One of the biggest crises I experienced while serving in the Israeli military was being told I was useless during a war. It was the summer of 2014 when Operation Protective Edge broke out between Israel and Gaza; everyone in my unit was called to IDF headquarters to assist with strategic analyses—everyone except me, because I didn’t have my security clearance yet (long story for another time). Here I was, after spending years of training, ready to fight for my country — only to be told I was better off going back to my apartment in Tel Aviv to huddle in a bomb shelter.
To put this in perspective, I was an ambitious American serving in the Israeli military. I had a master’s degree in security intelligence from a prestigious graduate school. I had completed an internship in Washington, DC with sparkling recommendations, written piles of policy papers, interviewed combat soldiers and government leadership, and so on. I had also networked like a madwoman to get accepted into the IDF at age 28, triumphant at my victory in scoring a position in a respectable unit.
But when the hummus hit the fan and an actual war broke out, I was told to get out of the way.
So, I lost my cool. At first, I cried. Then I was furious. I marched down Ibn Gvirol Street with a vengeance and smashed a bunch of empty glass bottles against the side of my apartment building.
When I ran out of bottles, I slumped onto a park bench on the street in my uniform, face in my hands. I had thought grad school was hard, but it turned out that the real world was harder. I didn’t exactly miss the sleepless nights studying in the library, but I did miss the cushioned separation from the rest of the world provided by the cocoon of academia.
School had been demanding, but at least I had been given a clear path forward for success: study hard, do the work, take the tests, you’re good to go.
In the real world, that cushion was gone, and if I was going to succeed in a demanding field—in a foreign country, no less—I was going to need thicker skin and a flexible mindset that allowed me to consider different angles.
In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Beshallach, the Jews escaped Egypt and crossed the Red Sea—only to be met by war. Their leader, Moses, climbs to the top of a hill overlooking the battlefield, a staff in his hands. The following passage describes a peculiar scene:
“As long as Moses held his hands up, the Israelites prevailed, but when he let his hands down, the [enemy] Amalekites prevailed.” [Exodus, 17:11]
According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his book Lessons on Leadership, neither the staff nor Moses’ upraised hands were performing a miracle. Rather, it was a reminder for the Jews to look upwards, to consider a different angle when they felt they were failing.
While sheepishly cleaning up the broken shards of glass next to my apartment in Tel Aviv that day, I realized I was going to have to be more inventive in order to move past my disappointment. I also realized that no matter how bad I was feeling, there were Israeli soldiers fighting for their lives on the battlefield. If I wanted to help them, then I would have to look upwards and around myself for a different opportunity.
To start, I called a local soldier support center. I asked them what I could do to be helpful. They told me they needed portable phone batteries, which would allow the soldiers fighting at the border to remotely charge up their personal cell phones and contact their families in between operations. Most people were donating toilet paper and socks; portable phone batteries were harder (and more expensive) to come by.
Maybe phone batteries didn’t seem like a big deal in the overall war effort, I was told by the center, but soldiers could be isolated for weeks down there in the tents without being able to communicate with their anxious families or friends.
That was all I needed to hear. For the next week, I was on a mission to secure as many portable phone batteries as possible. I might not have been a soldier ready to fight, but I was a soldier ready to write: I wrote up blurbs about the importance of soldiers getting these phone batteries and disseminated them across every media platform I could think of. I wrote up a poster to help raise money for the cause for my parents to post in our synagogue back in the U.S. I talked incessantly about phone batteries to my friends, to Azarya the tailor, to my dermatologist, to the cashiers at the grocery store. I was a one-woman phone battery machine.
When all was said and done, my living room was overflowing with so many boxes of phone batteries that I had to call several friends to come help me deliver them to the local center. I was so busy with the effort that I forgot to be depressed and angry about my situation as a so-called useless soldier.
I learned that day that you are never useless. There is always someone who needs you out there. If you feel empty, do something for others that will fill your life with meaning.
And herein lies the secret of using disappointment to fuel determination: you can’t sit around feeling bad for yourself, wishing things had turned out differently. If you don’t like your current reality, lift your chin upwards and then determine to fight the battle from a different angle.