This essay is the fourth entry in Rabbi Weiss’ Diary: Being in Israel During Operation Protective Edge
Today, July 31, 2014, I visited Israeli troops outside the Gaza border. I’ve travelled here with Rabbi Eli Sadan, whom I know from our work campaigning to free Soviet Jewish “refusenik” Natan Sharansky back in the eighties. Eli is the founder of post-high school programs that prepare young men emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually for the army, some of whom are now leading officers in the Israel Defense Forces – IDF. Together we visited numerous bases.
Given that I come from New York, and haven’t experienced anything near what these soldiers have experienced, I wondered what to tell them – whether I could even find the words to start a conversation.
But once we arrived at the first army base, my heart and soul soared at the sight of the soldiers. Something overtook me as I looked at these men defending Israel, defending the Jewish people – indeed, defending the free world. I found the words.
I approached some soldiers. “Ani rav mi’New York – I’m a rabbi from New York. I’ve come to express support and love from the Jewish community in America.” I shared how thousands had recently rallied on their behalf at the United Nations. We embraced. I offered blessings that each return home safely. Without exception, the soldiers’ eyes opened wide – overflowing with gratitude for this support. Their readiness to defend Israel, even at the cost of their lives, belies their peaceful and gentle demeanor.
At each base, countless soldiers: strangers to me, yet I felt a deep connection to them. I felt especially drawn to one officer on a shiriyon (tank) base, and spoke with him at length. As we parted, he placed his hat on my head. SHIRIYON 52, it reads. I don’t wear hats, even on Shabbat, but this hat I’ll wear whenever I can.
As it turned out, his wife is the sister of Edna, who was engaged to Hadar Goldin, the Israeli soldier feared abducted and later declared dead.
Over the years I’ve been blessed to stand up with others on behalf of our people. But never have I experienced what I saw and heard visiting these army camps.
The most inspiring moment that I am able to share was hearing a high ranking officer rescinding orders to soldiers ready to strike a terrorist target: “Hadal, harbeh anashim – Stop. There are too many civilians in the area.” To this I offered words of thanksgiving: Blessed is the nation that has as its army the IDF – the most moral army on the face of this earth.
In one camp I met Ofer Winter, who heads the legendary Givati brigade. He’s been in the headlines recently, showing reporters Hamas tunnels, describing the IDF’s efforts to destroy these terrorist underground channels into Israel.
Ofer was one of Rabbi Sadan’s top students. In watching them embrace as if father and son, I thought of lines from the Talmud: “Teach your children. Who are your children? These are your students.”
I asked Ofer what of Rabbi Sadan’s teachings inspired him the most. He paused, his eyes glistening: “Three things: To love the people and land of Israel. To do the best you can with your God-given gifts. To always see the positive side of life.” These are simple truths. But sometimes that which is simple is most profound. As I grow older, I like simple.
Ofer took us into the field, pointing out the spot where a woman soldier had been sitting when a mortar hit, just the day before. The tops and sides of the surrounding trees had been seared off; there was shrapnel everywhere. “The soldier escaped with just a scratch on her head,” Ofer told us. “An absolute miracle.”
At the final base, as it was getting dark, we paused for prayer. Behind us were monuments of this brigade’s soldiers who’d given their lives in the 1967 Six-Day War. In preparation for the service, I read aloud the name and age of each soldier: nearly 150 in all. For me, this recitation is the deepest form of tefillah. Even the Six-Day War, which the Jewish people view as a miraculous victory, involved many hundreds of losses.
In the Yom Kippur service we make a statement in which we offer thanksgiving to God for allowing us to pray with sinners. But here at the Gaza border, praying with soldiers, men risking their lives for all of us, I offered thanksgiving that God has allowed me to pray with tsaddikim – with the most righteous.
I’ve seen painful things this past week. Funerals, shiva homes; hospitals full of wounded soldiers, their loved ones waiting around the clock for good news. But painful as well is the casting of our soldiers – my grandchildren, your children and grandchildren – as killers.
My second grandson, who is in the Israeli Air Force, reflected, I believe, the sentiments of the IDF in a letter he wrote to me:
No other military in the world would resort to such extreme measures to ensure the safety of as many civilians as possible, on occasion even putting our soldiers at risk. The death of any innocent person on either side is a great tragedy and my heart goes out to all those who have been affected. Our compassion, however, should not be mistaken as a sign of weakness, but as a sign of strength … We should consider ourselves fortunate that, although we have been dealt great losses, we refuse to forsake our humanity. We continue to rise to a higher moral standard than our enemy, and we will not be broken.
As Shabbat begins, news comes that my eldest grandson’s unit has been pulled out of Gaza. His mother, my daughter Elana, tells me she can finally breathe more easily.
Before reciting the Shabbat Kiddush, my son-in-law Michael pauses: he offers a prayer of thanksgiving that his eldest son is safe. “But as we enjoy the Shabbat,” he continues, “we cannot forget that in the homes of soldiers who were killed and seriously injured, there is pain and darkness.”
I thought of the soldiers I had met at the Gaza border. I wondered if all are safe. May they, my grandsons and all the soldiers of Israel come home safely.