Steven Zvi Gleiberman
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If I don’t know Hebrew, how can I be in the Israeli army?

My commander asked this excellent question when I didn't understand him at the shooting range. I'm glad I have a good answer

Two days ago, as part of my military training, I was at a shooting range in the north learning how to effectively use a gun (which by the way, I scored on a sharpshooter level). All the soldiers lined up at specific targets and then it was my turn. As I understood in the practical classes how to effectively use a gun, I was prepared and ready to take my shots. Along comes the lead commander of the 140-person platoon I am in and tells me something in Hebrew which I did not understand. I later understood that he was asking for confirmation that the safety latch of the M-16 was indeed closed (which it was). As the shooting range is a very loud place and this commander speaks in a very rough accent, I, with my limited Hebrew, could not understand what he was saying. With my ear protections on, I shouted back that I’m trying, but could not understand what he was saying, as I simply could not connect the translation from safety latch to נצרה (nitzrah) at that moment. The visibly frustrated commander replies in Hebrew: “אם אתה לא מדבר עברית, למה אתה פה?” which translates to: “If you don’t speak Hebrew, then why are you here?”

I have been thinking about this question a lot, as his premise is correct. If I don’t fluently speak the language of my army commanders, especially when it comes to safety, what good am I for the army? Just imagine someone being part of crucial elements of the Korean, Brazilian, or Indian army without properly speaking their language. It just wouldn’t work. If I were in Gaza right now and misunderstood crucial instructions from my commander, people could die. So, he is right, I don’t belong in the Israeli army.

But what this commander failed to understand is that he was asking the question on a very individual level, and that on an individual level, yeah, absolutely I don’t belong in the Israeli army.  However, I am not an individual in the army. I am a member of פלוגת מכבים, a platoon, which, as a complete unit, makes things work, with each soldier contributing what they can to form the platoon. Within the platoon, each of the individuals has specific strengths and weaknesses. My weakness is speaking native Hebrew, especially army Hebrew/army slang (currently a work in progress, so if anyone knows what the לו”ז (luz) for tomorrow is, please let me know).

But the other 95 percent of my platoon that do speak native Hebrew raise me and the other 5% up to assist us when needed, so that our Hebrew weaknesses is not a weakness on the group. On the other side, I and the 5% of English speakers in my platoon have specific strengths that the other 95% of the platoon don’t have, which we use to bring them up too.

Indeed, in this week’s parsha, we see Joseph’s journey from imprisonment to prominence achieved through using his strengths, irrespective of his language, cultural, and moral differences, with the local Egyptians.

As one of the commanders said during my training, the army functions similar to a human body. Every organ is vital and when one part doesn’t work effectively, the other senses have to up their game. But if too many organs fail, the body dies. This concept is demonstrated while doing roll call in the army: if one person is late, the entire unit may be forced to do pushups, the same number of pushups as the person who came late. It not only demonstrates collective responsibility, but the level of interconnectivity and unity that must be achieved in order for the unit to function as necessary.

Two and a half weeks into my army training, I currently feel the most comfortable I have ever been on my aliyah journey. Indeed, I was not born here and did not grow up here, but I am here now, and my newfound Israeli family is doing whatever they can to integrate me into the society, no different than the Jews who made aliyah from Ethiopia, Russia, and Ukraine. These aliyah waves have come, and the broader Israeli family has done a fantastic job integrating them into the constantly hyper-evolving Israeli society.

To even take a further step back to the 1948 times, those who arrived here from Europe, the Middle Eastern and throughout the world didn’t speak Hebrew at all. For goodness’s sake, modern Hebrew is a bit more than 100 years old. But we are a family here and we do what we can to raise each other up, until everyone can successfully venture out on their own. My Hebrew a year ago was laughable — and a year from now, I will laugh at the mistakes I make today.

Additionally, the sacrifices that I am making today to live in a place, while not fully understanding the culture, language, or the psyche of the society that I am in, won’t exist for my children or my children’s children, who will, God willing, be born here in Israel, live in Israel and be more successful than I am in Israel. It is an honor to “take the bullet” for them.  My wife disagrees, but I know that I will always talk with a non-native accent, Israelis will not find me as funny as Americans do, and I will be making male/female grammar mistakes until the end of time. But it is a tiny price to pay for being part of the broader Israeli family.

When singing the songs of Ani Ma’amin and Hatikvah with Ohad Moskowitz at my tekes (ceremony) the other night, alongside 140 other deeply passionate Israeli soldiers, I felt part of a bigger picture, a larger-than-life story. I felt emotionally connected to my Jewish and Israeli family in ways that my fellow Jews from the Diaspora would never be able to feel, for if they did feel what I did the other night, I have no doubt that every single one of them would move to Israel to be part of this story (it’s a catch 22 because they would first have to make aliyah and join the Israeli army in order to have the feeling).

To simplify Israel into “falafel, Omri Caspi, and founding Waze” is no different than saying that Hanukkah is about the doughnuts. Israel is a place full of imperfect people doing all that we possibly can to be a “light onto the nations” in times of global darkness. It is an honor to be contributing my strengths, and an even bigger honor to have other parts of my family help me with my weaknesses.

ביחד ננצח and Shabbat Shalom!

About the Author
StevenZvi grew up in Brooklyn and in his professional life worked in the healthcare industry in New York City. Wishing to create additional meaning and purpose in his life, he moved to Jerusalem in November 2020, where he lives with his wife, works in the Medical Technology space and volunteers for Hatzalah. He uses his writing capabilities as a healthy outlet not to receive money, recognition or fame. It’s his hope that his articles will have some positive impact on the Jewish nation and humanity worldwide. He may not live forever, but his contributions to society might.
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