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Shayna Goldberg
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The people behind those uniforms

The matriarch Rebecca was right: Her son, and his generations after him, would rise to the call of duty, even when it was uncomfortable (Toledot)
Israeli soldiers pray at a staging area near the border with Lebanon, northern Israel, October 15, 2023. (Ayal Margolin/Flash90)
Israeli soldier praying (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The world sees soldiers dressed for battle.
But we know the people behind those uniforms.

The father holding his two children, one in each arm, with his gun hanging behind his back; the daddy playing dolls with his little girls on the floor moments before he heads out; the mother lifting her son out of the crib after long shifts away; the older brother home for a few hours, picking his little sister up from school; the couple hugging each other goodbye…yet again.

“And the boys grew…and Jacob was a plain wholesome man, dwelling in tents.”(Genesis 25:27)

The world sees an army, well trained and heavily armed.
But we see plain, wholesome, regular people.

Husbands, fathers, sons, brothers, wives, daughters and sisters wrapping their arms around their loved ones; not wanting to let go but answering the call of duty, nonetheless.

Men and women, students and professionals, those who had settled down and those who were trekking the world, those young and fit in their 20s and those a little less so in their 40s — all of them have put their regular lives on hold, donned their olive-green clothes, grabbed their weapons and headed to the front.

We know this story. We have read it before.

“And Rebecca took the best clothes of her eldest son Esau, which were with her in the house, and put them upon Jacob her younger son: and she put the skins of the kids of the goats upon his hands, and upon the smooth of his neck.” (Genesis 27:15-16)

We know that Jacob was hesitant. He was not comfortable in Esau’s clothes. He had smooth skin. He was a straight up guy. The kind where what you see is what you get. None of this felt good or was intuitive for him.

“And Jacob said to Rebecca his mother, Behold, ῾Esau my brother is a hairy man, and I am a smooth man: my father perhaps will feel me, and I shall seem to him a deceiver; and I shall bring a curse upon me, and not a blessing.’” (Genesis 27:11-12)

But Rebecca insists. She understands what must be done. She grew up around evil. She has no qualms identifying it for what it is. Nothing gets by her. She will not be fooled. She loves her son Esau, but she knows the truth about him.

There is no room for hesitation and no time to delay. She needs Jacob to act quickly. And so Jacob goes, answers her call and does as he is told.

“And Jacob went near to Isaac his father; and [Isaac] felt him, and said, ‘The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau.’” (Genesis 27:22)

The world sees the weapons in their hands.
But we hear their soft, gentle, moving and prayerful voices.

Isaac was right to be perturbed. The two don’t naturally belong together.
How can the father who sings his children to sleep each night with peaceful lullabies be the same one with the gun in his hands?

How can these soldiers dressed in uniform, their hands ready to pull the trigger, be the same ones who:

  • say kiddush in their armored vehicles,
  • murmur the prayers each morning, afternoon and night,
  • whisper sweet nothings on the phones with their spouses,
  • call their mothers to tell them they are safe,
  • sing songs of faith and dream of a better tomorrow,
  • declare with all their might the words of “Shema Yisrael”?

“The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau.”

It doesn’t add up. It doesn’t make sense.
Isaac was confused. And so are we.

But Rebecca was right.

She understood that sometimes,
Jacob, with his sweet voice and wholesome manner,
who studies and dwells in the tent,
who puts up a fresh pot of soup at home in the evening,
needs to don the hands of Esau.

It won’t feel natural. It will be foreign. Certainly not comfortable. But entirely necessary.

Rebecca knew what Jacob was capable of even as he resisted. She knew he would never make this choice on his own, but that sometimes it had to be made for him. She knew he would rise to the occasion. His fate and the fate of his children depended on this moment.

She also knew that Jacob would never lose his voice.

Throughout thousands of years of Jewish history, we have never stopped praying, learning and speaking out for our people. We have never lost our will power, our drive, our commitment to the sanctity of life and our will to survive.

But it is only since the founding of our state that we have had the capability to don the “hands of Esau” and put on his clothes when deemed necessary. It is not something we ever ask for. It is not something we ever enjoy. We do it only when we are compelled to answer the call of duty, only when there is no other option. And even then, it is never comfortable.

It’s been 75 years, and it has not gotten any easier.
This will never be natural.
Not this clothing. Not these hands. Not these weapons.

War and fighting is not our way.

We prefer to use our voice to advocate and create, to build and contribute, to comfort and care, to heal and bring people together.

But to do that we first need to survive.
Am Yisrael Chai.

About the Author
Shayna Goldberg (née Lerner) teaches Israeli and American post-high school students and serves as mashgicha ruchanit in the Stella K. Abraham Beit Midrash for Women in Migdal Oz, an affiliate of Yeshivat Har Etzion. She is a yoetzet halacha, a contributing editor for Deracheha: Womenandmitzvot.org and the author of the book: "What Do You Really Want? Trust and Fear in Decision Making at Life's Crossroads and in Everyday Living" (Maggid, 2021). Prior to making aliya in 2011, she worked as a yoetzet halacha for several New Jersey synagogues and taught at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School in Teaneck. She lives in Alon Shevut, Israel, with her husband, Judah, and their five children.
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