On Wednesday morning of last week, just hours before the start of Succot,
hundreds of young men in drab green uniforms mulled about at the foot of the
Nahal Brigade memorial in Pardes Hanna.
A mixture of exhaustion and
enthusiasm was evident on their boyish faces as they prepared for the start of
the Tekes Kumta, or “beret ceremony,” signifying the end of their basic combat
training. To mark this important milestone, each soldier would be receiving a
new bit of headgear, with its unique color signifying the unit in which he
Just a day beforehand, these weary warriors had all completed the
traditional torturous trek, marching more than 50 km. in the desert throughout
the night until they reached Masada, which their tired bodies then had to find
the energy to climb (no cable cars allowed, of course).
As I observed the
scene, I could not help but marvel at the miracle the Israel Defense Forces
Young black soldiers, immigrants from Ethiopia, mingled easily
with blonde-haired, blue-eyed arrivals from the former Soviet Union, while the
children and grandchildren of refugees from places as far afield as Munich and
Morocco shared a joke or two under the blazing sun.
The exiles are indeed
being gathered in, I thought to myself, even if we do not always appreciate just
how wondrous this process is.
And of course, as a father of a soldier in
an elite unit, I had a “Tevye moment,” when the lyrics from the Fiddler On the
Roof song “Sunrise, Sunset” suddenly surface from somewhere deep within the
auditory cortex of the brain, at full volume: “Is this the little girl I
carried? Is this the little boy at play? I don’t remember growing older. When
did they?” It was with all this theology, pride and emotion swirling through my
mind that I sat down for the start of the ceremony, which promised to be brief
but inspiring. Thirty minutes later, at its conclusion, that promise was only
As expected, there were the usual speeches by commanders,
droning on in motionless monotones, interspersed with the soldiers standing at
attention, then at ease, and then back at attention. I listened carefully to the
messages which, for all the clichés, sought to underline the importance of
service to one’s country, defense of the homeland and standing up for what is
But there is one thing that I did not hear, one word so central to
our collective and individual lives that I practically gasped with disbelief
once the event was over.
There was not a single reference to
Much was made of the might and power of the IDF, of Israel’s vaunted
technological skill and unmatched military prowess. But there was not even a
hint of humility nor a word of thanks to the One on high Who watches over His
I couldn’t believe it. After all, when a young
Midwesterner enters the US army and utters the oath of enlistment, he declares
that he will support and defend the Constitution, bear true faith and allegiance
and obey orders, “So help me God.” And when a Londoner or a Mancunian enlists in
the British armed forces, he swears “by Almighty God” to be faithful to the
Has the Jewish army, representing generations of Jews who gave
their lives for the sanctification of the Divine name, suddenly forgotten God?
Worse yet, even the “Yizkor” memorial prayer for fallen soldiers has been
stripped of any mention of God. In a scandalous decision made two years ago, the
IDF decided to drop the recitation of the traditional “May the Lord remember the
souls of,” and replace it instead with “May Israel remember.”
get me wrong: I don’t expect a military ceremony to resemble the afternoon
prayer service, or for the chief of staff to give a lecture on Talmudic
hermeneutics. But it is common practice throughout the Western world, even in
the most secular of democracies with iron-clad separation of church and state,
for military rites of passage to invoke the Creator. Why should Israel be any
different? Indeed, anyone with even a faint acquaintance with some of the
greatest military figures of the past three centuries knows that they were not
ashamed to invoke God. Men such as George Washington, Horatio Nelson, Stonewall
Jackson and Norman Schwarzkopf all prayed before setting out to
One of the most compelling examples of all was General George S.
Patton, “Old Blood and Guts,” the colorful World War II commander who believed
any successful military strategy has to take God into account. “I am a strong
believer in prayer. There are three ways that men get what they want: by
planning, by working, and by praying,” he once said.
In early December
1944, as Hitler was preparing to launch the desperate assault against Allied
troops, which later came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge, Patton
interrupted his war-planning to place a call to James O’Neill, chief chaplain of
the US Third Army.
Worried that inclement weather might complicate events
on the battlefield, Patton asked O’Neill to compose a special prayer asking not
only for better weather, but also for victory over America’s foes.
us fair weather for battle,” it read. “Graciously hearken to us as soldiers who
call upon Thee that, armed with Thy power, we may advance from victory to
victory, and crush the oppression and wickedness of our enemies, and establish
Thy justice among men and nations. Amen.”
At the general’s instruction,
the US army printed up 250,000 pocket-sized prayer cards and distributed them to
every American soldier under his command.
Subsequently, Patton led his
troops in a surprise counter- attack against the German forces, relieving a
contingent of trapped soldiers, staving off an Allied defeat and setting the
stage for the demise of Hitler’s evil regime.
To any outside observer, it
was clear that Patton’s brash tactics and bravery had resulted in an unexpected
victory. But Patton himself saw things differently.
In January 1945,
after routing the Germans, he summoned Chaplain O’Neill to Luxembourg, where he
told him, “Well, Padre, our prayers worked. I knew they would.” He then awarded
O’Neill the Bronze Star, undoubtedly marking the first time in history that a
soldier had received a medal for composing a prayer.
Patton knew that the
line between human pride and arrogance is a thin one, dangerously so. Our own
top military officers can learn a thing or two from his example. As the army of
the Jewish state, it is only fitting that the IDF avoid the pitfall of smugness
and maintain the proper perspective. Military ceremonies need not be only about
God, but they certainly shouldn’t be without Him altogether.
stop turning our backs on our heritage, and show a little more faith. It is time
to put God back into the IDF. With dangers mounting all around us, we need Him
now more than ever.