There is a concept, in Judaism, of an “obligatory war” (known as melchemet mitzvah, in Hebrew). It means a war that must be fought, one where there is no choice. In Biblical times, the term was used most often in connection with defensive wars, when vital interests were at risk. Some incorrectly refer to this as a “religious war” with undertones of Jihad, but that isn’t what the term means at all. There is no glory in death, no martyrdom.
Rather, it refers to a war that we are obligated to fight and as such, no one is exempt from it. Why do I mention this (when in truth, until tonight I’m not sure I ever even heard of the concept)?
I was sitting having dinner with my two youngest children, exhausted from another day of teaching and wondering where Elie was, what he was doing. Listening to news of more and more rockets hitting Ashkelon, Sderot, Ofakim, Ashdod and finally coming home to deal with dinner, questions, a stack of laundry that has to be folded and plans for tomorrow that need to be made.
It was easier to let them talk and remind them, now and again, to finish eating or pass me the ketchup or tell them no, you can’t have soda today, but there’s apple juice. My daughter finished another book. It’s amazing how fast she reads. She told me the story, the whole story, of a mother who walked for hours and hours to get her son medicine. She warned me that it started off bad, even “very bad,” but then ended “good.”
She was getting ready to tell me another story when my youngest son interrupted. “Will Elie make it to my bar mitzvah?” he asked me. It’s funny how he chose today to ask that question. Just this morning, an army officer said that it is very possible the war would last through to the end of the month and his bar mitzvah is before that. For the first time, earlier today, I began to contemplate a bar mitzvah without Elie there. No, I can’t call it off. Yes, it will take place whether Elie is there or not and yes, the idea is killing me deep inside.
I looked at my son. Truth. I have to be honest. “I don’t know,” I said. “They said this morning that the war may not end in time. I just don’t know.”
My daughter was very upset, “that’s not fair. He has to come home. Tell them it’s for the bar mitzvah.” Truth might work with a 12-year-old on the brink of maturity, but it has no place in the heart of an almost 9-year-old who misses her brother terribly.
Before I could say a word, my son turned to my daughter and answered, “It’s a melchemet mitzvah,” and then went on to explain, “even a chatan [a groom] under the chupah [wedding canopy] has to go if it’s a melchemet mitzvah.”
According to the Talmud, “For a war of mitzvah, everyone has to join, even a bridegroom from his bridal suite and a bride from under the wedding canopy.” It was amazing on several fronts. First, that my son could so easily quote this information; so easily associate it to this situation, and most important, find comfort in the fact that though his brother may not attend his bar mitzvah, what he will be doing is of great importance.
While I struggled inside myself to find a way to comfort each child, in the end, my son comforted my daughter and, to some extent, comforted me. I’m still not sure how I will cope with celebrating this huge moment in our family’s life without Elie and so I will play the ostrich just a bit longer and hope he’ll make it home for this day.
Beyond this, there is an important concept to consider – an obligatory war. A war we did not choose to wage, but one that we are now commanded to fight.
I want to pray that God brings Elie home in time for his brother’s bar mitzvah, but I won’t do that because what Elie does there is very important and he’ll come home, God willing, when it’s done. It is our obligation to protect our people, our land, our nation, our civilians, our children. This is what Elie is doing – a melchemet mitzvah.
May God grant us victory in this war – victory such that our towns and cities will no longer be bombed, that our sons no longer have to go to war, that our daughters no longer miss their brothers.