I didn’t expect to get emotional washing his uniform. But I did. As did my husband, when he saw it hanging to dry from the banister.
We had spent the last week before he drafted shopping for the right socks, undershirts, and backpack. He got a neck pillow for the long bus rides and a portable phone charger, in case he needed extra battery. We labeled everything and checked over the packing list one more time. He even needed a laundry bag. Just like he did the first time he went to camp.
We knew that the dropoff would be a moving experience. The parents blessing their sons, the proud siblings, the singing and dancing, the idealism, the hugs. Then they announced over the loudspeaker that it was time to say goodbye, they checked off his name, he went through the gate, and a bus came to pick them up. Just like camp.
A few hours later, when I opened my phone and saw the picture of him beaming in his uniform, my heart rate sped up, and my stomach got queasy. I knew this picture was coming, but I still wasn’t prepared. I flashed back to our kids playing dress-up and parading around in costumes. This didn’t feel so different.
The very next day, they let him out for Shabbat. After a long trip home on two trains and a bus, there he was, waiting for me at Tzomet HaGush (the Gush Etzion junction) — in his uniform.
And, suddenly, it hit me hard. He’s a real soldier. His personal identity now emmeshed in the collective identity of the Israeli army and in the national destiny of the Jewish people.
Looking just the same as all the other young men and women who devote and sacrifice prime years of their lives serving their country, ensuring the safety of their neighbors and instilling a feeling of security on the streets of this state.
Seeing him from afar standing out there in his uniform, I realized that he had become a symbol. No longer just our innocent, sweet, studious, 19-year-old who is a broad, open-minded, and nuanced thinker but rather another anonymous Israeli soldier. Painful to internalize that in the eyes of some, he now represents aggression, occupation, belittlement and oppression. Now a target of hatred and resentment, when just last week he was enjoying some vacation.
Later, as I washed his sweaty uniform, the enormity of the significance of this moment in time washed over me. The washing machine began filling with water, and my eyes with tears, as I processed this seemingly routine chore of doing laundry on the background of earlier events in our week.
It’s August in Israel, which means everyone is home with no school or camp. In our quest to remain busy (and off screens!), we have tried to be out and about. We have enjoyed the usual bowling, ice skating, rope parks and trips to the beach. But last week also included two more meaningful activities, when we visited the Ayalon Institute and Ir David (the City of David).
The Ayalon Institute in Rehovot houses the secret underground ammunition factory where the Haganah manufactured bullets used by the Palmach fighters in the years leading up to Israel’s independence. Above the factory they ran a laundry service, with the heavy and loud washing machine disguising any noise and covering the entrance to the ladder that led 25 feet below. The strong smell of the soap and detergents (along with those of the bakery next door) were useful in diffusing any smells that emerged from the basement, and the British soldiers stationed locally would even bring their uniforms to be laundered there.
In the factory below, 45 young men and women risked their lives every day, handling the explosive material necessary for assembling the bullets. They had no idea if their efforts would be valuable and if the Jewish state they were fighting for would in fact be declared. But they showed up nonetheless, intent on making their dream of founding a modern country in our ancient homeland a reality.
Two days later, we benefited from a unique and special tour with Ze’ev Orenstein, the director of International Affairs for the City of David where we walked the recently excavated Pilgrims’ Path, which leads from the Shiloach pool (parts of which were only discovered in the last six weeks!) all the way to the Western Wall. It was on this road that the Jews of the Second Temple period made their way to the Temple Mount, stopping to shop and socialize along the way. And it was in the sewage pipes under this path that Jewish families hid and ultimately met their deaths, as the Romans ransacked the city.
At the very end of the day, Ze’ev showed us a 2,000-year-old coin that was minted by the Jews only three years before the Temple was burned in 70 CE. While it was not economically worthwhile to mint at the time, it reads “לחירות ציון” — “For the freedom of Zion,” in ancient Hebrew letters. Ze’ev explained that even though that alphabet had already been out of use for hundreds of years, it was associated with national pride. This coin was likely minted as a message of hope that despite the impending doom, Jews would be back. Found amidst the shards of pottery and black ash that date back to the destruction, it is a reminder of the eternal connection of our people to this land.
It is the month of Elul. The month we introspect, examine our deeds and turn to God in repentance. It is the month where we begin to recite selichot (penitential prayers), begging God, “Cast me not away from Your Presence, and take not Your Holy Spirit from me.” These are words from Psalm 51, where King David comes clean of his transgression with Batsheba and pleads for forgiveness. Throughout the centuries, we have echoed his words, asking God not to abandon us, even when we are not entirely worthy.
Earlier in that same Psalm, King David twice uses the term “כבסיני” — “cleanse me,” the modern Hebrew word that is used for laundry. In verse 4, he writes: “הרב כבסני מעוני” — “abundantly cleanse me from my iniquity”; and in verse 9: “תכבסני ומשלג אלבין” — “cleanse me and I shall be whiter than snow.” Aware of David’s shortcomings and of our own, we hope that God will wash us, purify us, and allow us a fresh and clean start, despite our personal and collective failings.
As I stood in my laundry room, washing my son’s uniform, I thought about the black ash beneath the current city of Jerusalem; the heavy, grimy air beneath the ground of the bullet factory in the late 1940s; and the sweat running beneath the clothing of every single modern-day Israeli soldier. Who could have imagined that 2,000 years after destruction and exile, and 75 years after a fragile declaration of independence, our sons and daughters would continue to have the privilege to sweat in defense of this precious land?
In prayer that as God cleanses our sins once again this year, He first stops to take note of some of the “dirt” that has collected over thousands of years of unending commitment, dedication, and total sacrifice to His country and His people.
Some sweat is sacred.
And some laundry is not a chore.