Day 4: Thursday, July 24, 2014

Today I set aside time to spend with Elana, accompanying her wherever she went. This has given me a glimpse into the life of a mother waiting for her son to return safely from the battlefield. Deeply concerned, constantly on the move, every day Elana attends to her responsibilities to all her nine children – both those at home and her sons fighting Israel’s fight in the IDF.

In the early morning, Elana and a friend delivered platters of breakfast food to the Heyman family, who are sitting shiva for their son, Yuval. As I entered with her, I recognized Yuval’s grandfather, Professor Tobi. It didn’t take long for us to connect; he was a visiting professor at Yeshiva University Stern College for Women during the years I taught there. He’d been attending an academic conference in Paris when he was told the horrific news of Yuval’s death. He broke down as he shared this with me.

Elana embraced Yuval’s mother, Zohara. In the emotion of the moment, I tried to imagine what they were thinking. My guess is that Elana was offering prayers of comfort to Zohara, and Zohara was blessing Elana that her eldest come home safely. It was one of those life moments I’ll never forget.

As we slowly walked from the Heyman home, I could see that the visit had impacted Elana heavily. Elana had always been an upbeat child. I remember her once winning a Mother’s Day contest for the best drawing of her mother, my beloved wife, Toby. She’d drawn a flower with petals, each petal a different characteristic of Toby – pretty, smiling, smart, caring. For Elana, the whole world was a flower.

And it still is. Despite the heaviness of the moment, she is upbeat, optimistic, deeply spiritual, praying for Israel’s victory, for her son’s safety, for the safety of all of our soldiers.

We reached the large Rami-Levy supermarket, where Elana shopped … and shopped … and shopped. Elana fills up two wagons of food for her large family – as well as tons of snacks for her son in Gaza, to be delivered by a friend.

At home again, Elana loads a basket with goodies, adding underwear, deodorant, toothpaste, toothbrushes. She writes a note to her son and his buddies: “To our heroes, with love. Stay strong, you’re awesome, we love you.” The final line speaks volumes. “Don’t forget to use deodorant and brush your teeth.” A mother’s touch of love during an impossible war.

At the same time she juggled her youngest childrens’ play dates with the return of two of her younger teens from camp. One of them, her eldest daughter, is deeply affected by Yuval’s death, as she is friends with Yuval’s sister. Children and teenagers are well aware of what’s going on. In certain ways, they may be in the best position to bring comfort to their friends.

Throughout the day Elana moved quickly. Whereas she kept going, without missing a beat, I was exhausted, more exhausted than from the full days spent visiting shiva homes and hospitals and attending funerals.

Amidst all this pressure, Elana also prepared for her weekly Thursday night “date night” with her husband. For 25 years, without fail, they’ve spent Thursday nights like youthful lovers on their first date. But these days mark another first for Elana and Michael – having sons in the army during wartime. The day with Elana made me realize that, while the heroes of Israel are the soldiers, we can’t forget that suffering and strife extend to their mothers and fathers and siblings as well – even to their grandmothers and grandfathers.


Day 5: Friday, July 25, 2014

Our eldest grandson called this morning. His unit has been pulled out for a few hours even as he remains on the border. I shed a tear seeing Elana and Michael breathe a sigh of relief. This is nonetheless a partial relief – while the eldest is out for a respite, others in the thousands are still in.

Erev Shabbat is a hectic time in this large family’s household, involving preparations for themselves as well as for many guests, invited even amidst war. Despite all they’re enduring, it’s important to Elana and Michael to host the occasion.

I spent the day with our second grandson, the one in the air force doing important defense work. He is home for Shabbat but will return to base early Sunday morning.

Rabbi Adam Scheier, a graduate of YCT and rabbi of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal joins us. He had been vacationing in North Carolina but felt the imperative in an instant to turn around and fly to Israel to visit the injured and comfort the bereaved.

We meet Cheryl Mandel, who lost her son Daniel during the second intifada. Most recently, her husband, David, walked from Butner, NC, where Jonathan Pollard is incarcerated, to Washington, DC. He did so without fanfare, praying and stating with his feet that the time has come to free Jonathan Pollard.

Cheryl, a profile in courage, is intent on visiting the Steinberg family, whose son Max has become one of the symbols of the lone soldier transformed into a soldier of all Israel. In some ways no words of comfort can resonate as powerfully as from someone who has suffered the same loss.

With my second grandson I visit my father, who is moved hearing about his great-grandson’s defense work in the air force. Raised in the city of Auschwitz, he knows full well what happens when Jews are defenseless. My father these days wears his emotions on his sleeve more than I’ve seen before.

I sense in Israel today an unbelievable sense of unity. With rare exceptions, this is not a war of the left or right. It is an operation that has united all of Israel. No nation-state can tolerate rockets fired at over 80 percent of its population. And no nation-state can tolerate tunnels, often dug beneath mosques and schools, that allow terrorists to infiltrate, to maim and murder.

There is also a great sense of unity in the ethical underpinnings of the operation. There are no two sides. The moral compass is clear – a simple choice between right and wrong. To paraphrase Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: we use missiles to protect our children; they use children to protect their missiles. I would add that, while Hamas targets and revels in the death of Jews, we mourn the loss of innocent Palestinians.

This unity connects with the spiritual message of Shabbat. Shabbat is a day of unity. A day of unity with nature, as according to Jewish law we are enjoined from plucking a fruit from a tree or cutting a blade of grass from the ground – we are, as Eric Fromm pointed out, in perfect equilibrium with the natural world.

It is a day of unity with our fellow person. An eruv, for example, which permits Jews to carry on Shabbat by symbolically extending the private domain into public areas, transforms separate domains into a unified communal encampment.

It is a day of unity with God above – the Ultimate One. And so, while Shabbat begins with the lighting of two candles, it ends with the Havdallah ceremony, bringing the two wicks together.

As Shabbat enters, I, like millions of Jews throughout the world, pause to consider my greatest blessings. For me, it’s my people, my community, my family, my Toby and our children. Elana and Michael and their children. Our eldest daughter, Dena, in Rwanda for several weeks with her husband, Dr. Mark Levie, sent by Montefiore Hospital to teach medicine, to save lives. Two of their children are joining them. And our son, Dr. Dov Weiss, a scholar par excellence, teaching with brilliant mind and sensitive heart – and an ethical sensibility the world desperately needs. Dena, Mark and Dov end our pre-Shabbat phone calls with prayers for their nephews in the IDF.

As the sun sets and the Sabbath Queen arrives, I offer a Shabbat prayer for peace – real peace, for our people and for the world.

To the soldiers of Israel – Shabbat Shalom.