Monday night I returned from the makolet (bodega or corner store) where I consumed a pineapple yogurt and watched the evening television broadcast (we don’t have a TV) from Ashkelon where two schools were attacked by rockets. “The Gazans love our Jewish schools,” the correspondent noted dryly in Hebrew.
I was jostled by my cell phone ringing. A beloved student was calling with a sheilah (a legal question). Scott from Monsey – the “nonfrum” area – had spent a number of years at Pardes, graduated from our Educators Program and done a bang up job as a Judaics teacher in a Texas day school for three years. Then he made aliyah to Israel and learned at the best religious Zionist yeshiva for a year before signing up with the Israel Defense Forces. Just before going into the army he’d spent Elul Z’man (the pre-Succot term) learning in my Talmud class. Good for both of us.
Scott finished basic training, and was about to travel with his brigade from his base to the Western Wall for their swearing in to proclaim their readiness to defend Israel – the People and the Land. He queried: “what term should I use?”
Ah, I knew this problem from when our children went in. The term in use is Anochi Nishba – I Swear. But this is a problematic term, for swearing means a complete commitment which must be completely discharged and can only be at best problematically voided even with 10 Kol Nidres (see my article “Choice, Commitment. Cancellation” in ALL THESE VOWS ed. by Lawrence Kaplan, JEWISH LIGHTS, 2011). When I’d sat as a dayan (judge) on the Los Angeles Orthodox Beit Din (religious court), our chief judge the eminent Rabbi Samuel Katz did his best to use an alternate softer term, Ani Matzhir – I Affirm. We certainly advised those who gave testimony in secular court to employ “affirm.”
It is that term that some in the Israeli Religious Zionist community prefer. It certainly comes from a position of humility. They know how difficult and almost impossible their service can be and “affirm” seems more honest and humble. And reasonable. That answer is the one I could have given Scott.
Instead I went ballistic: “You gave up your star track position in Dallas; you enlisted into the Army as a chayil bodeid (a lone soldier); your widowed mother can’t sleep worrying over her only child; your friends and teachers are concerned; I’m saying Psalms; your girlfriend probably thinks of you as a hero already; and if your commander asked for you to be shot out of a canon into the heart of Gaza (Scott is short and sweet, although really tough) you would immediately stick cotton in your ears and climb into the wide bore. We all know that! So what’s the bleeping deal with ‘Affirm’? You are all sworn in already!”
He chuckled into the receiver: “I got the decision I expected. “Ani Nishba / I swear”. And he was off to board the bus.
I stood up and tried to clean stray yogurt drops off my shirt as I waved goodbye to the recently immigrated Argentinean Jewish shopkeeper who assayed my loud, gesticulating phone performance in two words: “Jackie Mason?” I nodded yes as I left the shop.
What I really wanted to tell Scott was that he was, in Talmudic terms, “MUSHBA VE OMEID MAHAR SINAI” –“ALL SWORN IN FROM THE MOMENT HE STOOD AT MOUNT SINAI.” That all the Torah he learned at Pardes leads to this moment of swearing to defend his People and Land with everything he has and more. And that indeed, we unreasonably expect just that.
What I really, really wanted to say was that I love him. He probably has figured that out.