Parental Challenge

As your children grow, so too do you. Each challenge they face, is a challenge you face as well. When they first walk, you have this urge to catch them, to stop them from falling. Their first day of school, you want to go along and protect them from everything. And so it goes through their lives and yours.

I’ve been challenged more than a few times, unsure how to handle a situation. I’ve made mistakes and have apologized to my children because I don’t want them ever to believe I am perfect. I am flawed and they have to know this because some day, whether I tell them or not, they are going to know this. And. when that day comes, when I fail them, they will either be devastated, or they will accept and cope and rebuild our relationship stronger for the honesty. At the same time that I have shown them that I am not perfect, I have taught them they don’t have to be perfect either. I don’t want them perfect. They only have to be true to themselves.

The army has little patience for this concept. They are interested in the bottom line in many ways. For some soldiers, this works. They fly through the army, learning, developing, gaining. They give to the army and they receive so much in return. This is how it was with Elie, how it is with Chaim. I think it was this way with Yaakov, but it was all new to me and I was less involved. Yaakov shared with us what he would and though there were frustrations, he handled them mostly on his own. I was more involved with Elie, but because I knew less of the army in general, I was more trusting that they’d get to the right place in the end (and they really did). I heard from many others during those years – ones who were not so lucky as I was.

I know the army doesn’t handle each boy equally or fairly. That isn’t their concern. They are in the business of taking a boy and shaping him into a soldier. The fact that during that shaping, a man is formed, a person develops based on what he was as much as what he will be, is not relevant to the army.

Elie was my first real soldier, my first son in the army and so the army involved me, even if Elie would not have. The ceremonies, the officer coming to my house. It was all designed to guide us through – and it did. After you give birth to your second child, one thing you learn very quickly, is that each child is different. Where Amira almost never cried, Elie almost never didn’t cry during those first few weeks. Everything bothered him and it was so hard to keep him calm and happy.

Amira played with toy cars. She used them to bus her dolls around the make-believe city she created in her mind. Elie used the cars to crash into walls and the dolls as action figure fighters. Then came Shmulik. He was the balance between the two. The boy who played with cars and balls; the quiet one who didn’t cry easily and was easily contented with music or a touch. As they grew older, the boys loved the same things – cars mostly; and hated the same things – school mostly.

Elie found motivation in the army; Shmulik lost it. One of his commanders told me that he took a bad fall in the early weeks of training and somehow from that moment, became less interested in succeeding and more interested in just finishing. His headaches, which he’s always had, have gotten much worse. To be honest, they are, in many cases, brought on by his behavior. The army is more demanding, and so you need to rest more. He was stationed in the Jordan Valley, one of the hottest and driest places in Israel, and so you need to drink more.

He went to the doctors to complain; demanded medical assistance. In the end, about a week to a week and a half ago, he went before a medical board which took his nearly perfect profile of 97 and dropped it to 64. This is equivalent to dropping it three points…just below the required level for serving in a combat unit. It was, if I am to be honest with myself, what Shmulik wanted to happen.

There is a tradition in Judaism that promotes the concept that people are not perfect and so no one ever get a profile of 100. Eight days after a Jewish boy is born, a circumcision is performed. The army deducts three points for this “operation” and so the highest score you can receive would be a 97. It is one of many things so very Jewish about our army – the concept that perfection is God; humanity and its flaws our reality.

From the newly “perfect” score of 97, points are deducted for all manner of things – asthma, bad eyesight, and on and on. Elie was given a profile of 97 and I joked with him about his grades. All his life, I encouraged him to get good grades…and often, he brought home less, “Now,” I asked him, “NOW you bring me a 97?” But it was said with pride. Pride in his physical abilities; gratitude for his health.

I was resigned to Shmulik bringing home a 97; I expected it though I was no less grateful. I am struggling not to take his 64 as an insult; as a sign that he is less than he was. I’m grateful he doesn’t read my blog; as I was grateful that Elie didn’t.

This is where the challenge begins. Shmulik is now a jobnik. Something he wanted for himself enough to make it happen and something that bothers me because I can’t believe it is a true reflection of his abilities or the service he should be offering to this country.

There are two kinds of soldiers in the army: combat soldiers and jobniks. Jobniks are the backbone of the army; their purpose is to serve the needs of combat units. They cook, they sew, they truck around supplies. But they do so much more. They staff much of the military intelligence divisions, and are the masterminds behind so much of the army technology. There is no shame and much, much honor in serving the State of Israel – no matter in what unit you serve. It is more honorable to be a jobnik and serve this country with love, than to be a combat soldier and seek all manner of ways to avoid doing what your unit needs.

