My heart hammers as we wrestle. My blood pulses against the stitching of a two-day-old amputation, like a line of charging bayonets. He and I clasp arms and it’s venom through vein. This bodily pain barely fazes me – not while my mind blazes this way. My God.

January 12, 2010, 2:30 AM (ten minutes to oath) 

Morphine intoxicates the neurons lumbering about my skull and, soon, I lay slumped on the battlefield, convinced victory is mine: Izzy, one. God, zero. And so here I sprawl, still as a corpse – though I know a CT scan of my brain would show all lobes firing at full thrust. I’m furious, yet euphoric – I’m spent, yet restless. And despite the warm bodies resting all around me, I’ve never felt so alone.

Sheets rustle beyond the curtain. The dim green numbers on the clock read 2:40 AM. “Izzy?” Aveshi rasps, before clearing his voice of slumber. “Did you say something?” I hear my squad mate struggling to sit up. We lie side-by-side, deep within the bomb shelter of Soroka hospital in Beersheba. Like Aveshi, I’ve suffered a tremendous injury, but I have never seen my own future with such clarity. During these days in bed, one blending into the other, coming in and out of an opiate daze, a picture of my future coalesced. I know what I have to accomplish. “I’m going back,” I grunt toward my brother in arms through the meds, through my clenched teeth. “I’m going back to combat.”

Nothing. Quiet. No swishing of sheets. I wait for Aveshi to let me down easy, to tell me I can still serve my cause, but not like the whole, the uninjured. Or maybe to chuckle off my aspiration, assuming I’m kidding or just too high to know what the hell I’m saying. Ten seconds. Twenty. “I’ll be guarding your back,” he vows, and despite the partition, the darkness between us, I know he’s more serious than molten shrapnel, the kind that cut his femur deep.

Now it’s my turn to be silent. After everything we’ve suffered, how can he mean that? Where does he find the fortitude? For heaven’s sake. How can our two identical oaths sprout from such opposing sources of inspiration? Only God knows…

***

Two days earlier

“We’re on,” Lieutenant Fux confirms.

And I discover just how easily three curt words can send a soldier’s heart pounding through his protective chest plate. “Prep yourselves. T-minus thirty and we’re going into Gaza.”

Operation Cast Lead is in full swing. Our battalion has suffered its first casualty and my platoon is slated to extract Captain Rosner’s body. But before we set out, a military-grade mortar tears into our olive-drab tent. Shrapnel shatters Aveshi’s leg; my left arm explodes at the elbow. We can’t complete our mission, but I have enough time to wrap up another matter, an act of faith that will forever change the way I wrestle with God.

 ***

January 12, 2010, 1:15AM (85 minute countdown to oath)

The steady blip of a heart monitor punctuates the constant buzz in my ears. At two days since impact, the fumes emanating from my charred flesh show no sign of dissipating. The morphine barely shaves stubble off the sting anymore, and despite the darkness, pain casts deep shadows on everything. I’m trying hard to see past the hurt, but my vision’s gone opaque. I keep my thumb cemented to the morphine regulator, which turns into a struggle of wakefulness over pain. When I drift off, I lose my grip on the button, when I lose my grip, the pain returns. If I could just get my hands on some Scotch tape, I’d secure the damn button in place.

It’s hand, not hands, you cripple. And you’ll never be able to tie anything in place again. You’ll probably never wrap a piece of tape for the rest of your miserable life. And that’s when it hits me. Pain sharpens the dark horizon of my thoughts. Teffilin. The memory, fresh as my wounds, creeps underneath the thin covers and robs me of my scant warmth. We all wrapped teffilin.

“What’s is it?” asks Aveshi. I must be talking to myself.

“Can you remember what we did – you know, what we were doing right before –?”

“We wrapped teffilin. I remember.” Has he been thinking of this all along? Of course…He’s the one who spent precious minutes circling the tent with that goofy grin – right before it began raining death – so that each of us could wear his personal straps.

“Don’t you find it strange,” I ask, “that right after we prayed, we got slammed by a goddamn rocket?”

No answer. I can almost hear him thinking about how to respond.

“Seriously, Aveshi. Listen. Five months I don’t touch teffilin, not once since the end of basic.” My jaw’s grinding, and I try to unclench it. “Then the day I do – the same hour, I get … I …” I’m shaking my head. The morphine bends a rainbow in front of my eyes, but those colors bleed into red. Something inside me is stirred awake, a vibration, dark and snarling, and it threatens to tear me open at the seams.

“Here’s the thing, Izzy: We don’t always know why these things happen.” I can barely hear him over the roar mounting inside me.

“Five months.” I can’t pry open my teeth. They are the vault that holds this detonation of rage at bay.

“It’s good you wrapped, Izzy. It wasn’t the tefillin – ”

“Oh, yeah? Well, he sure picked a hell of time to tear us a new one.”

“You’re forgetting something over there. Maybe putting on teffilin is the one reason we’re in the hospital now and not sleeping in pine boxes.

