Thursday, December 13th started off like any other normal morning in my home in southern Jerusalem. My oldest son was up bright and early at 5:45 A.M. and promptly went next door to play with his Savta who is visiting here for a few weeks. His younger brother woke up a little while later, and after returning home from Shul and having breakfast I dropped the little guy off at Gan at 7:15. While sitting in traffic on the way out of my neighborhood, I ran through the schedule planned for my end of week rounds working with the soldiers of the 97th battalion of the Kifir Division, “ Netzach Yehuda”.
8:20 A.M. I arrived at the “trempiada”/ bus stop in Ofra. Ever since the attack on Sunday night I have made it a point to stop there first thing every morning with coffee and snacks for the soldiers. Where before Sunday there were only two soldiers on guard, now there is a bolstered squad guarding the site. After delivering the coffee and talking awhile with the guys I get back in the car for my second stop of the day, Givat Asaf.
9:30 A.M. The first site I see after making the right-hand turn from route 60 towards Beit El is Yoval Mor Yosef. He stands off to the side of his post in a ray of sunlight wrapped in Tallit and Tefillin, swaying silently and with deep attention focused on his morning prayers. It was such a site that I thought off snapping a picture to capture the moment but held back in order not to disturb his concentration. It was only a little over a week ago that we lit the second candle of Chanukah together while he was on guard duty near the town of Ofra.
After pulling into the bus stop at Givat Asaf, I roll down my window and shout a quick hello and good morning to Yosef Cohen and Netanel Felber who are keeping a determined and focused eye on their surroundings. Yosef a Breslov Chassid, is a quiet and sweet boy who lives in an apartment for “lone soldiers” in my neighborhood. When we spoke earlier in the week he shared with me a teaching from Rebbi Nachman about the importance of never giving in to despair regardless of the situation at hand. He was going to stop by my house the next time he was off base for coffee, and we were going to continue that discussion at length. Netanel, born in America and now living with his family in Israel has the biggest smile you will ever see, today was no exception. We often studied together on base when he had downtime, and on Monday as a belated Chanukah present, I gave him a book on the Parsha that we were going to go through the next time he was free.
I stayed to speak with them for a few moments, shook their hands and gave them a handful of candies. “Make sure you give some to Yoval” I said to Netanel. “Of course,” he said with his characteristic smile. “Why so many candies this time?” asked Yosef with a grin. “ So that you all should have a especially sweet day” I answered. I gave them both a hug and wished them a Shabbat Shalom, and told them that I would try to stop by again on my way out of Beit El.
10:20 A.M. After meeting up on base with Rabbi Moshe Mizrachi, the Army battalion Rabbi of Netzach Yehuda we decided to make our way into the town of Beit El to stop at the A.T.M (you never know when you might need some cash) before we begin our rounds of the varied guard posts in the area. We planned to leave Beit El, pass by Givat Asaf, and then head towards the guard posts near Shilo before returning home at the end of the day. As we enter Beit El we pass by the big sign pointing the way towards the location of “ Jacobs Dream”. In the past month and a half that I have been working with Rabbi Mizrachi and Netzach Yehuda, we must have passed and ignored that sign at least fifty times. However, today he decided that we could both use a short sightseeing break from our regular daily grind. We head over to the sight of “Jacobs Dream”, take a few pictures and head back to the car.
10:45 A.M. We return to the car all ready to continue with the day’s work, however, there is a slight problem. As I walk around the back left tire I hear the unmistakable sound of whooshing air….we have a flat…
11:07 A.M. After unsuccessfully trying to change the tire ourselves, we manage to take the car to the repair shop in Beit El.
After a few minutes, the tire is all patched and we make our way back to the car. The mechanic decides to give the car one last look over and what does he find? You guessed it, I have another flat…there is one more nail, this time in the right rear tire… We both wait rather impatiently for the second tire to be fixed, joking at whose fault it was and eager to get back on schedule for the day. We still have to make a second stop at Givat Asaf on our way out and then begin the drive to Shilo, and it’s already getting close to 12.
11:25 A.M. The second tire is patched, I just finished paying and my phone rings.” Shooting attack at Givat Asaf, three severely wounded”.
I look at Moshe, he looks at me and we both make a mad dash to the car. We drive through Beit El towards the base to get Moshe’s Rabbanit issued kit for casualties, my hand is hard pressed on the horn and he is waving people out of the way. As we enter the base one of the Rabbanit soldiers sees us and rushes over, already with the bag in hand. I make a quick U-turn and drive 120km on the opposite side of the road towards Givat Asaf junction, we make the normally 12-minute drive in under 4 minutes. Moshe and I are both battalion Rabbis, he in active duty and myself in reserves. We trained for this eventuality after all this is the army, however, I don’t think that either one of us thought that we would need to put this training into use so soon. In those 4 minutes, Moshe calls out the checklist of steps that we need to do once we reach the site and assess the situation. After leaving my car parked on the side of the road behind all the other military vehicles we jump out and with my heart pounding run towards the bus stop. It’s now 11:36 A.M.
There are enough active duty army Rabbinate personnel, Zaka, and Hatzalah first responders, as well as police ballistic officers at the scene that I part ways with Moshe and focus on the many other soldiers who are rushing around this small junction. The next two hours are a blur of activity, emotions, and feelings. Shock, fear, adrenalin, uncertainty, determination, anger, resolve, exhaustion, faith and doubt, and faith again, all coming together in a heady mix which at times made me view the scene from afar as if in a dream and in others extremely close and present with my hands quivering and foot tapping uncontrollably.
Phone calls and messages, “ yes I am ok”, “ no I didn’t see the pictures on the news”, “yes I am still here”, “ of course I knew them, I stopped and spoke with them this morning”, “can someone call my Grandmother and tell her I am ok”.
Then there were the hugs, lots of hugs. Not those light quick hugs that you give in passing, but rather deep and firm hugs. The type of hugs that transfer all of your care, concern, and love through the vest and ceramic armor plating of the person receiving them. What followed the hugs was always that penetrating look into the eyes of the person across from you. Nothing needed to be said, we were all thinking the same thing: yes this time it was Netanel rushed in critical condition to the hospital and Yoval and Yosef still lying there under the rough woolen blankets on the ground. But it just as easily could have been any one of us standing there that day. The guard rotation at the junction is consistent in its randomness, and I can’t count the number of times I have parked my car there to give out snacks and talk to the soldiers. In fact, if it wasn’t for that last nail which found its way into my left rear tire I probably would have been passing by there at exactly 11:25.
Then time stops, I look up and see Moshe gesturing for me to come closer to the bus stop. Though we all know who the causalities are, they still need to be formally identified so that the army can inform their parents.
I slowly approach the blanket which Moshe has brought me to, he uncovers only as much as is necessary to see the face of the soldier lying beneath it. He asks “do you recognize this solider?”, looking down at the face of Yosef I look back up at Moshe blankly, I can’t for the life of me remember his name.