I have anticipated this day for 19 years, with mixed feelings of awe and love, repressed fear and with pride. And of course, with prayer.
The birth of one’s oldest child is like first love. This is not a new idea, and yet it is so special. Even though you know it has happened throughout history and will continue to happen every day, nevertheless you somehow feel as if you are the first one to experience it.
When our oldest son was born, he came out into the world with a loud cry that announced: “I’m here!” I felt that I finally understood the secret of creation. Since then we have been blessed with three more children just as wonderful. And yet, there is still only one first time.
Ever since the day of his birth the question of his service In the Israel Defense Forces has hung in the air. At his Brit Mila I announced my promise to my wife Betsy (with an arrogance mixed with naïveté) that by the time this tender newborn is grown, there will be peace in our land and no longer any need for him to be drafted into the army. When he revealed exceptional leadership qualities at a young age, I was not able to banish from my mind parental musings of how he would conduct himself as a soldier and an officer. When he excelled in sport I imagined him carrying a stretcher on his shoulder. In the early hours of the morning I would peek into the boys’ room to see them sleeping peacefully in their beds and wonder how much more time was left to us.
The wake-up call that alerted us that it was really about to happen was the first draft notice. All of a sudden, the envelope with the familiar triangle of the Military Post Office was no longer addressed to me, but to my son. Oy! Now it is beginning to become real. The stopwatch has been pressed and the countdown has begun.
The truth is, a meaningful army service has many virtues. It teaches order and discipline. It provides soldiers with many important life lessons in leadership, comradeship, teamwork and mutual responsibility. It allows young people to deal with challenges, to believe in themselves, and to learn that apparently impossible barriers are flexible and can often yield to determination and faith. Army service develops personality, maturity, strengths and abilities.
There are only two main disadvantages to overshadow the many virtues of military service. The first disadvantage: it is dangerous to one’s health. One can be injured or even lose one’s life during the military enterprise. And the second: young men and women have to make a sudden transition from high school studies, loves, pastimes, and the other mostly positive activities of youth, to the reality of being combat soldiers, when the main focus of their training and military exercises is to excel in the art of war, an art whose ultimate aim is to kill and destroy.
And so even before the call-up date the family begins to prepare for this new reality. During preparations for Shabbat dinner, the oldest summons his younger brother to learn how to prepare the festive chopped salad for Shabbat. “Come here and learn. I am passing the salad-preparation torch to you. Another few weeks and I won’t be here to make the salad. Even when I come home on leave I’ll just be resting up and recharging my batteries…” And as I bestow the parent’s blessing on my children on Shabbat eve, the verse “May G-d bless you and protect you” becomes charged with a special meaning – the hope and the prayer for him to go in peace and return in piece.
It is also fascinating to observe from the side how he himself is preparing for his impending enlistment. His physical and mental preparations and tryouts for elite units and his indecision right up to the last moment about which military unit to choose. The excitement and the pride of all of us when we heard that he was accepted into the ranks of the select few. The understanding that he is faced with another 18 months drenched with sweat, filled with sleep deprivation and innumerable challenges, before earning the privilege of wearing the desired warrior’s badge.
Looking at the big picture, Zionist Israeli parents face a number of possible feelings towards their son’s impending army service:
One: Fear, anxiety and frustration that yet another generation in the family must learn to fight. Anger about the security situation, about the government, about the Arabs who are forcing us to fight, about the violent neighborhood in which we live, about an unjust world.
Two: Acceptance. Understanding that our children’s army service is part of the price that Israeli parents pay for our decision to live here. Adding it to the list. Like paying taxes, the hamsin (hot and dry weather) in summer, irritable drivers in traffic jams, pushing in line, the price of gas and cars, inexplicable union strikes.
Three: A feeling of pride and gratification, gratitude for the privilege that falls to our lot of being a proud link in the chain of the Jewish people in our homeland. A sense of writing a chapter in history, a chapter distinguished by the extraordinary fact that a sovereign Jewish people is able to bear weapons, to defend ourselves and our people wherever they may be, to shape our future and fate with our own hands. After all, in the history of the Jewish people since our forefather Abraham, very few generations have been privileged to do so.
With my hand on my heart I can honestly say I experience all three feelings at the same time, although sometimes one feeling more strongly and sometimes another.
When I get up early in the morning, I like to look at my four children sleeping the sleep of the just, their faces calm and smooth. When I wake them with the traditional farmer’s call of “Rise and shine, the Creator’s work awaits!” they get up slowly. The time is approaching when Guy will no longer sleep peacefully and wake up slowly. His sleep will be tense and he will be on edge, ready to jump up, to leap into action.
Guy, my firstborn son, go on your way. “May G-d bless you and protect you. May G-d deal kindly and graciously with you. May G-d bestow His favor on you and grant you peace.”
Sagi Melamed lives with his family in the community of Hoshaya in the Galilee. He serves as Vice President of External Affairs at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College, and as Chief Instructor (4th Dan) of the Hoshaya Karate Club. Sagi received his Masters degree from Harvard University in Middle Eastern Studies with a specialty in Conflict Resolution. His book “Son of My Land was published in 2013. Sagi can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.