On Tisha B’Av, Pray for the Soldiers of the IDF

A friend in Israel wrote me about going with his 20 year old daughter to her friend’s funeral. He said he had nothing to tell his daughter, no way of explaining the unjustified death of a young man. And in a few powerful words, my friend reflected on what it means to have his own children serve in the army:

“Instead of living a carefree life, our children are put into a position of protecting the Jewish people. They are our children. They should not have to live through this pain of burying friends. A father and grandfather should not have to bury a child.”

These young soldiers shouldn’t be dying; they shouldn’t even be on the battlefield. No one in Israel wants there to be a war. Each soldier is somebody’s son and grandson and brother, young boys of 19 and 20 who deserve to have long and happy lives. Yes, as the leaders of Hamas like to point out, the Israelis love life. Israelis would rather find a 100 different ways to avoid this conflict, but they now have no choice. They have to protect their country, from Sderot to Metullah. One cannot live permanently under an Iron Dome.

Now is the time to speak up and say the truth: these soldiers are heroes. They put their lives on the line to protect Israel from Hamas’s rockets and tunnels. The United States and Canada should see them as heroes as well; after all, they are fighting an enemy that is the philosophical equivalent of the Taliban, Al Qaeda and ISIS. Like them, Hamas is a radical Islamic group intent on dominating the entire world. Unfortunately, the IDF is criticized, even by the U.S., for “not doing enough” to save civilian lives, when American troops in similar situations have done no better. And they are maligned by apologists for Hamas, and accused of war crimes and of being bloodthirsty monsters shelling indiscriminately at schools and hospitals. The reality, in the fog of war, is quite different. There are arms caches in UNWRA schools, Hamas terrorists dressed as women, and kids wearing suicide belts running at soldiers. (And of course there are tragic misfires that kill unintentionally; in fact, the first Israeli soldier to die was killed by friendly fire). The worst part of war crimes slander is that the opposite is true: in this war and in others, Israeli troops have lost their lives because of exceedingly careful rules of engagement that protect civilian lives.

This slander filters into the Jewish community as well. After American Max Steinberg, who had volunteered to serve in the IDF, lost his life in battle, he became the focus of an unflattering piece by Allison Benedikt. She saw Max’s choice to join the IDF as the product of brainwashing, and speculated he might have done so because he was “especially lost, or especially susceptible”.  Politically correct American Jews offer criticisms of the IDF, while ignoring what American troops did in Fallujah, and the rest of Iraq, ten years ago. Of course, it’s easy to second guess the actions of soldiers defending their homes when your own country hasn’t been under attack in 70 years.

American Jews must defend the IDF. We know them better. We know they follow the IDF’s ethical code which states “The soldier..…will maintain his humanity even in combat. The soldier shall not employ his weaponry and power in order to harm non-combatants or prisoners of war, and shall do all he can to avoid harming their lives, body, honor and property.” (Compare that with Hamas’s mission to murder as many men, women and children as possible.)  We know what the soldiers of IDF are like, and we know their stories. A member of my synagogue told me about his grandson, who is in Gaza with the IAF search and rescue unit. The young man’s helicopter flew by a gun battle between Israeli soldiers and Hamas gunmen, and they saw two young Gazan children caught in the crossfire. Despite the hazard, the crew flew their helicopter into the area, lowered a rescue basket, and took the two children to safety.

So it must be repeated: these young men are heroes. They fight with dignity and ethics, and risk their lives so others can live. And some make the ultimate sacrifice. The late Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz, the Rosh Yeshiva of the Mir Yeshiva, spoke about the unique holiness the fallen soldiers have, that even the greatest rabbis don’t reach the same place in heaven as the IDF soldiers.

As Tisha B’av approaches, we need to remember our fallen soldiers. We need to cry for the destruction of fifty six young lives. We need to speak about them during the Kinnot, as we sit on the ground and lament the pain of exile.

The Talmudic tradition is that the first tragedy of Tisha B’Av occurred when the spies in the desert cried and refused to enter Israel. The spies cried the tears of a people too frightened to defend themselves. Those tears, the tears of insecurity, followed us for 2,000 years of exile. Until 1948.

Now, the Jewish people are home again. But as this home is under attack, we must cry again, at funeral after funeral. Except this time, we are crying the tears of the brave.  The IDF has allowed the Jewish people to reverse the course of history.

Because of this, I will add the prayer for the soldiers of the IDF on Tisha B’Av. They are the ones who give us hope. They have replaced the empty tears of Tisha B’Avs past with true courage. And we need to pray that the soldiers get home safely.

Tisha B’Av is a daylong prayer that one day, there will be no more funerals and no more tears, and our swords will be turned into plowshares. May God bring our soldiers home, in safety and in peace.


About the Author
Chaim Steinmetz is senior rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York City. Rabbi Steinmetz has been a congregational Rabbi for over 20 years, and has previously served pulpits in Montreal, Quebec and Mount Vernon, New York.