A number of years back when Israel received a number of additional F-35 fighter planes from the United States, the following question was posed to Rabbi Yehuda Aviner, the head rabbi of Yeshivat Ateret Kohanim, and a brilliant halachic authority: “With God’s kindnesses, the State of Israel received F-35 Stealth Fighter Jets. Should the blessing of Shehechiyanu—the blessing of renewal—be recited, or is it not recited because the fighter plane is a weapon of war?”
A young man about to participate in his IDF swearing-in ceremony asked a similar question. At the height of the ceremony, after the soldiers have taken the oath of allegiance, the highest-ranking officer calls the soldiers up and gives each soldier two gifts: a gun and a Tanach (Hebrew Bible). The gun so that they can defend the country, a Tanach so that they can know why they are defending it. “When I receive my gun”, asked the soldier, “should I make the blessing of Shehechiyanu?”
As with the F-35 planes, the soldier’s question was a good one because the blessing of Shehechiyanu is generally said when you receive or experience something new and happy; not for a sad event. A gun is carried because we have enemies who sadly wish to destroy us. Yet Rabbi Aviner answered that a Shehechiyanu should be said when a soldier receives his gun. He should say the words: “Thank you God for allowing me to live and reach this time” because having guns and an army should not elicit sadness. Just the opposite, argued Rabbi Aviner, it should elicit joy—that the Jewish people have merited to become a free nation in our homeland, to have a Jewish government and an army to defend itself.
Just last week on Yom Hashoa I was privileged to interview Dr. Rustin, who survived the Lodz ghetto and two concentration camps. Could you imagine what it would have meant to Dr. Rustin to have a gun in the camps? To be part of a Jewish army? What he and so many others would have done to have had a country to which they could flee? A Jewish soldier makes a Shehechiyanu on his gun and Rabbi Aviner also ruled that the head of the IAF (Israeli Air Force) should make a hatov v’hamativ—the blessing that God “is good and does good” over the F-35 fighter planes. Why? Because even though these are weapons of destruction, given our history, the joy and pride in being able to defend ourselves demands we recite these blessings.
But these blessings are not just about pride and joy. It goes deeper. The great religious Zionist thinker Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook wrote: “Fighting to protect our homeland is a mitzvah. It is a mitzvah binding on all Klal Yisrael. Therefore, everything connected with it, every gun and every weapon that is our response to our enemies, everything connected with establishing and protecting Jewish sovereignty, ‘Hakol Hu Kodesh’, it is all holy.” The Israeli soldiers we remember today are all holy and the devices they use to defend the Jewish people—even what they wear—takes on a level of holiness. The great scholar Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein tz”l was once asked by a student, a soldier in Israel, whether he had to change out of his dirty military clothes before praying the Mincha (afternoon) service. Rav Aharon posed the question to his teacher Rabbi Soloveitchick who answered, “No—he doesn’t have to change his clothing because his uniform is like the ‘bigdei Kehuna’, like the Priestly garments.” Another great rabbi of the 20th century, Rabbi Shlomo Auerbach, was approached by one of his students who informed him that he was leaving Jerusalem to go to Tzfat to pray at the graves of the great rabbis buried there. Rabbi Auerbach famously told him: “You don’t have to go to Tzfat to pray at the graves of the righteous, just go down the block to Har Herzl, to Israel’s national cemetery, that’s also where the tzadikkim (righteous) are buried.”
Those who gave their lives for Israel, who defend the Jews are holy people. Their uniforms are like that of the Cohanim (Jewish priests) and their weapons require us to say a blessing. The soldiers of the IDF put everything on the line for the Jewish people no matter where we live, and we owe them everything. Happy Birthday Israel. May God continue to bless you and your holy soldiers.