From the Journal of an “Israeli” Soldier
One year is a long time, about an eternity in army time, but that is how long it has been since I was drafted. Before you ask me how the army has been, let me cut you off and warn you that I cannot answer that in less than a documentary. Now, since you don’t have time to watch a documentary about my army experience and I don’t have the budget for that sort of thing, I’ll compromise with an article. An article sharing a few stories and the lessons that come along with them. A year ago I wrote an article telling you “why;”; now I would like to tell you “what.”
Week 2: I always assumed that the DMV was the epitome of frustration in the world, that was until I arrived at basic training. The long days of zero free time mixed with the verbal harassment from the commanders doesn’t make it a walk in the park. Apparently telling your commander that you don’t need discipline training because you are already disciplined can only make it worse.
I remember one day cleaning the bathrooms of the base for an inspection that would never be passed.
After scrubbing enough toilets to last me a lifetime, my sergeant had decided that we just weren’t working fast enough. Going with his favorite “kader” (slang for army punishment), he told me to choose a friend to put into “matzav shtayim”, otherwise known as push-up position. I chose Tzvi, knowing he would forgive me for it later; at which point he had to hold himself in that position until I had finished cleaning all of the bathrooms. Needless to say that got me working faster than I ever have before. In fact, I finished cleaning the bathrooms in record time, with the sole motivation of freeing Tzvi from the discomfort.
Lesson learned: My strong can be stronger and my fast can be faster, as long as I know that people I care about depend on it. But even on a broader scale: the army is often commended for pulling off miracle victories and always coming out on top when the stakes are high. Seemingly the reason is because quite often the entire country finds itself in “matzav shtayim”.
Week 13: One challenge that must be overcome to finish one’s training is the Bochan Maslul, a grueling obstacle course which leaves elbows bloody, boots full of sand, and muscles sore for just long enough until you have to take the course again. Only after scaling over the cement walls, crawling through the dirt, and climbing up a 6 meter rope, all whilst donning full combat gear, can one be considered a complete IDF warrior.
Very fortunate are those who pass on their first try as they are saved from the punishment of waking up an hour earlier twice a week to train and face the challenge again. Less sleep and more work often meant being more fatigued the entire week; making training much more difficult.
Eventually something strange happened. Those who were waking up and hour early twice a week to train and take the course again and again began getting stronger. Not only did all of them eventually pass the course, but often at a better time than those who passed on the first try.
Only in the IDF does one truly learn that what doesn’t kill you will in fact make you stronger.
Week 23: War Week is easily considered the climax of any soldier’s training in tzahal. The culmination of months of discipline, drills, shooting, and, most of all, tuna all leading up to this one week that can make or break a soldier. It wasn’t long until I had realized many of the rumors to be true. The exhaustion had gotten to us, almost to the point that I had not realized that I hadn’t taken my boots off for days. Most of my thoughts, though,were occupied by the anticipation of the last night of the week; the night that was supposed to push us to our limits and beyond.
Just hours before we were to launch a night long journey through the hell of our commander’s creativity, a bus pulled up to our camp. Our commander quickly told me and some comrades to get our stuff together and get on the bus back to base. What happened was that a private donation was made out to all of the lone soldiers and volunteers in tzahal and we were being taken to a water park to enjoy ourselves for the day. What a group of frum soldiers were going to do at a mixed water park for a day was a challenge that didn’t matter at the moment; we were getting out of there.
As we were on the bus, looking around at my fellow soldiers from all over the world smiling, joking, and blasting music together, the following thought came over me: for a bunch of people who volunteered to be in the army, we were all pretty happy to be getting out of the army that day. The fascinating thing is that I could have never joined the army and been somewhere else in the world that Thursday, be it college, yeshiva, Dunkin Donuts, and, in this second reality, I also would not have been in war week yet I would not have been that happy. It was only because of where I was coming from that made where I was going so exciting.
I suppose the lesson is that happiness is relative to the hard work put in to earn it.
Week 28: Many have heard of the famous “masa kumta” otherwise known as the beret march. Nearly 60 kilometers of fast-paced hiking with loads of arbitrary weight on your back all to receive the famous beret that marks an active IDF soldier. It takes about 11 straight hours to complete and is considered the last challenge of training before receiving your beret and going operational. I’ve seen it all, from people vomiting to passing out to straight up crying for their mothers.
So we were in the middle of said march and I was having a pretty rough time. They say that when it gets tough you should start pushing the guy in front of you and you will forget about your own pain; unfortunately I had lost sight of the guy in front of me and was desperate for some help. Unsure of what else to do, I started praying. Were my prayers answered? Well I received my beret in the end, but more than that I learned the following lesson:
There is a frequently recited perek of Tehillim that begins with the verse, “Esau einei el He’harim, ma’ayin yavo ezri…” I lift my eyes to the mountain and ask where does my aid come from. The famous question asked on this phrase is, why did King Dovid raise his eyes to the mountains when asking where he receives his strength from? Do we not often refer to Hashem as our father in heaven? What relevance does a mountain have?
Well, a mountain represents the highest point that a person can climb by his own strength. Man alone cannot get any higher than the mountain he can scale, to get any higher he would have to be raised by God. What Dovid Hamelech is saying is that when we see our limits it becomes apparent that our own strengths can only take us so far. Only then can we realize where our strength really comes from.
The army is a great example of what is really applicable to every person at every stage in his/her life. It will get hard, harder than we can handle, and at that point the most natural thing to do should be turn to a greater power for assistance. While Tzahal is often criticized for not being conducive to religious life, it can and should be the most religious experience one can have.
One may think that with the current terror wave in Israel, it may actually be comforting to be in the army. After all an Israeli soldier can at least feel that he is doing everything possible to help the situation. It isn’t true, in fact being in the army makes the wound of each stab so much deeper. That is because despite all of our efforts, we cannot stop every attack, we cannot predict which cars will be driven into bus stops, and we cannot be everywhere at all times. Fortunately there is someone who can. We have seen our limits as an army and as a nation, and at that point we should have but only one thing to turn to.
Isn’t it obvious?
PS. More stories to come…