This conversation is over. How do you reason about color with the blind? Let Aveshi lie there content with his interpretation of the bloodshed. I can tell by his breathing that he’s falling back into the vegetative state occasioned by meds and God’s lovingkindness.

I’m alone. My friend left me here to sulk, and so I do. What I don’t expect is the torrent of boiling rage that jams its way up my throat. My five remaining fingers dig forcefully into the mattress so that I can’t differentiate flesh and bone from phantom limb.

Have I always been a pessimist? A cynic? Not sure. But one thing a hospital stay affords you is some time – whether you’ve asked for it or not – to get to know yourself, to read the instruction manual.

Did God keep us alive because we performed an ancient rite, a holy ritual? What if that’s the only reason we’re alive? Aveshi’s right on one count, at least. It could have been so much worse. God’s grace? Fate? Random happenstance? Was it meant to be?

That timeworn fairy tale smells rancid, like my charred upper body.

I click the button.

Please. Knock me out. Stop the spinning. If I lost both arms, would Aveshi say, “It could’ve been worse. You’ve still got your legs.” If I were plopped in this bed a paraplegic, would he and The Tribe say, “It could’ve been worse – all your faculties are still intact!” It’s infuriating. Lord.

I can hear Aveshi’s slow breaths. He’s out. Could it be his beliefs and not the drip that comforts him? I can’t deny that trusting it’s all in God’s hands would lift a burden from my uneven shoulders. All I need to do is whisper sweet nothings to myself, to “have faith.” I can almost taste the immediate relief these comforting clichés would bring, that tinge of honey. Knowing I’m not alone is a powerful support, but what about being honest with myself? I know belief could give meaning to my suffering, but how do I know its answers are real?

I can choose. I have the choice to believe they are. That’s great, but how do I know?

And there it is: I can’t know – because none of us really know. The best we can do is…believe.

Faith….My mother materializes before my eyes; her image gives off overwhelming light like a flare in a cupboard. Strange. I know she’s with the girls back in Jerusalem. My sisters…they must be so traumatized by all this.

I’m surprised to discover how much my mother’s faith frustrates me. Her belief can inhabit acres of uninterrupted rainforest. Before I turned twelve, she’d already lost her brother to leukemia, her mother to a drunk driver, and her father must’ve died of a broken heart. So how does she do it? Trust Him with the rudder, get out of bed each morning, open her palms to heaven and pray for an hour before breakfast? Does she choose to feel this way?

Her faith is elegant, so graceful – but in her case, I know it stems from below the roots of her challenges. Belief, like my mother’s, comes before the onset of her personal struggles. Can I sincerely say that’s happening here? My heart. It tells me, no – that if I choose to put the shattered pieces of my life into the hands of an entity I can’t sense, I’d be doing it for the wrong reason. I’d be grasping for security during a moment of weakness. I’d be a coward, a victim for the rest of my life if I choose the easy way out.

My body relaxes as I decide with finality, “There may be a God, but I can’t know for sure, and if I can’t be positive, I won’t use belief as a crutch. I’ll go it alone. The full weight of such a burden comes crashing down on me. My mother’s image wavers and shrinks into oblivion. I no longer have an all-powerful source of strength.

My choice has an upside as well. My own strength fills the void. A new backbone brought on by the desperation of being cornered and alone. I can do this. I can take this on solo. If only I can somehow figure out what it means.

Or, a terrifying thought, what if it doesn’t mean anything at all? Maybe what happened has no meaning. Maybe there is no bigger picture.

Then what is there?

There’s me, at the wrong place, at the wrong time. There’s that mortar.

But is there a reason?

There’s no reason I can prove. There is no longer an arm.

If there is no meaning, if none of this happened as part of some ultimate plan, then I’m left to find significance on my own. Then it hits me. I know what I have to accomplish.

Aveshi rasps, “Izzy, did you say something?”

I tell him, “I’m going back.”

2:40AM (oath)

Back to Combat

***

Today I press my open palm against the stone of the Western Wall and feel a flicker in response; I act upon what I once labeled as weakness. And while I can’t yet ask anything of God, or recite a prayer, I’ve found a measure of peace in thanking Him for the many amazing gifts I’ve been blessed with.

Some people tell me, “Even your lack of belief was part of God’s plan. As the two of you arm-wrestled, he let you win. That’s how you got back into combat! You see?”

I have a hard time restraining myself from punching said people right in the femur – Amen.

A fellow soldier lends me his hand from behind.

A fellow soldier lends me his hand from behind.

Per contra, if you ask my mother, she’ll tell you a different story. She’ll tell you that even though Aveshi and I would both return to combat, my stubborn decision wasn’t born of logic. She’ll tell you that when I woke up for the first time – two full days before my oath ­­– I found her face and smiled a morphine grin.

“Ma.”

“Oh, Izzy … I’m so sorry.”

“Ma.”

“Yes?”

“I have to go back. You know that… right?”

“God willing,” she answers. Shocked, she turns around to see who blessed my journey back to combat. No one is there, but now she says, “God was with us.”