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Shabbos Hagadol And The Israeli Defense Forces

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In 1976 my turn came to be inducted for basic training. This was during the period following the Yom Kippur War. All available manpower was now being conscripted by the Israeli Defense Forces. Every week we attended a lecture by an officer from the Army’s educational branch. A unique personal experience transpired during one such attempted lecture, which I detailed in my recent book:

The next morning we were scheduled for a training lecture after the usual drills. The entire company was assembled and the representative of the army’s educational branch began his talk. After a few minutes, some trainees not too politely informed the lecturer that our company had heard this talk two weeks earlier. There had obviously been a slipup, and the speaker left the rostrum in a huff. Within a few moments, members of my company were suggesting to the commanders that I be invited to address the assembled group… Within minutes I found myself at the podium. Instead of a listener in a large audience, I was now the speaker addressing my peers and commanders.

With Rosh Chodesh Nissan around the corner I was not at a loss for words. I analyzed the difference between the Almighty’s covenant with Avraham and the subsequent additional one with the generation that left Egypt. The initial pact with the Patriarchs was between the Almighty and individuals who chose to be Jewish. There was not yet a concept of a collective and cohesive Jewish community. The second covenant forged the individuals who departed from Egypt into a nation. They were now not only Jews on a personal basis but they were also members of the Jewish people. They had additional obligations as the Children of Israel. Only now could the Almighty reveal His Torah and grant the Land of Israel to His people. Individual Jewishness does not yet qualify for these precious gifts. Only when the totality of Jewish peoplehood is achieved can the Almighty grant us the Torah. Only at this juncture can He lead us to the Land of Israel which He had promised to the Patriarchs. Passover represented the festival of becoming a nation. Countless families joined together in bringing the Passover lamb offering; the Jews had to manifestly express their new status of peoplehood. The entire congregation of the assembly of Israel shall slaughter it in the afternoon (Exodus 12:6). This was the first time the Torah referred to the Jewish people as the congregation of the assembly of Israel. This indicated that the commandment of the Passover sacrifice inaugurated a new era of a united Jewish nation. The Jews now had obligations on a personal, individual level and also as members of the collective body of Jewish peoplehood.

I compared the degrees of the two different covenants with our emotions as trainees in the Israeli Defense Forces. Until now, we all experienced commitment to Judaism as individuals. Each of us had his own background and saga which led to his aliyah to the Holy Land. Now in basic training, we experienced our additional commitments as integral members of the Jewish nation and people. Despite our varied backgrounds, cultures and native languages, we were forged into a collective unit. We now truly could appreciate the concept of people-hood and were better prepared than ever before to celebrate the approaching Passover holiday.

Later that day many soldiers continued to ask me questions pertaining to my talk. I could sense from their interest that my message had hit home. What had begun with a slipup turned into a worthwhile experience. Little did I realize at the moment that this talk would become the cornerstone for the next fifteen years of my reserve duty. I did not know that our commander had to file a daily report of our activities with the base commander. The latter was a high-ranking officer and he evidently was impressed that a trainee stepped forward to save an embarrassing situation. I was soon summoned to meet with him. It turned into a pleasant dialogue between a Romanian Holocaust survivor and an American who chose to live in Jerusalem. After our get-together, the base commander informed Rabbi Gad Navon of what had transpired in Training Camp Number Four. The latter was then a brigadier-general in the military rabbinate. He would soon be promoted to major-general and the chief rabbi of the IDF.

About the Author: Rabbi Dr. Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff is professor of rabbinic literature at Yeshiva University’s Caroline and Joseph S. Gruss Institute in Jerusalem.


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