This past Tuesday was a day that somewhere, deep inside of me, I had fancifully
dreamed would never come.
After three or four fitful hours of sleep, I
awoke at dawn, downed a mugful of coffee, and proceeded to drive my oldest son
to the Tel Hashomer military base, where he underwent his induction into the
Israel Defense Forces.
My little red-headed child, I realized, was
neither little nor a child any more. He was a man, and he was about to join an
elite unit, don a uniform and take up arms to defend the Land of Israel and the
My pride, together with the lump in my throat, quickly
began to swell.
Sure, when I made aliya in 1995, I knew that life in the
Jewish state was a package deal. Along with all the beautiful idealism,
the lofty goals and noble values, there would also be a hefty amount of
obligations and responsibilities.
But knowing and experiencing are two
vastly different things. Knowledge may engage the intellect, but living through
something involves all of one’s sensory receptors, including the
And believe me, hearing your firstborn child’s name called out over
a muddled military intercom, and then watching him board a bus that will take
him off to basic training is about as vivid and intense a stimulus as one can
Looking around, I saw dozens of other parents and
budding soldiers milling about, some laughing with nervous energy and even
abandon, while others sat on benches, seemingly dazed by the solemnity of this
momentous rite of passage.
And then it hit me like a bag full of bricks:
despite my New York accent, my love of baseball as well as my utter disdain for
local driving habits, I think I have now officially joined the ranks and become
YES, AS far as the Interior Ministry is concerned, I have been
an Israeli citizen for nearly 18 years, with an identity card, a passport and
the attitude to prove it. But those are the accessories, the
appurtenances of local life that we carry around with us as external signs of
who we are.
Sending your child to the IDF creates a more powerful and
penetrating bond, one that necessarily goes much deeper.
For all the talk
of Zionist dedication and Jewish responsibility, there is no more compelling
sign of one’s commitment to the greater good than sending your beloved offspring
to protect the state.
Naturally, I couldn’t help but think about how
different my own path was from my child’s.
When I was 19 years old, I was
a student at Princeton University, which many of us viewed as a “country club
Our biggest dilemma was trying to decide which keg party
to attend on Saturday night or deliberating over who was the most attractive
professor (the Italian 101 instructor, che bella!).
By contrast, Israeli
youth spend their time considering which combat unit they wish to join and
contemplating how best they can serve the nation.
As these thoughts
surged through my head, for a brief moment, a mere second or two, I glanced
heavenward and the word began to form in my mind: why.
Why must our
children spend three or more years in green uniforms rather than amid the green
grasses of a college campus? After 2,000 years of torture and torment, why won’t
the world simply leave us alone and let us live? But this was no time for
philosophical examination or theological inquiry. So I did what any Jewish
father would do – I took hold of my son, fought back tears and gave him a bear
hug before blessing him.
“You are about to perform one of the greatest
mitzvot,” I then told him, “you are going to protect the Land of Israel and the
people of Israel. Whenever we fulfill a commandment, we should do so with
kavana (intention) and simcha (joy). So give it your all, and know that I am
proud of you.”
He then boarded the steps on the bus, sat down, and threw
me a wave as the engine started and it pulled out.
THIS SABBATH, when the
prayer for the welfare of IDF soldiers is recited in synagogue, I know that it
will pinch at my heart in a way it has never done before, because now the words
have become personal, touching my family directly.
But in reality, it
touches us all, because every day of freedom we enjoy in the Jewish state, every
liberty we take for granted and every right that we cherish, is thanks in large
part to those who stand in our defense.
“May He who blessed our fathers
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, bless the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces who
keep guard over our country and the cities of our L-rd,” says the prayer for our
“May the Holy One, blessed be He, preserve our soldiers and save
them from all sorrow and peril, from danger and illness.”
And I might
add, may He bring them all back home safely, each and every one.