohen, but I felt such strong love for these soldiers. I really felt as though I were blessing my sons on Shabbat night.
I did not think about my family. It’s forbidden in war to think about one’s family. To me, the soldiers were my children…
Then I took a minute to raise my eyes to Heaven and prayed from the depths of my heart, “Master of the Universe, please prove to all the soldiers of the platoon that you love us. Thank you.”
As soon as he took his first steps into Lebanese territory, Moshe saw out of the corner of his eye something run across his path. It was a small, gray cat. The cat hovered close to his boots, despite Moshe’s attempts to shoo it away. As the platoon marched deeper into Lebanon, the cat accompanied them.
After an hour of movement, their scout noticed two shadowy figures to the east. The platoon hit the ground and pointed their weapons toward the terrorists. Moshe was about to open fire when the cat jumped next to him and brushed him with its tail. Startled, Moshe lost his concentration. By the time he regained it moments later and again prepared to fire, the two shadowy figures were identified as Israeli soldiers.
The cat accompanied them the entire three kilometers to their destination – the hill where the soldier’s body lay somewhere in the darkness. Hizbullah fire rained down on the whole area. “We recognized the smell of war on the hill, and from afar we saw the missiles we had left in the area, shining from the dew and the light of the moon.”
Shlomi, the assistant platoon commander, sent forces to retrieve the materiel. Then he called to Moshe’s rescue force to quickly ascend the hill and find the body. Just then, a Hizbullah missile landed next to the hill. Stalwartly, Moshe’s forces made a horizontal line and, treading carefully, started to comb the area.
At one point the soldier on the right of the line said, “Look at this!” They stopped and saw that the cat stood next to an Israeli helmet. Moshe whispered, “Apparently, this is exactly where he fell.” They began to search the ground with their hands, but all they found were grenades and shrapnel from the battle. Then Moshe noticed the cat.
“Suddenly, from a distance of three meters, we saw the cat trying to drag something. We advanced and saw that the cat stood on the soldier we were searching for.”
They removed the body to the bottom of the hill and headed south. During the withdrawal, Moshe radioed his unit: “There’s a small cat with us who helped us find exactly what we were looking for. Don’t chase it away.” When Moshe glanced behind him, the cat had disappeared.
On the way back to the border, one of the officers fell in next to Moshe and whispered to him, “Did you see? The army couldn’t help us with a hunting dog, so God sent us a hunting cat.”
Fortunate is the army of Israel, that their dedication and self sacrifice draws down miracles from God.