Ten years. Ten years have passed since Michael Levin (z”l) last smiled. Last said “Shema Yisrael.” Last called his parents and sisters to tell them “I love you.” He may have only lived 22 years, but he impacted and influenced more lives than many do in a lifetime.

Michael’s story is well known to many in the Jewish community, in Israel and abroad. Michael was born on February 17th, 1984, to Jewish parents, Mark and Harriet Levin . He grew up a typical American kid in suburban Philadelphia: fun-loving, enthusiastic in his passions, a staunch fan of his beloved Philadelphia Flyers. Michael knew from a young age that he wanted to build his own life in Israel. So at age 18, Michael made aliyah with the intention to join the Israeli Defense Forces.

After spending time on a kibbutz when he first arrived, Michael joined the elite Paratrooper Unit. Many of his comrades remembered that no matter how tough things were during training or on duty, Michael would always have this mile wide smile on his face. When the Second Lebanon War broke out in July of 2006, Michael was on leave in Philadelphia visiting his family. Upon receiving the news his unit was being called to action, he immediately returned to Israel, determined to help defend the country he loved so much.

On August 1st, 2006, Michael was helping to clear a building in the southern Lebanese town of Ayta ash-Shaab when his battalion was directly hit by a Hezbollah fired anti-tank missile. Michael was shot by a sniper and killed instantly, along with two other Israeli soldiers; eleven others were severely wounded. During that final visit home, Michael had told his parents that if anything happened to him, he wanted to be buried at Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem, which is where Michael is now at rest and where I first learned his story on my Mayanot Birthright trip.

I was 20-years-old at the time. For a few years when I came back to visit him, I was younger than Michael. Then I was his age when he passed, 22. Then I turned 23 and I realized I will now always be older than Michael and Michael will always remain 22. And it shouldn’t be that way. Michael was supposed to finish his service, get married, and live a long, wonderful life, sharing his smile with the world. I visited Michael one time with a friend of mine who finished his army service a few months before. He told me about his friend who fell during Operation Protective Edge, a paratrooper like Michael. Then he said something I’ll remember forever. He said, “This place is full of heroes. But we don’t want anymore heroes; we just want peace.”

In today’s world, there is often a path set up for us from birth. Go to school, get a job, maybe go to graduate school, earn enough money to live comfortably off of, and eventually settle down. But are you truly happy and sure that this is what you wanted to do with your life? I think it is vitally important to hold onto something we have a true passion for and not let the paths sometimes previously laid out for our lives take over. I believe many of us can identify something that we internally yearn for, a passion kept alive by following a far more personally satisfying and socially contributing direction.

Every time I’m in Israel, I always visit Michael’s grave. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been there. But it’s where I do my best praying and thinking. Every time I visit, I find some sort of inner peace and clarity. It is within man’s innate nature to desire happiness. Isn’t that what everyone strives for, to be happy? Many of us get caught up in the status who of the world and we let what truly inspires us and feeds our soul fall by the wayside. We must not let that happen. If you sense that identifying your personal happiness involves breaking from the preconceived structure or plan that society has laid out for you, or places you at the crossroads of an alternate decision, by all means follow your heart.

In his high school yearbook, Michael’s quote sums up this belief perfectly and I would like to leave you with it: “You can’t fulfill your dreams unless you dare to risk it all.” We never know the plan Hashem has in store for us. All we can do is live our lives the way we want, enjoying it and loving whatever it is we choose to do and keeping our passion close to our hearts. Thank you for helping me learn this lesson Michael, and thank you for helping me teach it to participants on Birthright trips I continue to staff. Baruch Dayen Emet.