IDF Service and Torah Learning — What Is the Intention?

Today was my first Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day as an Israeli. It was a great day. A very emotional day, which ends a very emotional week. We’ve had Yom Hashoah, commemorating the Holocaust; Yom Hazikaron, for those who’ve died defending, or killed for a being a member of, the Jewish people in the Land of Israel; and finally Yom Ha’atzmaut.

In the US, these could be “fly-over days”. Days marked by many by saying, “Oh, yeah, today is Yom Hazikaron” at some point. Here, they’re part of the atmosphere, and when you move here, they make you think and reinforce why you came here in the first place.

One of the biggest questions that you have to deal with here is what is the role of the IDF? This touches on one of the most fundamental questions for religion in general: what is the balance between human effort (hishtadlut) and faith (emunah)? How do we stay out of the joint traps of “By the strength of my own hand, I did this” on one hand, and the guy who prays to win the lottery, but never buys a ticket. In Judaism, there is also the question of what counts as human effort: learning Torah, or serving in the army? This issue was poignant this Yom Ha’atzmaut, since our barbecue – our first! – consisted of old friends, olim themselves, from the Old Country, and represented a variety of views. Our daughter, who is a medic for the artillery was there, but one son of our guests did not come, since he is learning in a yeshiva that had class – although he is not yet army age.

Of course, many of the jobs in the army are not combat positions. Even those who are in combat roles have a lot of downtime, a lot of “guarding the jellyfish” as one soldier on guard duty put it, and a lot of “hurry up and wait”. On the flip side, many of those in yeshiva don’t learn to their potential and also have a good deal of downtime. It is easy to have a focus on, “How do I make things easier or better for me?” As Bar Refaeli famously said, she had better things to do than join the army. Many in Israel have discussed having a professional army and ending universal conscription.

I think all of this misses the point of what the role of the army should be.

One factor I think underlies all of Jewish thought, but I’ve never heard expressed in so many words, is that the Jewish people are like G-d’s labor union, so to speak. I mean that, if all of the Jewish people get together and decide something, G-d will agree to it, whether or not it’s even in their best interest. G-d agreed to the Jewish people’s request to hear the Ten Commandments from Moshe and not from Him directly. He agreed to send spies into the Land of Israel in the Torah, and when the people then decided not to go into the Land of Israel, “agreed” with them that they should die in the desert. He agreed to our request to appoint a king and gave us Saul. The Jewish people can create obligatory holidays like Purim and Channukah, if we all agree to it.

As the last 70 years have shown, we can create the Ingathering of the Exiles and form a state because enough of us got on board. But, the only way for a person to show what he really wants, and even to really know what he wants, is to take an action. Words are never enough in Judaism.

The first action is to come visit. To create a connection to the Land and the people. The next is to move here and live as a citizen, sharing the pain and the triumph. The ultimate is to take a physical action to defend the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. These actions, and all mitzvot, are most effective when we do them “lishma” which means both because they are the right thing to do and because G-d wants us to, because G-d wants what is best for us.

The IDF is our way of telling G-d what we really want. We willingly put ourselves and our children’s lives at stake to show that we want to live here more than anything else. We want to save the Jewish people so they can live as a free people in their own home.

It’s hard to keep that focus. It’s hard not to get frustrated with the army and look out for number one. It’s hard to have the kavanah to say “Shehechianu” on getting an IDF uniform. But we are “partners with G-d in Creation”. We, the Jewish people, have a tremendous power. We decided to create a state, and now we’re celebrating 70 years of G-d’s acquiessence.

As a religious Jew, of course I believe Torah learning protects us. The one issue I really have with learning Torah for the protection of the Jewish people, is that it has the same drawback as the IDF: It’s hard to keep up the kavannah. It’s easy to turn inward and make it about yourself. Some mitzvot require specific intention (kavannah) and some don’t, because if you’re doing the action, it’s obvious what your intention is. If you’re serving in the army, then any action you take in that role is obviously for the purpose of defending the country. I don’t think learning Torah works the same way. You can even learn Torah and believe it would be better for the Arabs to take over.

Hopefully, we will all get together and agree what we want. Hopefully, that will include the entire Jewish people coming home. Hopefully, we’ll all decide soon that we want Mashiach to come and to rebuild the Temple. I’d say “G-d willing”, but I really believe he is willing — it’s just up to us what we want.

About the Author
Reuven (sometimes Bobby) came from a mixed Jewish-Christian background. He became ba'al teshuva (Jewishly observant) in his 20s with the intention of making aliyah, which didn't happen until his 40s. His daughter, Shani, also blogs and serves in the IDF as a medic. She was a lone soldier until her parents made aliyah in 2017.
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