It’s a fairly simple and straightforward drive from Ramat Beit Shemesh to Tel Hashomer. Waze said that it would take about an hour, and I wanted to leave a bit early in case we ran into traffic and risked arriving late. But Yaakov said that it’s not necessary, we didn’t have to be there at 10:30 sharp, so we left around 9:45. And this one was entirely his call. I’m not the one who had to be there. He’s the one who is drafting today.
He was right about the timing. We arrived with time to spare, even though we were about 20 minutes late. Outside the car window were lots of kids — 18, 19, 20 years old — saying hi to friends from home and yeshiva, slapping each other on the back, giving high fives and hugs. We drove into a full parking lot across the street, waited for a car to pull out, and quickly took its coveted space. Yaakov removed his giant backpack from the trunk, along with a black plastic garbage bag that contained his blanket, sheets, and pillow. I offered to carry it for him, but he insisted on doing it himself. After all, I wasn’t going to go inside that imposing building with him. He was going to have to enter by himself.
We walked to the intersection, waited for the lights to change, and crossed the street with a crowd of other people. Every group had at least one kid Yaakov’s age; we weren’t the only family saying goodbye to our child as he took this major step into adulthood and reality and the grown up things that make life sweet and sour and complicated.
On the other side of the street was a white tent without walls, and I assumed that we would spend some time there as incumbent soldiers processed Yaakov’s paperwork. I was wrong. As soon as we walked in, Yaakov asked someone there where to go, and the answer was out the other side, around the corner to the left, and then into the walled compound where he would officially become a soldier. So before we had time to think, it was time for him to go and for us to say goodbye.
How do you say goodbye to your son who is joining the Israeli Defense Forces in the middle of a war?
I didn’t know.
Some parents, I’m sure, give their child birkat habanim — the blessing our father Jacob instituted in ancient days, saying that the People of Israel would bless their children with the words, “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.”
Why Ephraim and Manasseh? Perhaps because they are the first siblings in the Torah who got along with each other. From Cain and Abel through Joseph and his brothers, Genesis is largely the story of sibling rivalry, sibling jealousy, sibling hatred.
Perhaps Jacob recalled the time, many years earlier, when Esau shocked him by embracing him with genuine love. Perhaps Jacob saw the pain that enveloped his children when they realized that Joseph was more beloved than they were, and the tears shed by Joseph when he understood in Egypt that his brothers would not abandon Benjamin. Perhaps Jacob realized that there could be no greater blessing than the blessing of sibling acceptance and love. “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh” — two brothers who embodied compassion, grace, and love for one another.
What could be a greater blessing than that? A child about to don an army uniform far from home, willing to defend his homeland from those who want to take it away. Why does he do it? Because he cares about his brothers and sisters, both those in his immediate family and those other children of Jacob who live throughout the Holy Land and across the world.
Our family custom is to bless our children with birkat habanim only on the first night of Rosh Hashanah. We do not have a custom to do so before a child goes into the army.
Of course, there is no such custom; for I did not serve in the Israeli army, and neither did my parents or my grandparents or their parents or their grandparents. The last time that our ancestors served in a Jewish army was almost certainly over 2,000 years ago, when Judah Maccabee and those who fought alongside him — many of them kohanim, like us — battled those who tried to force Israel to assimilate into the wider world. That army created the last independent Jewish state and saved Judaism so that 2,183 years later, their descendant, our Yaakov Shlomo HaKohen, would be able to stand tall as a proud Jewish Israeli, prepared, ready, and willing to protect his Jewish brothers and sisters from those who will do anything to hurt and destroy them. Of course, with a millennia break in history, there could be no such custom; but as the Maccabees surely blessed their children with birkat habanim, I decided that I would do the same. Doing so is certainly our custom — albeit a custom that our family has not performed since the days of the Second Temple.
So as Yaakov stood with his giant backpack over his shoulders, a black plastic garbage bag by his side, and a wide smile on his face, I stood in Tel Hashomer a few days before Hanukkah, placed my hands on his head, and blessed him as Jewish parents always have, as our own family surely did before that custom was interrupted, a custom which, like the people of Israel, was ancient even as it experienced the springtime and childhood of its existence today:
May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.
May Hashem bless you and keep you.
May Hashem cause His face to shine towards you, and be gracious to you.
May Hashem lift up His face towards you, and give you peace.
Wiping the tears from my cheeks, I hugged Yaakov again. Yaakov hugged Aliza. He hugged his sisters, picked up the garbage bag, reminded us that he would be home for Shabbat in a couple of weeks, and walked confidently around the corner and into the building.
Our son joined the IDF. A complicated and sour and oh-so-very-sweet moment that, for me, became a seminal moment in the history of the Jewish people’s love affair with its land and its God.