The monument to the Lamed Heh (“The Thirty-Five” in Hebrew numbers) stands above the Valley of Elah, a silent testimony to a legendary group of soldiers whose doomed mission added a page to the chronicles of Israeli heroism. It is a brutalist 1950s concrete sculpture built to resemble a menorah with 35 candles of various sizes. Very few people visit this monument, but every Israeli schoolchild knows the story of the Lamed Heh.
In January of 1948, the situation was desperate in the four small kibbutzim that comprised “The Etzion Bloc” between Jerusalem and Hebron. They were cut off from the rest of the Jewish settlements, under attack, in need of reinforcements and supplies, and every convoy that had tried to reach them had been ambushed and massacred. Clearly, large armored jeeps were sitting ducks in the mountainous terrain, but a group setting out on foot, it was thought, might be able to avoid detection, hiking by night. It was a treacherous mission, hiking uphill for 20 miles in the winter darkness through hostile villages. The 38 who set out from the village of Hartuv were first delayed until 11:00 PM and further delayed when one of the soldiers sprained his ankle and had to turn back, supported by two others.
And so it was that 35 soldiers found themselves six miles from their destination, loaded down with heavy packs in rugged terrain as the sun rose. The soldiers, many of whom were recently drafted university students, made a desperate dash to reach Kfar Etzion before being exposed.
Within a short time, they were surrounded by hundreds of fully armed Arab irregulars. The battle raged for most of the day and was hopeless from the outset. The British Army (still officially in charge, but none too eager to get in the middle of the fight) was able to confirm that the last soldiers died around 4:30 in the afternoon. Having run out of ammunition, they were found clutching stones to desperately hurl at the enemy. The bodies were returned after the war, but they had been so hideously mutilated and desecrated that only 23 of them were even identified. They were buried with military honors on the very first day of funerals at Mount Herzl, Israel’s military cemetery in Jerusalem.
Standing in the shadow of the monument, one is struck by the lovely view of the Valley of Elah, fertile farmland that served as part of the route of the Lamed Heh on that cold night 76 years ago. But, simultaneously, the mind’s eye imagines another heroic legend that played out in the valley below, the battle between David and Goliath. On the ridge behind us stood the Israelite armies and on the far side of the valley stood the Philistine army.
The thousand-year stalemate between the Israelites and the Philistines was a function of topography: The Philistines, who lived in the coastal plain, were masters of the iron chariot while the Israelites were guerrilla warriors who lived in the highlands. Chariots are useless in mountain terrain, and guerilla warfare is useless on the plain. Back and forth swung the balance of power through the centuries, according to the Biblical narrative, neither able to completely defeat the other.
The tale of the duel between the heavily armed and shielded Goliath, and the simple shepherd boy David with his sling and his river stones is a story that has inspired warriors throughout the centuries facing difficult odds, out-manned, outgunned and discouraged. Every nation in conflict likes to view itself as the righteous young David facing the monstrous Goliath, saying as David did, “You come to me with sword, spear and javelin, and I come to you with the Name of the Lord of Hosts.” (1 Samuel, 17:45)
So too, the war that we are now engaged in is part of a conflict in which both sides see themselves as the victims, struggling to live freely in their own land, and the other as barbaric monsters. A common trick of tour guides, when seeking to explain these conflicting narratives is to present two different maps: The map called “How Arabs see the conflict” shows the relatively small and non-contiguous Palestinian Authority surrounded by the State of Israel, while the map called “How Israelis see the conflict” shows the entire Middle East with its 40 Muslim countries stretching for 5,000 miles from Senegal to Pakistan, surrounding a tiny speck that is the Jewish State.
Standing under this huge concrete menorah, it does not escape me that what began with the Hamas massacre on Simchat Torah has brought us to the Festival of Hanukkah, the holiday of the few against the many, the weak against the mighty, the light against the darkness. No doubt Judah Maccabee himself derived inspiration from the story of the red-headed shepherd battling the giant.
I speak of conflicting narratives because I am a student of history, but I know which narrative is mine. I am an Israeli, a Zionist and a Jew and my country is under threat, still reeling from a civilian massacre of mind-numbing evil. I know that after October 7th the present war was unavoidable. But in the long term, I fear that it is also ultimately unwinnable. We will fight again and again, like the Philistines and the Israelites, until we can find a way to live together.
That is the miracle that I will be praying for as I light the candles this year.