An Obligatory War

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.

19 Comments on An Obligatory War

  1. I do hope he will be home for the Barmitzvah.
    Your writing is amazing. I have sent links to your blog to people I know outside of Isreal. We indeed do know of someone who was taken from the “chupa” almost, married on Thursday and called for on that Shabbat to lead his soldiers into Gaza.

    Elie should know that there are a lot of people out here thinking about him!

  2. B’ezrat Hashem Elie will make it home for the bar mitzvah and it will be a tremendous simcha on many levels for your family.
    I hope you hear from Elie again soon.

  3. alisa mandel // January 11, 2009 at 10:27 pm // Reply

    I recently started reading your blog. Your writing is inspiring to those of us in chutz la-aretz. I hope Elie is home in time for the Bar-Mitzvah after a successful war.

    By the way, my parents will be in Israel Jan. 29 and are looking forward to seeing you and your family.

  4. My husband, a history teacher at the high school and college level, is bringing your blog to light tomorrow in class- He want to use this blog and one of your other blogs as an example for his students to learn about Israel- it’s past and it’s current situation… My husband and I have both been following your blog for many weeks and are so glad that you write the truth… Many are learning from you! Please be encouraged and keep writing-
    I read the comments you have received to my husband and that is one of the primary reasons he is bringing your blog to his classroom… He wants the truth to be told…we both believe ignorance is fought with knowledge… your blog has brought about many conversations in my circles and with my husband… Thank you!
    Still praying for Israel’s soldiers
    As a mother of 3 young boys- my heart remains with you!

  5. Thank you so much for sharing your story. Here I sit far away from what you write about. Not really understanding. But your writing gives a voice to what is going on. I pray for your Elie’s safety and peace for your family.

  6. wow. more rockets fell into Israel? I would not know if not for you. We chose not to have a TV, and the radio news is spotty on a Sunday here. And if the news is even on a news website, I’d have to wade through some celebrity misconduct. I hope and pray the Israeli army can hone in on each launch and blast them to smitherenes.

  7. As an American mother of an only child– who is now preparing for his bar mitzvah, I was moved by your post, and the wisdon of your youngest son. May Elie be back home celebrating with your family soon, and may all of Abraham’s children find peace.

  8. Hello Elie,

    I know exactly what you are going through. My son has been deployed, for now, 14 of a 15 month deployment in Iraq. He is a combat medic with a combined infantry battalion. He has been in a very dangerous area of Iraq for all of this time. Now, it is much better, but for a long time it was a daily struggle knowing he was in danger. After a time, I began to deeply appreciate the sacrifice that he is making. Today, I am awaiting the estimated arrival dates of his return home. It has been a long time and quite a change for all of us. For the holidays that my son was not here, we made videos. depending on where he is, I sometimes have to put them on a disk and send them because internet access has not been good. I have been at every significant event with either a still camera or taking video. Then I post them on my space so he can see them without delay.
    For your son, you could just film it and have your family to watch together.

    I will be praying for you and your family. I know of the thoughts of concern that surface so many times a day and how many daily events are automatically related in my heart with my son not being here with us. I guess we military moms share this in common.

    Know that I will be praying for you all.

  9. We can and DO daven that this war will end victoriously and quickly, with as few casualties as possible on all sides.

  10. Now I feel guilty – since we are also planning a Bar Mitzvah for my youngest – and I don’t have to worry that his brothers won’t be there.

  11. i do hope that elie will be home for the bar mitzva and safe and sound

    to Hope and the other mothers of US soldiers who’ve been writing in: Here in the US, i thank you for your sons’ service.

    God bless you all and your families

  12. looks like my prayer was answered! Go Israel! Fantastic–blowing up a rocket launcher before it fires!

  13. I have included your post here, in one I have done today. Linked to you, of course!

    My prayers are with you, always with love and faith. Absolute.

  14. Hi Paula,

    A memory from last time round which I trust will give you hope and strength.
    My elder son got married in the last hour of Tu Be’Av 5766 (Wednesday, August 9th, 2006). At this time, the IDF was still deep in Lebanon. He had been sent home 10 days earlier when his g’dud came out for 24 hours of rest on the Northern border, re-organisation and back in again. His magad told him to go home – you’re getting married. Like all good Israeli soldiers, he protested about leaving behind his haverim. The answer was short and to the point – go now before I change my mind. We got an SMS at 4:30 am which simply said “Ani be’aretz”, followed 30 seconds later by a very excited phone call from his fiancee telling us the same thing. His younger brother, who was then the logistics officer of a tank battalion, stayed up North. He arrived home at lunchtime the day of the wedding. Just as he arrived on time for his brother’s wedding, so Elie will arrive in time for his brother’s barmitzvah. After all, this is a Jewish army and while they have no problems with Hamas, they wouldn’t dare take on the most implacable of all foes – the Jewish mother.

    B’sorot tovot,

  15. My best friend’s husband wasn’t present for their son’s bar mitzvah. He was in Afghanistan with the US Army at the time and couldn’t be home.

    If your Elie can be there good, but know that if he isn’t there in person, his spirit will be there.

  16. Many thanks to your son and thanks to you for educating me ( and I assume many others ) about melchemet mitzvah. Although we are all familiar with the concept and historical record (closest example – US Army fighting in Europe in 2 world wars) but I didn’t realize that certain wars or military actions are actually commanded. But of course it makes perfect sense when applied as intended: in defense of one’s own family, community, country, or against genocide.
    I wish for your Elie and all other warriors who defend Israel and by extension all Jews in the world to come home victorious but humble, after all they are not seeking glory but performing a mitzva.

    Yehuda from Boston

  17. Thank you and hatzlachah rabah to Elie, you, and your entire family.

  18. May Hashem watch over Elie and his haverim. Here is a prime example of the commanded war and a sacrifice one makes in fulfilling it.

    Again, may Hashem spare all who fight for true freedom and peace.
    Yehuda from Boston

  19. I have been moved by the depth of your stories, and your determination to speak the truth.

    I’m gutted that so much terror and dishonour has unleashed itself upon your people, and innocents.

    Up until very recently, I had been very removed from the reality of the Gaza war. I paid little attention to the stories reported each night on the News, not because I did not care – but because I can not understand the desire for war and atrocious horror.

    And then a friend, who has a sister and nieces in the path of the war, began to write in her blog of the ordeal her family are entrenched in every day / night.

    It brought it home.

    Your children sound beautiful, and again I was very moved by the grown up sentiments of your youngest son to your daughter.

    I want there to be peace for you and your people. And may Elie return home safe and sound asap.

    You’re in my thoughts, from way across the world in New Zealand.

    Love to you, respect and courage also.

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