I know it sounds bad, but we have to come to grips with the truth. I spent the day yesterday giving out popsicles and t-shirts to young men and women responsible for terrible tragedy. They commit these acts at the bequest of our country to protect me and my family and so many other children and parents. But I think it is important that we realize exactly what we have asked them to do.
I had the privilege of delivering food and equipment to soldiers serving in the Israeli Defense Forces. I met with vigorous young men who fire artillery batteries; I gave drinks to endearing young women who shoot lethal charges into enemy lines; and I prayed with religious soldiers waiting for orders on the border with Gaza. When I looked at these teenagers and early twenty somethings I was struck by the price we are exacting from their innocence and youth – a price I, for technical reasons of Aliyah date, never had to pay.
I have taught students the same ages as these soldiers for many years. I also have a high-school graduate daughter in the Israeli National Service. So, from a certain vantage point, I know this age well. But whether in teaching undergraduates in the United States or overseas students studying in Israel only for a year or two, my pupils generally viewed this period in their lives as an academic one: going from high-school through university. Killing was never part of the curriculum nor ever on their course schedule. Self-defense was a class taught at a community center along with Judo and graphic arts never a daily necessity.
Looking at these wonderful kids, these soldiers, I was dumbstruck. And kids are what most of them are or at least should be. In the yeshiva where I teach we like to say, too often, that we relate to our Gap-year students as adults. But at age 18, when they first arrive in Israel, for the most part, they really aren’t. For the majority, it is their first time away from home and with the juices of youth flowing through their veins they need to figure out how to manage their newly acquired freedom. After the year in Israel, most continue on for several years in university with its libraries and lectures and parties. It strikes me that the demands we place on Israeli youth come with a requirement to mature in a way that the high-school to college mentality of others doesn’t. And that is in the best of times when there are no hostilities. In Israel, we ask so much of our youth.
Let us never underestimate the impact of war. The Torah tells us that when Yaakov returns from the house of Lavan, he knows that in order to enter Eretz Yisrael he must confront his brother Esav. The Torah relates that, “Yaakov was greatly frightened and afflicted…” Rashi explains the double language, “he was ‘frightened’ lest he be killed, he was ‘afflicted’ lest he kill others.” Killing, Rashi tells us, is an act pregnant with implications. How can we not be frightened for our sons and daughters lives and at the same time not be afflicted by what we demand of them as well. We ask so much.
I know that elements of this war are controversial. But that controversy is for the ethicists and politicians to debate. (And they better have damn good answers on why they make the decisions they do. We owe that much to our kids and to ourselves.) But, philosophers and politicians only use words. Our children must use the deadly weapons we put into their hands. We “adults” were the ones primarily involved in the democratic process. How many of the soldiers were even old enough to vote in the last election? To be clear, I side with those who feel we have no choice in this war – but let us always remember the ramifications of that decision on our youth. Let us never forget that we ask so much.
The cost of war is unimaginable in so many ways. In a celebrated comment regarding the command to completely destroy an idolatrous city, Rabbi Naftali Tvzi Yehuda Berlin (Netziv) clarifies this danger. In the Torah God enigmatically promises to grant us kindness (Rachamim) after killing the inhabitants of the rebellious city. Netziv points out that God must give us the quality of mercy for “the action of [destroying] the idolatrous city causes … evil in the Nation: for the nature of one who kills becomes cruel…[the command to kill] an entire city must force us to accustom many people to kill and be cruel…therefore the Torah promises…[that] God will grant kindness – the quality of kindness.” Unfortunately, we do not possess that promise in this war.
To be perfectly honest, I’m not the hugging type. It is not really in my nature to hug most other people outside of my family. But scores of soldiers came up to us and wanted to be embraced. They thanked us for bringing trinkets and snacks; toiletries and treats; popsicles and drinks like other parents give their kids on a trip to the zoo or a hike around a park. But this was no park and they are not just looking at animals, but shooting at people and too often harming children. How could I not embrace them with my entire soul? They are all our precious ones and they are doing what we, the citizens of this difficult and beautiful country, ask of them. And, indeed, we ask so much.
King David fought to establish the kingdom of Israel. He spilled much blood and lost the ability to build the Beit HaMikdash. I don’t think it was just the “right” to build it which was denied him by God, but he lost the ability to build it. Through fighting for the Jewish people he had too much harm on his hands. It takes a toll no matter how right and just one deems it to be.
As I traveled the border from makeshift base to base, I looked around at our young King Davids. Each and every one of these soldiers, these college age students should be studying or partying or writing for a college newspaper. All I could think about is that we ask too much. We ask them to be King David for us. We need them to be King David for us. We beg them to fight for us. And this comes at a price. If I could embrace each one forever, I would. They deserve so much.