Words on my Grandsons Enlisting in the Israel Defense Forces, Part 2
As I mentioned in my previous essay, joining the Israel Defense Forces is something entirely different to joining any other army; joining Israel’s army is simply something that is “out of this world.”
When one enters the Israeli army, you are not merely serving to protect the citizens of Israel. An Israeli soldier bears not only a duty to enlist in compulsory military service, but is granted the zechut, privilege, to fulfill a holy commandment, a mitzva, of guarding his fellow Jews. This is a mitzva that elevates one to a different spiritual experience with rules and expectations of its own.
Serving in Israel’s army signifies defending and spreading an eternal idea in which we Jews are seen as the Am HaNivhar, the Chosen People, and a “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 49:6), such that we assume responsibility for the wellbeing of all of humankind and inspire it with moral values. Although often many people do not want to recognize this, it is the full truth. We defend the free world against all the cruelty that threatens other nations, that often they themselves do not want to see.
It is the exalted ideas and values found in Tanakh, the Bible, that are at stake. The call for holiness stands at the center of this mission . In Judaism it is not sufficient to be a “good” person; one must surpass this and achieve sanctity and become sacred.
The famous Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), author of “War and Peace,” once expressed this beautifully as follows:
“The Jew is that sacred being who has brought down from heaven an everlasting fire and has illumined with it the entire world. He is the religious source, spring and fountain out of which all of the rest of the peoples have drawn their beliefs and their religions. The Jew is the pioneer of liberty… The Jew is the pioneer of civilization… The Jew is the emblem of civilized and religious toleration.”
(See J. H. Hertz, “A Book of Jewish Thought.”)
The great philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), author of “Pensees,” once wrote:
“It is that in certain parts of the world we can see a peculiar people… and this is called the Jewish people… For whereas the people of Greece and Italy, Sparta, Athens and Rome and others came so much later (than the Jews), they have perished so long ago, while these [Jews] still exist , despite the efforts… to wipe them out hundreds of times… My encounter with this people amazes me…”
(See Jonathan Sacks, “Radical Then, Radical Now.”)
Indeed, we outlived all our enemies, the Egyptians, the Romans , the Greeks, the Persians and so on. We have stood at all their tombstones. Not one of these peoples remain, their offspring may still be alive, but not as a people nor with the national identities of their parents. But we, the smallest of the smallest of all nations, are not only still alive, but after nearly 2,000 years and the tremendous tragedy of the Holocaust returned to our ancient homeland. This is unprecedented!
We have had an enormous influence on all of humankind that is entirely unproportionate to our number.
As Catholic scholar Thomas Cahill (1940) puts it:
“The Jews gave us [the gentiles] the Outside and the Inside, the outer outlook and our inner life. We can hardly get up in the morning or cross the street without being Jewish. We [gentiles] dream Jewish dreams and hope Jewish hopes. Most of our best words, in fact – new, adventure, surprise; unique, individual, person, vocation; time, history; future; freedom, progress, spirit, faith, hope, justice – are the gifts of the Jews…”
(Thomas Cahill, “The Gifts of the Jews.”)
This is what you as new soldiers come to defend and teach when you enlist in the Israeli army. This is sui generis, an entirely unique phenomenon.
Let me explain this further in another way: Joining the Israeli army is akin to entering a Sukkah, the ritual booth used on the festival of Sukkot, or a Mikve, ritual bath.
When entering a Sukkah or a Mikve, one’s entire body is encompassed by the mitzva, the sacred commandment he fulfills. It is not only a limb or limbs that are involved in performing the mitzva, but every part of one’s body—from your head to your feet. Nothing of the experience is external; your very physical being is immersed in the Mikve and Sukkah.
Since beginning your years of study in Yeshivat Har Etzion, a Hesder Yeshiva in Gush Etzion, an institution of higher religious study that combines Torah education and army service, and having received a significant Jewish education from your parents, you have been immersed in the great values of Judaism. These, alongside your guns and other necessary weaponry, will inspire and protect you.
No army can defend its country unless there is something that surpasses that very army.
Like Abraham, our forefather, and Moshe Rabbenu (Moses, our Teacher), and many others who embarked on shelichut, a mission, that gave them the strength to fight our enemies and spread our values, so are you on this holy day when you enlist in our army.
In this instance, it is the greatest concept ever to appear on our globe, the world that you defend: Tanach and the exalted Jewish values that give you the inspiration to serve our nation.
As Ben Gurion stated at the United Nations: “The Bible is our mandate.”
When I served in the army, I met with many people who could be considered “secular” soldiers—they were not! Once I started speaking with them, I discovered that all of them, without exception, were driven by these higher biblical values. Whether consciously or sub-consciously, they bore the Jewish flame, and they were proud of it.
A mission of Tzedek, “justice,” honesty, and deep spirituality.
It is also one of your great missions in the army to inspire your fellow Jews to be proud Jews. You must become the “Chosen People” within the army, serve as an example and cause a Kiddush Hashem, sanctification of God’s name! You must demonstrate what it means to be a real Jew.
For all these reasons, I sometimes wonder whether our contemporary sages should not suggest a new berachah, blessing, upon entering the army: “Blessed are You God, King of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with His mitzvot to safeguard and protect our people, our Tanach, our holy mission and all of humankind.”
Since both of you, together with all your friends studying in your Hesder Yeshiva, will serve in the Armored Corps, when entering your tank you should think that you are entirely encompassed by the holiness of the steel of the tank precisely as one is surrounded by the sacred waters of the Mikve. You enter your tank not for war like other armies, but for the sake of peace.
May God bless you!