Joshua Berman

Lessons from our soldiers’ last letters

As our fallen heroes reflected on the possibility of death, their words teach us about purpose and meaning in life
The final letter of First Sgt. Adi Leon, z"l (Screenshot: used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
The final letter of First Sgt. Adi Leon, z"l (Screenshot: used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Perched on the precipice of his tank, the soldier’s gaze fixates on the notepad propped up on his knee. This will be the letter he fervently hopes will remain unread. He lowers the pen to the paper, but forms no words in what is the longest pause of his all-too-short life. What to write?

* * *

In a country rich with public mourning rituals for our fallen soldiers, a contemporary custom has emerged, shaped by the digital age. Following coverage of the funeral and the eulogies, a few days into shiva it is now routine for the bereaved families to publish through a news outlet the soldier’s last letter, found in his pocket after his fall. Composed by ordinary young men thrust into extraordinary circumstances these letters not only illuminate the character of our men in uniform but also impart profound lessons about the essence of life.

The letters predictably express love and gratitude to parents and siblings. But what do these young men write about their predicament – about the war thrust upon them by the savages who invaded our land and about their plans and dreams that now will go unfulfilled? Remarkably, and to a one, these letters express the unexpected undercurrent of contentment:

Sgt. Maj. (res.) Ben Zussman, z”l:

“…As you guys know me, there is probably no one more content right now than I am. I am about to fulfill my life’s dream. I am happy and am grateful for the privilege I will have to defend our beautiful land and the people of Israel.”

First Sgt. Itai Yehuda, z”l:

“… It’s also important for me to say to you that I don’t regret for a second that I chose to serve in a combat unit, and that this is best thing I ever did.”

Captain Liron Snir, z”l:

“… I am happy about the life I’ve lived, what I did, what I was, on behalf of my people.”

The key to understanding this apparent paradox lies in Viktor Frankl’s concept of the “will to meaning.” “Only when the emotions work in terms of values,” he wrote, “can the individual feel pure joy.” At the precipice of life and death, these young men tapped into a profound sense of meaning, transcending the immediate challenges they faced.

In her work, The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, Emily Estafani Smith delineates the four building blocks, or “pillars” of meaning: belonging, purpose, storytelling and transcendence. Our soldiers’ last letters vividly embody these pillars.

Belonging is most commonly achieved through strong relationships with friends and family and are a source of meaning. But the letters stress a strong connection to the land and to the people. We live in a tiny land. Here, nearly your entire family and every significant friendship you ever made you lives within a two-hour drive. Israel is a land of belonging.

Purpose is about what we give to others and being other-oriented. And the more we give, the greater the meaning for us. This was foremost on the mind of Sgt. Major (res.) Yossi Hershkowitz, z”l, to his parents as a source of contentment:

“… I’m happy that you brought me up this way, that you showed me a path through life where the question is not “what do I have coming to me,” but how at every moment I can give more for the people and for the country.”

Storytelling, according to Smith means the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. What are the important events that have shaped us and made us who we are? How do we connect the dots of what we have done to bring us to where we are? Consider the letter left by Staff Sgt. Shai Arouss, z”l:

“… The truth is that I was happy to do what I am doing, saving people and protecting the country, because this is what I always wanted to do, even since I was little, and now I have a chance to do it, and to give of myself for the country. So know that all this was not for waste, and was entirely worth it.”

Shai’s life had meaning and therefore contentment, because it was so clear to him how the decisions he had made in life had brought him to this signature, pinnacle moment.

Transcendence for Smith means the feeling that we have risen above the day to day, and participate in something vast and meaningful. A sincerely devout life is lived that way, and some of the letters speak in explicitly religious terms. But over and over the letters speak about what they are doing for “the people”, “the country.” A relative of First Sgt. (res.) Yosef Gatritz, z”l reported the following after his fall:

“Yosef told us that the people at the training camp were from all parts of the country, with widely divergent opinions on everything. They trained together, passed the time together, and sang together. He said he never in his life felt such an intense sense of belonging, and that he feels it a great privilege to be part of something so large.”

In the profound solitude of their contemplative moments, each of these young men assessed the distinct tapestry of their lived experiences. Yet, remarkably, a common thread emerges as each repeatedly emphasizes the profound significance of the four pillars of meaning in shaping their understanding and purpose. Blessed is Israel for the enduring spirit pulsating through the hearts of its soldiers.

About the Author
Joshua Berman is a professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University and is the author of Ani Maamin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth and the Thirteen Principles of Faith (Maggid).