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The last 10 minutes: A wartime parable for our times

With vaccinations in full swing, there's a temptation to let down our guard. Here's what Zvuvi taught me during the Lebanon War
This 'war' is not over. (iStock)
This 'war' is not over. (iStock)

Zvuvi was the driver of our armored personnel carrier brought into the company I was commanding during the 1982 Lebanon War. His real name of course was Zevulun, and I always was careful to call people by their real names but the one time I tried calling him Zevulun was the first and last time. He was the type who only went by his nickname. A great driver. A real veteran.

I found myself commanding the company while fighting the battle of Sultan Yacoub. While I was technically the deputy commander, the person at the top was in Japan when the war broke out, so I was thrust into that role despite having no real prior experience – and certainly no training as the company commander.

So I did my best, but when it came to commanding Zvuvi there wasn’t much I could do. He was a seasoned veteran, having been in the reserves since the Six Day War, and didn’t shy away from letting the rest of us know how much experience he had. The whole first week of the war he drove the personnel carrier and, while we were positioned on the secondary line behind the front, it was still a dangerous task. There he was with the hatch open and his head exposed making it seem like he didn’t have a care in the world.

And every time he was caught driving like that, we tried to talk him down, to beg him to behave. We tried everything to convince him to keep his head down and get out of danger. But he never replied. He’d just continue doing what he wanted and claimed that he was more concerned about the vehicle flipping over than he was about getting shot. And so it continued.

After that battle of Sultan Yacoub, which took place on a Thursday night, we reached a ceasefire with the Syrians. The agreement was that the ceasefire would go into effect at 12:00 on Friday. At 11:40, I gathered the troops who felt that the end was near and that they could leave their tanks and their positions, allowing us to shift to searching for missing soldiers and gathering captives.

I looked over towards Zvuvi and was shocked by what I saw. There he was with the hatch down in full protective gear and protected behind a defensive position.

I yelled in his direction, “The whole war you’ve been driving around with your head exposed and now you’ve gone into hiding mode?!”

And then and there in front of the whole company he yelled back at me: ‘Honorable commander, boy, listen up. Get everybody inside. In these last minutes before the ceasefire, they’re gonna let loose with everything they’ve got. This is the most dangerous moment of the war. You’re gonna get hit.”

Without pausing for even a second to think about my bruised ego, I ordered everyone inside their defensive positions, into the tanks and armored cars, and to put their vests back on.

Maybe he was right.

Lo and behold, over the next ten minutes our troops came under a merciless barrage of fire. Most of the rocket fire fell around the station that had been set up for treating the wounded and many people were hit.

Thanks to God and his messenger Zvuvi, my company escaped without a single man injured.

That was the first time in my life I heard that horrific whistle of a Katusha rocket immediately before it hits, followed by an equally terrifying sound as it meets its target.

And then 12:00 came, and there was utter silence followed by the unmistakable, anguished cries of the wounded, most of whom had been injured by shrapnel. We climbed out of our positions and began to treat the wounded. No one in our unit was injured.

Since that moment, I am particularly sensitive as anything approaches its end. To those last ten minutes.

When living in the Golan Heights, I was once told that the majority of car accidents that occur on those long winding roads happen in the last ten minutes before getting home. People live with a sense that they have almost made it and they become less aware of their surroundings.

That’s when things are most dangerous.

I tell this story today because people think that we’ve reached the end of this Corona crisis. I doubt if that’s in any way accurate, but that’s what people think. We’ve become less aware of the threat. Long ago we stopped trusting what we’re told to do. Here in Israel, we’re living in this “Fake Lockdown.”

Sure the vaccine roll-out is incredible and we can’t downplay that. But there’s one little factor that we’d be wise not to ignore: that little COVID virus. The virus doesn’t care about data and statistics. The virus continues to strike – and strike hard. It doesn’t ask where we are in the campaign. It just hits wherever it can.

But to think that people will have made it through this whole “war” and then to get sick or die just when the end is so near.

Please. Don’t give up now.

And now, let me finish the end of the story.

As the ceasefire “broke out,” I found myself evacuating the wounded. After several hours of exhausting work, I went to rest on another side of the camp. There I watched as two doctors ran between patients. One handled internal injuries while the other was charged with orthopedic cases of broken bones and the like. Despite the intensity of the task, they never stopped working for even a moment. I went over to one of them to chat for a moment and asked him what he does in his civilian life.

“You don’t wanna know.” He answered

“If I asked then I’d like to know. Is it something illegal?”

“No, of course not. But you really don’t wanna know.”

“Are you a gynecologist who somehow found himself as a combat physician?” I asked.

“Nope. But you really don’t wanna know.”

“Cmon! You can tell me…”

“I’m… a veterinarian”

“So a vet is treating combat wounded in my brigade?!!”

“Hey. No need to worry. 90 percent of the medicine is the same thing.”

And that’s the other lesson I’ll take with me for life. We’re 90 percent pretty much the same as the animals.

But then there’s the other 10 percent.

About the Author
Rabbi Yuval Cherlow is the Director of the Tzohar Center for Jewish Ethics and a Founder of the Tzohar Rabbinical Organization in Israel.
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