Avi Baumol

The Army of God

When I was a kid in Riverdale in the 70s and 80s I went to a modern Orthodox school (S.A.R) with the amazing Rabbi Fuld as the principal and went to a modern Orthodox shul as well (though the rabbi’s son, Yakir, and I spent much more time running around than sitting in the pews), and I grew up as a typical Modern Orthodox kid. But there was one area in which I inexplicably and unknowingly became part a Hasidic group, indeed part of their army – it was called ‘Tzivos Hashem’ (literally, the Army of God). I don’t remember much but I do recall the pride felt when we received letters or stickers or emblems that told us that we were fighting the battle of God by doing mitzvos.

I imagine it lasted only a short while but long enough to still resonate in my mind after 40-plus years. Tzivos Hashem was the brainchild of the Lubavitcher Rebbe who understood that the way to bring the Messiah for the Jewish people required the creation of an army of youth who would work on their middos (character traits) and try to act in a more noble way toward God and toward other humans. I vaguely remember learning that to be in the army of Hashem meant that I was separating myself by accepting more responsibilities which would hopefully help me become a leader of Israel.

That army created (which at its height in the by the early 90s reached 300,000 members!) was a spiritual one as Jews living in the Bronx in those years could not conceive of joining a real army and defending the nation of Israel. Aliyah was never spoken about (Nefesh b’Nefesh hadn’t been born yet) and Jews were a vulnerable minority struggling to fend for themselves.

I suppose the Rebbe understood that the greatest impact he could have would be to create a spiritual army of soldiers who would go out and influence the world. What would have happened had he channeled his energy on convincing Americans to make Aliyah? Good question, but speculative. In any event, Tzivos Hashem remains to this day an avenue for Jewish kids to feel like they are contributing to protecting the nation of Israel.

I wonder if this Habad tradition of outreach and responsibility to all Jews is the driving force behind the fact that more of their Hasidim join the Israeli army than any other Hasidic sect. Though they still are a small percentage of Hasidim who have the obligation to carry their responsibility in the country, they nevertheless represent an important exception in the haredi world regarding the understanding of what it means to live in modern Israel and how one should think of today’s version of ‘the army of God’.

In Israel today, army means army; it means enlisting, training, committing and sacrificing, all in order to ensure the welfare of Israel’s citizens. It is a right and a privilege my great-grandparents who were murdered in Poland did not have, and it is also a civic duty as a way for each 18-year-old kid to understand what Israel is and how we must fight for it every day.

When I think of the army of God, I think of Elisha Medan, who after reaching the age of army exemption jumped into action on October 7th and didn’t stop fighting until a terrible explosion in Gaza which took both his legs (and almost his life) but didn’t take his passion, his love for Israel, for God and for the Jewish people. I think of Elchanan Kalmanson (42) who sprang into action on October 7th driving down to Beeri to save Jews from terrorists until he was killed. I think of Inbal Liberman who was in charge of the security team in the kibbutz Nir Am and at 6 in the morning that fateful day sensed something was off, quickly ran to gather her team of 12, arm them and fight off the dozens of terrorists who were attacking the kibbutz. She saved the kibbutz that day.

And I think of the tens, no, hundreds of thousands of soldiers who weathered the conditions, the fear, the 150 days away from home, and who maintained their composure and idealism to fight against the enemy and defend fellow Jews. They are my role models, future leaders of our nation.

Parshat Shemini tells of a tragic story on the day of the commencement of the holy Tabernacle. After Moshe built the Mishkan, set up the vessels and prepared the sacrifices, he anointed a holy group of leaders – the priests and Levites – to guard and protect the holy site. Aharon’s four sons were meant to take on this role and become the future spiritual guides of the nation. Tragically, two sons, Nadav and Avihu, were cut down on that day, being consumed by the fire of God. But what interests me is not that event but the reaction of Moshe to the remaining brothers, Elazar and Itamar.

One could expect them to break down, and no longer serve in the Temple, having experienced such a terrible loss; yet, Moshe had other plans for these righteous souls. He said to them, “Don’t loosen your hair and tear your clothes [signs of mourning] so as not to cause any more death today; instead, let your brothers of Israel mourn your personal loss [while you stay at your positions].” Moshe told the two sons that they must continue to serve in the Temple despite their tragedy and they must continue to spiritually lead the nation despite their pain. But they should not fear because their brothers and sisters, the nation of Israel, will engage in mourning for them – we will have their backs.

The priests had a job to do and could not stop for personal loss; instead, they continued at Moshe’s behest. The same priestly family is depicted in the Torah as serving God sometimes in the Temple with incense and sometimes on the battlefield with swords. Moshe tells them that the army of God represents the total definition of what being a soldier in Israel should encompass. They are spiritual beings who transform into physical warriors in times of great need.

They are Abraham our forefather who also took up arms and saved his brother; David who penned the psalms but slew Goliath, Devora who was a prophetess and in the battle, Joshua, Elijah, Elisha and many more. And they are the soldiers of today who represent in my eyes the leaders of Am Yisrael, the ancient priests who will not falter or slumber to protect Israel’s borders.

About the Author
Rabbi Avi Baumol is serving the Jewish community of Krakow as it undergoes a revitalization as part of a resurgence of Jewish awareness in Poland. He graduated Yeshiva University and Bernard Revel Graduate School with an MA in Medieval JH. He is a musmach of RIETS and studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shevut. He served as a rabbi in Vancouver British Columbia for five years. Rabbi Baumol is the author of "The Poetry of Prayer" Gefen Publishing, 2010, and author of "Komentarz to Tory" (Polish), a Modern Orthodox Commentary on the Torah. He also co-authored a book on Torah with his daughter, Techelet called 'Torat Bitecha'. As well, he is the Editor of the book of Psalms for The Israel Bible-- In summer 2019 Rabbi Baumol published "In My Grandfather's Footsteps: A Rabbi's Notes from the Frontlines of Poland's Jewish Revival".
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