I would not have minded if Shmulik was sent to a jobnik position from the outset. I am bothered by how this came through; how he maneuvered it. My daughter thinks perhaps he doesn’t realize how much he caused this himself, but I am not sure. Had he taken this path from the start, he might have chosen to do something meaningful for his service. He is smart – he could have chosen other options the army offers. But the army is an interesting organ, one that treats its soldiers as it believes it is being treated. Show motivation, and you are rewarded. Betray it, and it will not support you.

For every soldier that tries hard to go into a combat unit and fails, there are several more who are capable of joining combat who choose not to take this path. It is a choice they make, a question they are asked. They are asked, “are you willing to serve in a combat unit?” They don’t really want the ones who will say no. An unwilling soldier is a bad one; a motivated soldier may save lives of those around him. Shmulik could have said no long ago and it bothers me, having made the commitment, that he now seeks to get out of it.

All of this is not really about Shmulik, who has made his choice, but about me. My challenge is to accept that Shmulik was never a motivated soldier. He did not like the challenges of the army, the difficulties. The army tests you hard because war is worse. They put you in the field for a week at a time and give you war rations to eat; they deprive you of much of the comforts and through it all, you know that come the weekend, you’ll be home.

Whatever conditions they put you under…war is worse. I learned that when Elie went to war, when I heard the exhuastion in his voice, when I knew he was cold. I heard it in the frustration he had when he knew we’d ended the battle of Gaza, but the war would continue.

In truth, I believe in the long run, the stronger the person, the more they carry, the better it is for them. When I see so many others take the easy way out, I want my children to see that what these others lose out on is greater than what they gain for having cheated their way our of doing their share.

And finally, as there are two types of soldiers and two types of people, there are two types of parents. There are those who adapt for the good of their children and there are those who expect their children to adapt to their expectations.

I want to believe I am the first type and not the second. I am in a funny position – what mother wants her son to be a combat soldier? Wants him to risk his life? And yet…

So Shmulik went to the Medical Board and his profile was lowered. He thought he would return to his unit. The unit was enjoying a week’s vacation together in Latrun. I told him he would be sent back to base, that they would take his gun away and likely assign him to some menial talks. I did not expect much from the army, assuming they would find some way to show their displeasure at losing a combat soldier. Shmulik didn’t agree. He thought he would be able to choose and hoped he would get something close to home. I was so worried they would give him some horrible position.

Shmulik was so confident; I was even more so. He called his commanding officer, thinking he would be told to go to Latrun. The commanding officer told Shmulik to travel to the Jordan Valley, hours from his unit, to go back to base. It was what I expected and yet I was so worried. Don’t crush him, I wanted to beg the army. Don’t make him miserable for the time he has left to serve.

Shmulik arrived on base. He reported to an office and gave in his forms. The officer asked Shmulik what he wanted to do now. Shmulik loves to drive…anywhere….anytime…anything. “I’d love to drive,” Shmulik answered, “to be a nachag boss.” (A commander’s driver)

“You live in Maale Adumim, right?” the officer asked Shmulik.

“Yes,” my son answered.

“Okay,” answered the commander, “you can be the driver of the head of the base” (who is from Maale Adumim).

“You’re kidding, right?” Shmulik answered, already beginning to feel bad that the man was playing with him.

“No,” answered the officer. The position opened that morning.

Shmulik met the commander of the base. He was the man I’d heard speak months and months ago. The one who explained to the parents what their sons would be doing. He was the one who told us that in four months, our sons would be trained fighters and would climb the mountains behind the base to show other parents what their sons would learn.

And he was the one who stood before us during the two ceremonies – one for Chaim and one for Shmulik, who spoke of our sons going to war and telling us that he would do everything to train them, watch over them. By the afternoon, I was so worried. Shmulik had gone to base and I didn’t know what was happening. I called and he answered. He told me he was on his way home, and then told me his new job.

He’s very excited to be the base commander’s driver. It’s more than a driver, he explained. He will be this commander’s “right-hand man.” He’ll do whatever the commander orders him to do, errands, computer work, call, get people – whatever it is. He’ll drive with him wherever he has to go. And one more thing. The base commander has special training to drive in a certain way. He wants his driver to be able to drive evasively and so he’ll be teaching Shmulik how to drive.

And if life were not good enough for my son, the base commander explained that in the coming weeks, he was changing bases and would be assigned a new position about 20 minutes from our home. “We’ll be going home almost every day,” the commander told Shmulik.

And if that were not enough, the commander is home almost every weekend – and so Shmulik will be as well.

There are moments in your life when you feel God’s love, when you know you have been blessed. “God loves you,” I told Shmulik. There is simply no other explanation. The army could have treated Shmulik with contempt, blamed him for his headaches and given him a horrible position sifting flour or sorting rice for the next year or more of his service. Instead, they gave him dignity, touched on something he loves to do, and gave him a man of inspiration to serve beside.

For these blessings, I thank You, God – for taking my sons and blessing them, for teaching them, for giving them a path to follow and a meaningful way to serve.

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