My Bar Mitzva included a short speech in Yiddish designed to make my grandmother cry. The year was 1966 and for immigrants from the Old Country to hear their “Mama Lashon”, or mother tongue, from their grandson, was indeed very moving. I only remember the first line of that speech. It began with the words, “Today I am a soldier in the army of G-d.”
Later, the Chabad movement also used this idea of being in the “Army of Hashem”. There are times when history moves so quickly, that the obvious gets forgotten and the miraculous gets taken for granted. The mere fact that there exists a Jewish army begs for a little perspective.
Happily, the younger generation, those born from the eighties onward, never really witnessed Jewish persecution in their lifetimes. Other than incidents of anti-Semitism, there has not been a known location where it is forbidden for Jews to practice their religion.
This was not always the case. Certainly from the destruction of the second Temple until the founding of the State of Israel, the Jewish Nation has not had a formal organized army available to protect its citizens. There were a few rebellions and uprisings where Jews heroically tried to defend themselves and improve their situation. But until 1948, there was no ongoing Jewish army.
One of the better known songs sung at the Passover Seder is “Ve’hee She-Amda”, where we acknowledge that in every generation there are those who wish to destroy us, but it is G-d who saves us from the hands of our enemies. It seems to me that there is a difference between “surviving” and being able to live with dignity and self respect.
All of the years spent in the Exile, were much more of a “surviving” mode rather than living in dignity, other than certain brief periods where Jews felt welcome and lived in comfort. The Exile has been long and bitter where Jews suffered every indignity imaginable, from pogroms to crusades to the Holocaust. Because we were guests in these foreign lands, a Jewish army was not something to be conceived of.
I have an 80-year-old student who is a survivor of the Holocaust. On numerous occasions, he proudly shows me pictures of his grandsons serving in elite units in the IDF. This fine gentleman gets emotional when he says, “This is my answer to Hitler and the Nazis!”
A Jewish army after nearly 2,000 years of Jewish suffering, should give any normal Jew an intense feeling of pride. When that army grows in sophistication and skill and becomes the envy of the world, it is all the more remarkable. When Israeli fighter jets fly overhead with Jewish stars on their wings, if one is not moved with a similar sense of pride, he simply does not understand Jewish history.
A former student once hinted to me that he was working in Israel’s Secret Service. He obviously could not tell me what his specific assignments were. But what he did tell me was that having the IDF makes Jews safer in all parts of the world. The image of the Jew has changed from being easy to pick on, to “don’t mess with the Jews”.
When we take the Torah out of the ark, we sing a passage from the Book of Numbers where Moses also sang when the ark in the desert was in motion. “Arise O’ G-d and may Your enemies be scattered from before you.” Rashi asks, who are the enemies of G-d? He answers by saying that anyone who hates a Jew, hates G-d. It is as if the anti-Semite is saying, “Jew, you are nothing and your G-d is nothing.”
Having a strong Jewish army is a sanctification of the name of G-d. Such vicious statements will not be made for fear of the mighty hand of G-d’s army. When the Jewish people are strong, G-d is perceived as strong. This is the new Jew of the State of Israel who will no longer tolerate any mistreatment of any Jew.
Being part of the Army of G-d has a double meaning. On the one hand, when one comes of age, he takes on his obligations as being part of the Jewish people. But on the other hand, the Army of G-d is the IDF that brings honor, dignity, and pride to our people. Never again will Jews or the Jewish G-d ever have to suffer humiliation and shame. If someone is unable to see this, he does not understand the basic lessons of Jewish history.