Who will live and who will die

Ever since the Yom Kippur War the “Unetaneh Tokef” prayer has taken on special significance for me, as the words “who will live and who will die” received real-life meaning.

By YECHIEL WASSERMAN
October 7, 2017 22:13
4 minute read.
Who will live and who will die

A SOLDIER stands on a tank next to a house damaged in fighting in 1973 in the Golan.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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On Yom Kippur 5734 (1973) I was a sixth-year student at a hesder yeshiva, Yeshivat Hakotel, in the Old City of Jerusalem. I prayed at the yeshiva together with my friends, teachers and rabbis and many guests and visitors.

The recitation of the “Unetaneh Tokef” prayer was one of the highlights of the Yom Kippur service, with hundreds of yeshiva students, rabbis and guests praying with devotion, reciting the words with excitement and purpose, many shedding tears, while in the background the voice of the cantor, the leader of the service, rang clear: “who will live and who will die, who will die at his predestined time and who before his time... who by water and who by fire.” Not one of those present imagined that these words would take on real, practical significance just a few hours later.

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Later in the afternoon the first students began to leave the yeshiva on their way to their army units, and by the end of the holiest of days most of the students, myself included, were on their way to the front. I was part of a tank crew, the signalman and loader in a Centurion tank.

We arrived at the base, where we received our personal equipment and began loading the tanks. On Sunday night, the second night of the war, we began traveling south toward the Suez Canal.

Our first shots were fired as we engaged enemy tanks that blocked our path, and after a difficult battle the Egyptian unit retired.

On Tuesday morning we found ourselves near the Bitter Lake in the midst of a pitched battle that continued until after midnight. This was October 8, the day of the first attempt at a counterattack in the hopes of throwing back the Egyptian armor. It is difficult, and perhaps even impossible, to describe the scenes of battle, with shells flying through the air and tanks being hit, the screams, the horrific scenes of the wounded and the dead. Several of my friends were killed that day and a number of others were wounded.

At first light, after a short night’s rest, the battalion began preparing for another day of combat.



In the afternoon, after several hours of intense fighting, we captured a hill from which we could see hundreds of Egyptian soldiers and vehicles fleeing south.

Soon we heard the command from brigade headquarters: charge! Fire all available guns. The tanks jumped forward with us standing in the turrets unprotected.

However, after several minutes it became clear that we had charged straight into an anti-tank ambush. We took fire from all directions and experienced heavy losses.

The Sagger anti-tank missile, which we experienced for the first time in the war, packs a deadly punch. My tank took a direct hit in the turret from a Sagger, shrapnel flew everywhere and I was hit in the upper body. My face was bloodied, my left hand severely wounded and I couldn’t see out of my left eye. In seconds I felt that I was losing strength, and the last image that I remember is my tank driver coming up to the turret, extricating me and laying me down next to the tank. I was soon pulled up and placed in the turret of the adjacent tank.

While the tank made its way to the road, a medical team began treating me and I was taken by helicopter to an emergency field hospital in Refidim. From there I was flown, with other wounded soldiers, still unconscious, to Tel Hashomer hospital near Tel Aviv.

When I look back at my lengthy stay in the hospital, which included multiple surgeries, I am filled with appreciation for the person who helped make that period less painful, and who gave me much encouragement: Rena Feir, then my fiancée and today my wife and mother of my three children.

Forty years have passed since the terrible war, and my body still bears the scars of battle. I left the battlefield physically wounded but whole in soul and spirit. Many times the horrific images of war pass before my eyes, the burnt-out tanks and blackened vehicles, the dead and the wounded crying for help.

Ever since the Yom Kippur War the “Unetaneh Tokef” prayer has taken on special significance for me, as the words “who will live and who will die” received real-life meaning.

The person who stands in prayer is helpless before the almighty God. He is “created from dust and shall return to dust.” God is the eternal king while man is akin to “broken clay, a wilted plant, the dust in the wind and the floating dream,” forever at God’s mercy. The beauty of the “Unetaneh Tokef” is in its clear and simple presentation of things that became real and tangible on the battlefield.

In the age of technology modern man feels that he is all-powerful. However, although on the one hand man can travel in space, conquer the world, create revolutionary and elaborate technologies that allow for intercontinental communication, the launch of ballistic missiles and spacecraft and the creation of disease-ending drugs, he can still not predict what will happen tomorrow – everything can change from minute to minute and one’s worst nightmares may become reality at any given moment. Thus, man still feels that he is governed by God and is truly “like pottery in the hand of the craftsman.”

The author is a member of the Zionist executive board and head of the Center for Religious Affairs in the Diaspora in the World Zionist Organization.

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