I had the honor of standing next to a chayal on the light rail last week in Jerusalem who was on his way home for a 36 hour break after having spent the last week and a half in Gaza. Fighting for our lives and catching some sleep when possible on the floor of the destroyed home of some Hamas official. You might be wondering how I know all of this about him. I didn’t cross examine him. I didn’t even speak to him. But other people did. During this time when strangers feel like family, the brotherly love is really palpable. (From personal experience, I can say that Israel beats Philadelphia in terms of the brotherly love.) And so I guess it is now acceptable to ask strangers (sometimes personal) questions as if you know each other well. Although I guess it’s always been acceptable here.
An older man got on the light rail and immediately inquired about the chayal’s well being. How are you? Are you ok? He tried to get two young ladies to give their seats to the standing soldier, but they didn’t want to get up. They said they were also soldiers, so I guess they didn’t feel the need to give up their seats for another soldier. An older lady then stood up and practically pushed the chayal into her seat, but he assured her it was ok. The whole interaction was actually quite funny.
Another couple then got on and started cross examining the poor guy who looked utterly exhausted (which made a whole lot of sense after hearing how he had spent his past couple of weeks) as if they were old friends. To me it seemed a bit excessive, but the boundaries here are different or perhaps nonexistent because this is Israel. Ultimately, I was glad they asked since it was really interesting to me to hear about his experiences at least on a surface level, and it really impacted me. נגע בי. (These days I’m finding that certain Hebrew words/phrases are more מתאים for what I am trying to say than the English alternatives.)
It reminded me that the strangers standing next to us on the train and those crossing the street alongside us and those that we see at the supermarket all have a story. Some more heroic than others. Some more earth-shattering than others, and some more banal than others. But everyone has a story. Some people might even be literal heroes like this one. I obviously already know this, but sometimes something happens that makes it all feel more real. It also made the whole war feel more real after hearing directly (even as a fly on the wall) from someone who was literally on the front lines.
The chayal continued to share that what we are hearing in the news is true. Northern Gaza is largely destroyed- but “לא מספיק.” Not enough. After explaining that he slept on the floor in response to one of the questions he was being bombarded with, the couple seemed concerned that it must have been so uncomfortable. His response: “זאת מלחמה. זה הכי נוח.” He almost seemed annoyed by the question. Obviously he wasn’t sleeping on a luxurious king size bed in the middle of war-torn Gaza. The most comfortable option was on the floor, and nobody was thinking about better sleep conditions at such a time.
The most emotional part for me of this whole exchange was when he said (also in response to a question from this couple) that his mom (or wife? I couldn’t hear the question) knew he was on break but did not know that he was on his way home. This made me think of the tens if not hundreds of videos that have been going viral for weeks already showing soldiers coming home and surprising their families. I cry every time I see them. And now I was getting a preview because this guy was on his way to do just that. I don’t know that he was planning to take a video and I don’t know how long he had been away from home, but those details don’t actually matter. I’m sure the reunion will be just as emotional after what he’s been through.
Coming home is a big deal because anyone who put on their uniform on October 7th or any time since then knew very well that they were putting their life on the line. Some in a more extreme way than others, but war is dangerous. But they do it anyway because that’s what they were raised to do. Kids in Israel know that we are surrounded by our enemies.
My mother’s friend told her that her son, at the age of 18, told his mother that if he ever gets taken hostage, the family should never release prisoners for him. This is especially apropos right now, but the concept of an 18 year old thinking like that is crazy to me. But that’s the sad reality of how people need to think here. I remember hearing that Rina Dee (who was only 16) once told her friend before going on a trip, during a precarious time in Israel, that if she gets murdered she should make sure that the media used a nice picture of her because they never post nice pictures of terror victims. This is the reality. We live among our enemies. But we live life anyway, albeit with differing priorities.
Maybe it’s those differing priorities and that unique way of life that make Israel draw people in. Some people, even born and bred Israelis, might not really feel their inherent connection to the land of Israel until it gets triggered. It’s there though. No question. Many many Israelis move abroad for various reasons. This is especially true in recent times during the political unrest when many chilonim left because they felt like Israel was no longer their country. A friend of mine asked an Israeli researcher friend of hers who was living in the States if he ever intended to move back to Israel. He said that he can’t see himself living here anymore because the country is becoming too religious. I somehow don’t think he’s the only one who feels this way. This is obviously sad, but it’s true nonetheless.
But now, I wonder if that’s changed. The sheer number of people that rushed back to Israel from abroad to fight immediately when the war began, whether or not they were actually called up, speaks for itself. Something intangible clearly drew all these people back. People care about Israel more than they realize. Israel is top priority, especially during troublesome times. Do all of the reservists who came back realize this? Or do they think they’ll be heading back to their “regular” life abroad once all of this is over? I don’t know. Even once all of this is over though, I’m not sure “regular” life can be the same. Will they still be able to relate to their former coworkers and classmates who have been largely uninvolved in anything to do with the war? Will they want to be so far from their families ever again?
A friend of mine’s son finished his army service this past summer and had just begun college in the US before being called back for miluim. He was just in Gaza for over a month with no communication with his family at all. She was expressing that she can’t see how he can possibly go back to school in the US after such an experience. He’s going to be a changed person. He is going to be surrounded by people who will have no concept of what he has been through. Here at least, even the non soldiers on the street feel like family which is exactly what I experienced on the light rail last week.
Somebody else that I heard about had gone back to England after his army service and has now returned for the war. He was told by his university that he can’t come back since he missed so much school. Now he’s considering staying in Israel. I can’t help but think that many many other reservists are feeling the exact same way.
Amidst the ceasefire, no one knows what’s happening minute to minute. Hamas is really ramping up its psychological warfare. Really no one ever knows what’s happening minute to minute. We are at God’s mercy. I personally think that all of the soldiers beginning to wear tzitzit and those becoming religious to varying degrees during this time really speak to the expanded understanding that God is running the show. A young woman at the kotel last week asked me to help her figure out what prayers she should be saying at the kotel. My impression is that this was not a regular thing for her.
The fact that everything about this war is so incredibly complicated and multifaceted along with the fact that nothing seems to make any sense are also glaring indications (for those who weren’t sure) that God is in charge because human minds can’t figure this all out alone. But with God as a partner, anything is possible. Between the brotherly love, Israelis returning (both to Israel and to God) in swarms, our soldiers who will not stop for anything, and the Jewish people’s undying spirit, God will get us through this together. יחד ננצח.