It was the middle of the day when the WhatsApp arrived, accompanied by that familiar ring which indicates that someone, somewhere, has sent you a message.
In our eventful everyday existence, that charming little “ding” often serves as a form of soothing background music, one whose chime seems to fade in and out of our consciousness from morning till evening, reminding us that we are never truly alone or isolated.
But as the father of an IDF soldier, even the little sounds that emanate from a smartphone seem to take on a slightly more amplified meaning. After all, when your son is serving in an elite combat unit, undergoing rigorous physical training, and handling weapons that most of us see only when playing a video game on the Xbox, there is always that gnawing concern buried somewhere deep in your head that everything hopefully is, and will be, okay.
Hence, I find myself more attentive to the iPhone’s little hums and reverberations than I normally would, ever vigilant in checking to see who the sender of the message might be.
As much as I detest the manner in which people now commonly use their devices during meetings, posting to Facebook rather than engaging in conversation, or staring down at the screen as though entranced by a hypnotist’s glare, I cannot help but sneak a quick peak. What if it is my son the soldier who has contacted me? The other day, the message was indeed from him. I quickly opened it, as I always do, immediately relieved to see that he was fine and in good spirits. But unlike previous communications, this one included a special little bonus: a photograph of my son, taken by his friend, that is one of the most vivid and moving images I think I have ever seen.
There he was, in silhouette, sitting alone in his uniform on top of a mountain, wrapped in his tefillin and reading from a prayerbook, while the sun rose in the distance, bursting forth into the sky.
I was stunned into silence, drawn by the intensity of the image, which overwhelmed me with that incomparable mixture of pride, joy and delight that is best summed up by the familiar Yiddish word, “nachas.”
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Here was my own flesh and blood, my first child to have been born in the Land of Israel, taking time out from his duties to beseech the Creator. You can almost feel the concentration with which he is speaking to God, huddled over in humility yet equipped with the mettle to do his religious duty, even though he is one of just a handful of observant soldiers in his unit.
We all know the power of visual storytelling, even if we don’t always give it much thought. Scenes can be etched in our minds in a manner that provides us with a far richer perception of the world, one that is incomparably superior to those produced by other senses. It is no coincidence that many words in the English language that are used to describe a new comprehension of our surroundings, such as insight and enlightenment, are words that relate to visual imagery.
But there was something about this photograph that simply seized my attention, and I couldn’t quite figure out what it was.
Then it hit me.
As I continued to gaze at the image, awestruck at my child’s faith and fortitude, I suddenly realized that what I was looking at was far more profound than a family photo. It was a glimpse of the Jewish future, a stirring and hopeful sign that the next generation is a lot less self-centered than they often get credit for being.
In many Western societies, selfies have replaced selflessness, to the point that fundamental values such as sacrifice for the greater good or serving a cause that is larger than one’s self seem to have become as popular nowadays as typewriters, rotary dial phones and VHS video recorders.
But before we allow cynicism to drown us in despondency, we would do well to consider what that little photo on WhatsApp so starkly showed us. Each day across Israel, there are thousands of young Jewish men and women who rise early, don drab olive green attire, and devote some of the best years of their lives to guarding our Land and thwarting our foes.
Whether they undertake dangerous missions or serve as desk jockeys in a run-down military facility is beside the point.
For two or three years, they are giving of themselves, serving the country, protecting the Jewish people and doing their part to shoulder the collective burden.
Sure, they complain when they come home for the weekend, falling exhausted into bed after (and sometimes even before) taking a hot shower to clean off layers of muck. And most of them would of course prefer to be sitting on an idyllic green lawn at university, debating great ideas while also checking out members of the opposite sex.
But the bottom line is that a large majority of Israeli youth, ranging from religious to secular, still do their duty, serving in a Jewish army that our ancestors could only dream of.
Days later, I continue to be thankful for that WhatsApp photo, and the message that it contained, because it leaves me brimming with optimism that even in an age when people are seemingly growing more self-absorbed, the valor and patriotic spirit needed to keep this country secure is alive and well. And I pray that the Guardian of Israel will keep each and every one of our soldiers safe, just as they do for us.
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