We parked the jeeps at one of our usual spots, near Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, and took out our food. While we had eaten many of our meals along our patrol route in the weeks before, that night was different from all other nights.
It was the first night of Passover, and we — 12 Israeli soldiers — were preparing to conduct our Seder. Years later, that night remains one of the most thoughtful experiences I went through in the army.
The kitchen had worked extra hard to provide us with not only decent, but really good food for the occasion. Though we had hoped to sit down for the festive dinner at our dinning room on base, a decision made by the regional commander that day dictated that as many soldiers as possible be outside, protecting the Israeli villages and families living only meters away from the border fence.
So the food in the kitchen was packed into large, disposable aluminum trays and loaded onto the armored jeeps. Along with the food were small, individual Seder-sets (provided by the IDF’s rabbinate), each containing a Hagada — the book from which the story of Passover is recited — some grape juice and a miniature Seder plate; all the essentials needed to perform the rituals and customs of the holiday meal.
In full uniform, combat gear at hand and the radio low but audible, we were ready for a night that would answer the question “How is this night different from other nights?” without too much difficulty.
Then they turned to me. My soldiers looked at me, waiting — not because I was in command (the staff sergeant was there, in charge) but because of the 12 of us, I was the only one who wore a kippa and defined himself as religious. They wanted me to lead the Seder.
To me, the night of Passover is an inclusive one. It’s the night we read about the making of Israel as a nation during the exodus from Egypt. The Seder opens with an invitation to anyone who is hungry to “come eat with us.” Toward the end of the meal we invite Eliyahu Hanavi — Elija the Prophet — to join us.
The holiday isn’t only about welcoming others, it’s also about tradition from within. Jews all over the world celebrate the holiday, each family has its own customs, people relate to different parts of the story, to the different messages and ideas.
I told them I’d read the parts no one else wanted to read — but that our Seder would be one where anyone who wanted to participate could do so; It would be an event of multiple traditions and ideas.
Before starting, I turned to the drivers of the armored jeeps, three Druze soldiers. It will take some time before we eat, I told them, suggesting that they put a plate together and enjoy the food while it was still hot.
I figured they weren’t Jewish and didn’t need to wait for dinner, reminding them that if, G-d forbid, something happened, we would be contacted and the meal postponed — possibly for hours.
“We’re here with you, we’ll eat with you and ask the four questions with you,” said one of the drivers — a man in his 30s who was in the IDF as a career soldier. It gave a new meaning to the parts of the Passover story in which we talk about the ger, the stranger who lives in our midst. So we started the Seder.
Twelve soldiers in the IDF — Jewish and Druze, new immigrants and Israeli-born, Ashkenazim and Sepharadim — turned the jeep’s searchlights toward the front of the vehicles and placed the packed food and drink on the engine’s hood.
We started reading from the Hagada, taking turns by going around in a circle. At my request, whoever knew a tune for one of the passages or remembered something his family used to say or do at the Seder table would share it with the rest of us.
One shared a custom from his secular kibbutz’s seder, another told us of his grandfather’s Passovers celebrated in secret in the USSR. A tune from a soldier of Tunisian descent was sung, and then the same passage was sung to a different tune by a French immigrant.
After completing the longest part of the Seder and reading the Hagada (in a relatively short time) we moved on to eat.
The food wasn’t hot anymore, but it was still warm. Potatoes, meat, chicken, vegetables, salads and, of course Matza — there was an abundance of food, more than enough to satisfy everyone’s large appetite.
It was inclusive, it was traditional and it was special. Also, it struck me in retrospect, it was something thousands of other soldiers probably went through over the years; it was an experience more “ours” than “mine.”
At the end of the night we reached the closing saying, “Next year in Jerusalem.” I thought of my family, at home, and of the fact that people from such different backgrounds had gathered together — around jeeps and a take-away IDF dinner, — in a partial fulfillment of that generation old statement.