The army has a job – defending the land from its enemies, those who would seek to destroy it, to erase it from the map, as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has threatened. It accomplishes this task on a daily basis – only to have to do it again the next day, the next night, and the next day again. It is a well-built machine, trained, conditioned, streamlined for efficiency with its many divisions and tools and equipment focused on this single obligation.
But a major component of the army isn’t even piece of equipment, a machine. Machines can be treated…well, like machines. They don’t require personal attention, their feelings don’t get hurt. They don’t need praise and each one doesn’t come with its own particular set of needs, history, background, family issues and more. In short, unlike some large machines that function based on the sum total of its mechanical components, the army functions by virtue of its soldiers, human beings, people. Even more vulnerable because the bulk of the standing army is comprised of young men ranging from their late teens to early twenties.
It is, in a very real sense, a human machine – vulnerable to illness, injury, morale and exhaustion. That is its weakness, and its strength. During the Yom Kippur War in 1973, one brave Israeli commander on the Golan Heights faced with the advancing Syrian army during a surprise attack on the holiest day of the Jewish year, radioed in his nearly hopeless position. He was in command of a handful of undamaged tanks, against what he estimated where about 200 Syrian tanks heading his way.
When the impact of what he was facing got through to his commanders, he was ordered to withdraw. Suicide is not an honored tradition of the Israeli army. Our men are taught to fight, but most important, they are taught to live – to fight today and tomorrow…but always to fight to live.
But this brave commander knew that in a very real sense, he was the only thing between those tanks and all of northern Israel. If he did as he was commanded, those tanks were going to roll down off the Golan Heights and right into northern Israeli cities and towns. Even if they would be stopped later on, the unarmed population below his unit was not prepared. In a moment of sheer bravery (and utter stupidity), Avigdor Kahalani pretended not to hear the order and held off those tanks until help arrived. There are many stories of such bravery, so many, too many.
So, what does this have to do with Elie? I’m not really sure. My mind has been more at peace the last few weeks, when I knew he was coming home each weekend, slipping right back into the fabric and routine of the family. Last week, when he went back up north, I knew it would be for a longer stretch of time and that he would be more out of touch than usual.
Conversely, the harder it is to reach him, the more I think of him in the middle of the day. I spoke to him for only a few minutes Thursday and not at all on Friday – something very unusual. It was a very quiet weekend for us at home. I lost several backgammon games to my middle son; we all worked on the big 2,000 piece jigsaw puzzle in the “sitting room”, we slept, we talked. I played two games of BattleShip with my daughter (lost one, won one).
On Friday, as they always do, Elie’s younger sister and brother asked if he would be coming home. After his having been home two weeks in a row, they were expecting it. I’d known all week that he wouldn’t be home, but that didn’t make me miss him less. My older daughter and son-in-law were away for the weekend as well – a quiet shabbat and a table that felt a little empty at times.
Another young man in Elie’s battalion was home for the weekend. Seeing him, and how happy his parents were to have him home made me again grateful that the army remembers the nature of its components. The boys have to come home on a regular basis. Elie last week, others this week, and in a few weeks, Elie again. This coming home grounds them, it encourages them, it rests them. It motivates them.
This weekend, Elie was up there on the Golan Heights, where so many brave soldiers defend the northern part of our country. Elie probably won’t be home this coming weekend either. He’ll turn 21-years-old on Saturday, according to the English calendar – the second time in his life that I won’t be with him to celebrate and tease him.
It’s a long stretch of time – three weeks between visits this time. Elie wanted it this way and even volunteered to stay this coming weekend because he wants to be home the following weekend for the Jewish holiday of Shavuot. He wasn’t home for Purim or for the Seder night of Passover, so he’s hoping that this time, he can get leave. It’s a wonderful, easy holiday. He’ll spend the weekend with us and then go to his yeshiva and learn all night – in honor of Shavuot morning, when the people of Israel received the Torah.
Each year, we honor this day, remember that according to tradition, the Jewish people slept the night before, unaware of the great gift they would receive and so, to balance this out, each year, we stay up all night and learn until the first rays of the new day break through the darkness. Elie was born just a few days before this great holiday.
Children are born…but mothers give birth. The child becomes the star each year on his birthday, but in the background, the mother knows that this day is as much hers as his. He will celebrate and be congratulated, for all he has accomplished and all he has become in his 21 years on this earth but I’ll know that I held him first, that I saw him first, that he was mine before I gave him to Israel.
We’ll celebrate the following weekend, which actually coincides with his Hebrew birthday. I’ll make him a cake and we’ll hang the balloons. I’ll buy him something, though I don’t have a clue what it will be. He’ll smile. He’ll be home – his sister will draw him something and cover his bedroom door. His brothers will buy him something or make him something. He’ll eat. He’ll sleep. He’ll fill the house with is presence, as he does each week and then, as he does each week, Elie will go back to the army, back to his responsibilities and the service he gives to the country we brought him to, but the country in which, ultimately, he will have to choose to live.