‘What are you doing?” I recently barked at my oldest son, who was reclining on
the couch in the middle of the afternoon, a beer in one hand and the second
movie of the day playing on the television.
The sight of the lad just
sitting there, doing nothing, triggered something in me that ran contrary to my
basic instincts about the need to be productive, to constantly engage in
something leading forward in life. If it was 10 p.m., my reaction would have
But three in the afternoon? “I guess I’m just getting
used to civilian life,” he said, disarmingly.
And indeed, this disarmed
me. With those few words, my anger toward the lad melted away, replaced instead
by some irritation at myself.
My son had just finished his three year army
duty, doing stuff I’d never done, carrying weight for distances I’d never
walked, deplaning aircraft in ways I’d never dreamed of, taking on challenges
and dangers I’d never had to face, and all I could do at the end of his
difficult ride was upbraid him for watching television? What kind of father was
I? Simple, I was a father without a playbook guiding me on what to do when one’s
son gets out of the army, just as I had no notes instructing me on how to deal
with his going in, or fighting a war, or going on late-night missions. In short,
I was winging it, and – in this particular case – I was winging it
BUILT INTO the three years of IDF service is a month at the very
end called hofesh shihrur
, abbreviated to hafshash
, roughly equivalent to
“mustering out leave.”
The army gives the soldiers a few weeks at the end
when they are technically still in the army, but out on extended furlough – they
have returned their weapons and equipment and will be called back only, God
forbid, in time of war.
This is the twilight between being a soldier, and
being a civilian.
For some it is accompanied by a seminar where they are
given useful information about civilian life: their rights as ex-soldiers,
national insurance, tax breaks, educational and employment opportunities and all
kinds of handy hints for making it in the real world. For instance, they learn
that most people don’t have three meals prepared for them each day, that the
world is not their latrine and that buses are not free.
, the soldiers are generally not permitted to work. So they come home,
drink beer, watch television, tell army stories, look at Facebook pictures of
their just passed “glory years” and contemplate their futures.
parents, too, do a lot of contemplating.
They contemplate how lucky they
are that their sons, or daughters, made it through the ordeal safely, sound of
body and soul. They contemplate the historical privilege of living in an
independent, self-reliant Jewish state, with independent, self-reliant Jewish
kids to defend it. They contemplate how if their independent, self-reliant kids
don’t get off the damn couch and carry their own weight in the house, they are
going to go out of their minds.
It is one of the wonders of human
psychology how such contrasting emotions can commingle within one simple mind;
how one can be so proud of one’s son, yet at the same time so often irritated by
For three years, while my son was off soldiering, The Wife and I
laid off. We kept things in, preferring to tiptoe around him on his Shabbats at
home, rather than snapping at him for dishes not washed, beds not made, siblings
not treated overly well.
No reason, I thought, to clutter the lad’s mind
with superfluous thoughts about stupid fights at home, when the most important
thing was for him to simply go back to the army each Sunday morning with a clear
head, able to focus on keeping himself safe and sound.
secondary to that and could wait.
So tiptoe we did. Until the
Then those little tiptoe ballerina shoes came flying off,
replaced – almost overnight – by 10-pound hiking boots.
With my son no
longer facing nightly danger, I could get mad at him just like before. Free at
Free to nag, free to carp, free to pester, badger and hassle. Now
the lad could no longer look at me with those combat- weary eyes when I asked
him to do something, silently signaling what a tough week he had. Now he
couldn’t say, because he only got a couple hours of sleep throughout the week,
that he needed to sleep for 14 hours straight.
IDEALLY THE hafshash
should serve as a buffer, and there is wisdom in it. Not only does it slowly
ease the soldiers back into civilian life, it also gives their parents time to
get used to the new reality.
How can I get mad at my son for not working
during this month long furlough, if he is not allowed to work? By the end of the
last Wednesday, when his regular army career formally ended, I
had time to find the balance between all or nothing, between tiptoeing around
him and kicking him in the teeth, between treating him like George Patton and
Dennis the Menace.
Having now gone through my son’s army experience, I
have come to appreciate the gradual nature of it all. Things build up, and wind
down. The lad did not, from day one, go out and fight the bad guys: he had basic
training, and then advanced training, and then specialized training, so by the
time he was finally in any danger, The Wife and I were – to a certain degree –
psychologically better prepared.
And just as the takeoff was somewhat
gradual, so, too – thanks to the hafshash
– is the landing.
friends realized that our son was about to get out of the army, they didn’t
necessarily grasp the slow and plodding nature of the whole
Instead, they said, “Three years already? Hey, that went
fast.” To which my favorite reply was, “Right, for you.”
And their second
comment was generally, “So what does he want to do now?” “Decompress,” I
After three years in the service, the lad – thanks to his
traveling plans and the academic calendar – will now likely decompress
next two. Three years of service, two to decompress.
And he won’t be the
only one decompressing. The Wife and I now also have two years to catch
breath – until the next son goes in, and this whole gut-churning ride