Motti Wilhelm

The Tragic Agony of Friendly Fire

Israeli soldiers mourn a fellow soldier.
(photo credit: MICHAEL GILADI/FLASH90)
Israeli soldiers mourn a fellow soldier. (photo credit: MICHAEL GILADI/FLASH90)

Is there a greater tragedy and more painful experience than that of friendly fire?

People who were ready to give their lives for each other tragically had their lives taken by each other because of a breakdown in communication and mistaken perception. The pain and agony of both those fired at and those who fired the shots are so horrific, one avoids even imagining it.

In light of such events, leaders must identify how comrades were mistaken for combatants and determine what steps can be taken to improve identification, communication, and understanding on the battlefield.

Sadly, friendly fire doesn’t only occur in the fog of war. It can happen within our families, communities, and people.

We all know grown children, whose parents sacrificed so much for them and suddenly feel like those very parents are foreign invaders.

I’ve seen too much pain when couples who’ve done so much to support each other feel threatened and “lawyer up” against each other.

Tragically, even within communities, groups that should stand shoulder to shoulder in advancing the mission of our people can become so embroiled in power struggles and petty arguments that they perceive each other as the enemy and cease paying attention to the existential threats they are here to address.

One of the most catastrophic acts of “friendly fire” took place during one of the hardest moments in Jewish history, around the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70, at the height of Roman persecution. The Talmud (Yebamot 62b) states:

Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of students in an area of land that stretched from Gevat to Antipatris in Judea, and they all died in one period of time because they did not treat each other with respect… It is taught that all of them died in the period from Passover until Shavuot.

At this critical moment in Jewish history, the leaders grew apart when they needed to bond together. The results were so catastrophic that each year during this time, we mourn their loss and reflect on its message.

Friendly fire is horrific and utterly painful. If there is a parent, spouse, colleague, or friend one perceives as the enemy, it’s critical to check in with one’s identification, communication, and perception of each other.

Let recent events remind us that we are not each other’s enemy. We are united in carrying the light and mission of our people forward.

About the Author
Rabbi Motti Wilhelm received his diploma of Talmudic Studies from the Rabbinical College of Australia & New Zealand in 2003 and was ordained as a rabbi by the Rabbinical College of America and Israel’s former chief Rabbi Mordecha Eliyahu in 2004. He was the editor of Kovetz Ohelei Torah, a respected Journal of Talmudic essays. He lectures on Talmudic Law, Medical Ethics and a wide array of Jewish subjects and has led services in the United States, Canada, Africa and Australia. His video blog Rabbi Motti's Minute is highly popular as are his weekly emails. Rabbi Wilhelm and his wife Mimi lead Chabad SW Portland as Shluchim of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
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