I have long felt the holiest Jews are members of the IDF, the Israel Defense Forces. At countless rallies I’ve called out from the heart, “Blessed is the nation that has as its army the Israel Defense Forces.”
My feelings about Israel’s army have become even more personal. For the first time a close family member, our eldest grandson, Gilad, has enlisted in the IDF. I always felt the Israeli army was part of my family, but Gilad’s entry takes it to a different level.
In our history we have lived through the periods of two sacred Temples. There were differences between these eras. The first was ushered in by force, the second was not. The first was a prophetic time, most of the second was not. The first included the ten tribes, the second did not.
Yet these periods had much in common. Specifically, they were periods of Jewish power. When the Temples were in existence, we were sovereign in our own land. We had an army. We were able to protect ourselves.
After the destruction of the Second Temple, we lost this power. We were no longer sovereign in our land and no longer had the ability to fend for ourselves. We were dispersed all over the world.
There were extraordinarily positive developments that unfolded during this two-thousand year history, including the writing of the Babylonian Talmud, the early commentators, the development of mystical and chassidic thought, the Mussar movement and much more.
But there was a big negative. During this period of powerlessness we were exiled from virtually every country we lived in. We endured horror after horror: crusades, inquisitions, pogroms and, ultimately, the Shoah.
One of Israel’s basic messages was and will always be Never Again – never again would Jews under attack have no place to go; never again would we allow our fate to be in the hands of others; never again would we be defenseless. From powerlessness we transitioned back to power.
Power, however, has its challenges, as it can be abused. For this reason, built into the very fabric of Israel’s army is the concept of tohar haneshek – purity of arms. Yes, there have been moments when individuals have veered from this ethical course. But they were few and far between.
The IDF is central to the Jewish mission of being a light to the world. Only in Israel can this mission of ohr lagoyim be carried out on a national level. And only with Tzahal can this mission be protected.
All this is the backdrop of a blessed merging of my identity as a proud Jew with the tremendous personal hadar I feel as Gilad joins the Golani unit of the IDF.
Gilad was twelve when he and his family made aliyah. During the first year he would sit in the back of his classroom, unable to speak Hebrew. By the end of that year, he was president of his class.
As Gilad entered high school, I wondered whether he and his siblings would be able to adapt to Israeli society and accept the responsibility of serving in the army. Never will I forget the Friday night I prayed with Gilad – then just fifteen – on a Jerusalem hilltop. He turned to me and said, “Look at this beautiful city; one day I will have the privilege to defend it.”
As Gilad was finishing high school, he went for his first army interview. He shared with me that one of the questions he was asked was what he wanted to do in the IDF. “I told them I wanted to be a fighter.”
He continued: “They asked me, ‘Why do you want to be a fighter?’ ”
My heart dropped. I hoped Gilad was not going to say he wanted to be a fighter in order to, God forbid, kill Arabs or show strength gratuitously. That is not what the Jewish army is about.
“I told them,” he said, “I want to be a fighter because Israel has done so much for me. I want to give back.”
I offered thanks to God that I had experienced this moment.
For two years after high school Gilad attended a program that helped prepare him emotionally, spiritually and psychologically for the army. And then, just a few weeks ago, my daughter Elana and son-in-law Michael took Gilad to the army post in Givat HaTachmoshet, Jerusalem.
My wife and I were almost six thousand miles away in New York. Gilad called for our blessings. Toby blessed him that he would always have heavy socks and insulated underwear to protect himself from the cold and stay hydrated in the heat. This, she told me, is how she outwardly blessed Gilad. But deep down she offered the more serious prayer, from a loving grandmother, that Gilad be safe; that he, together with all the soldiers of Israel, be protected and come home.
About the Author: Rabbi Avi Weiss is founding president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. His memoir of the Soviet Jewry movement, “Open Up the Iron Door,” was recently published by Toby Press.
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