There is sort of a pecking order in Jewish families, built around the concept of respecting your elders. Younger children must listen to the older ones; the older ones should listen to their parents. Their parents should listen to their grandparents, and so on.
In the great order of life, Jewish children call their parents, most especially on Friday (Erev Shabbat) to wish their parents a Shabbat shalom, a peaceful Sabbath. For many weeks now, the order of life has been reversed. I’ve called Elie, desperately trying to reach him and wish him a quiet and peaceful Shabbat.
The first time this was especially relevant to me was several weeks ago; the day after he’d called me to tell me he wasn’t where I wanted him to be. He’d been re-stationed near Gaza and was calling me on Thursday to tell me where he was, where he wasn’t, and that he was closing his phone. I still haven’t asked him if that was the truth as he knew it, or that he wasn’t allowed to say the truth. Only several days later did they announce that the army had confiscated the phones of the soldiers to prevent them from inadvertently leaking the timing of the coming battles.
So as I tried to reach him Friday, he already didn’t have a phone. I started the Sabbath nervous and worried; no way to reach him and be reassured despite the incoming rockets and the heightened sense that war was approaching. Only later did Elie describe that night and that day to me.
They arrived in the late afternoon to an empty field and were told to make camp. Only, there wasn’t much of a camp to make. They had no beds, no tents, no cannons or armored personnel vehicles. That would come in the middle of the night. In those first hours, they got ready for war. The massive artillery cannons were aimed at Gaza; they were readied for war. Later in the afternoon, around the time I was trying to call him, the rabbi visited them and told them that even though the Shabbat was approaching, they were commanded to continue their preparations.
The Sabbath is a day of rest; Jews are commanded to refrain from doing all sorts of work, including building, lighting fires, using electricity, etc. And yet my son, who was raised in an Orthodox home; one in which he never entered a car on the Sabbath, ordered and was ordered to move these large vehicles. They built tents on the Sabbath, using hammers – tools not even touched in our home during this holy period.
A week later, as the ground forces were preparing to enter, I had a few momments on Thursday afternoon to speak to Elie. He sounded so much better than he had the day before. In one week, his unit had learned how to fight in the long term. I asked him to call me on Friday; I tried to reach him on Friday. Another Sabbath began without our speaking; another day of worry on my part.
After the Sabbath was over, I heard reports of massive artillery attacks. These were an integral part of the war, and my son was an integral part of them. Another week passed and another Sabbath came and went with a few conversations, but not many.
Would Elie be home in time for the bar mitzvah of his brother? Would it be yet another Shabbat without him. He came home not only for that weekend, but for the weekend that followed and so I had two Shabbatot (two Sabbaths) of peace and sleep.
After the second one, Elie moved on to his new assignment with his unit and this past weekend, he wasn’t home again. I thought about calling him and wishing him well, but I didn’t. I thought of it several times during the day, and each time, I hoped.
Mid-afteroon, the phone rang. Elie.
“Hi, how’s it going?” he asked.
“Good. How is it there?” I countered.
“Good.” What an ordinary conversation. What a simple one.
“Are you all ready for Shabbat?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he answered.
We talked about what he was doing. No, it isn’t too cold up there. Yes, he thinks he’ll be home next weekend, but he isn’t sure. No, he doesn’t yet know where he’ll be with the next rotation and no, the next rotation won’t be disturbed because of the war.
“Ima, new soldiers are still coming in at the same time. Other soldiers are still leaving the army when they are supposed to. That can’t change.”
He told me a little about the other guys in the unit; nothing unusual; nothing much to talk about.
“Shabbat shalom, sweets,” I told him. I keep trying to stop calling him that. He keeps ignoring it.
“Shabbat shalom,” he answered.
It was the most wonderful call I’ve had in weeks because…because…there were no rockets falling near him…no artillery being shot beside him. He’s sleeping on a military base – with a radiator in his room that works so well, sometimes he has to open the window because he’s hot.
His calling me is yet another sign that this war is behind us and the future is once again, along the lines of having a soldier in the army. He’ll call when he can; he’ll come home when he can. Plans will be made; plans will change. Before the war, there was this great fear that I had – that my son would one day be involved in war, in really having to shoot and yes, in one day having to kill.
I can’t tell you whether Elie has come to terms with this new reality; there are things that young men do not discuss with their mothers. Our nation was again called upon to fight as we have since Israel was first re-established 61 years ago. And, as with each generation, my son faced war, met the challenge, and with more gratitude than I can possibly express, my son came home safe and whole.
It’s a milestone, like the end of training, like his getting his kumta (the blue beret that marks him a part of the artillery division). He finished the advanced training, the Commanders Course, months at a checkpoint, and now battle against our enemies.
For now, Israel has returned to what it was before the war – a nation embroiled in an election that will determine our future, a test of directions and will. Our country, like much of the world, is fighting difficult economic times; challenges remain to be faced but for now, I’ll put it all aside because my son called home on Friday and had nothing real to say. Things were good. He was warm. He was ready for the coming Sabbath, and so was Israel.
My older daughter was not home this weekend; my middle son was at his yeshiva, and Elie was in the north. One of our “adopted” sons (actually, the brother of our “adopted” son…so we logically assumed that the brother of a son must be a son too) was there. And so my husband blessed our adopted son, our youngest son, and then our youngest daughter.
It passed in our house, as it often does, with guests and good food and song. Sunday was back to work – another week and hopefully, at the end of this one, Elie will come home with his dirty laundry. Elie wasn’t home this past weekend to receive his father’s blessing, but hopefully this coming weekend he will be.
For now, the urgency is gone; the desperate need to hear from him has lessened. My phone wasn’t turned off, but it was put inside a drawer, ignored for the weekend. I was up late Friday night enjoying our company; sharing the meal with friends who had come from far. These are friends we haven’t seen in years and so we enjoyed talking late into the night and then, when I went to bed, a wonderful thing happened – I slept. I even overslept, getting to the synagogue later than I have in weeks.
That quiet, that peace, that ability to sleep, and the call from Elie – these are the blessings of Shabbat long postponed because of the war, and now returned.