Saved by the book

Moshe David Schwartz has a special heirloom – a book of Psalms that accompanied his father and grandfather through Israel’s battles.

IDF RABBI Capt. Moshe David Schwartz 370 (photo credit: courtesy)
IDF RABBI Capt. Moshe David Schwartz 370
(photo credit: courtesy)
The small holy book, with its dark cover, nearly fits in the palm of your hand. Its pages are worn, with the fibers of its binding thinning, appearing as if they can unravel at any second. But this copy of Psalms, in the possession of IDF Rabbi Capt. Moshe David Schwartz, who oversees the spiritual needs of hundreds of soldiers in four specialized combat battalions, serves as the familial link between three generations of defenders of the Land of Israel.
This volume of Psalms, passed down by Schwartz’s grandfather to his father, and now to Schwartz, was read from by all three men throughout their illustrious tours of duty – which, between them, includes serving in nearly every war or major military operation in this country’s young but turbulent history.
According to Jewish tradition, Psalms are recited as a means of gaining God’s favor, especially in times of trouble or physical danger – thus an appropriate component of gear for the believing soldier.
Schwartz says that his special heirloom, “which I feel came as a present directly from my grandfather, protects me due to its holiness.”
It was his grandfather who kept the book on his person while serving as a volunteer in the army’s Civil Defense, what is today known as the Home Front Command, helping to alert the population of Tel Aviv of incoming bombardments during the War of Independence.
It also stayed with him when he joined the paratroopers.
But it was the physical presence of the book itself in the uniform shirt pocket of his father, Mordechai, which according to Schwartz saved his father’s life.
Mordechai, now 64, was in the midst of reserve duty training, stationed in the Golan just prior to the start of the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
During an exercise that involved practicing battle operations in built-up areas, a live grenade accidentally detonated in the room where Mordechai was training – sending shrapnel throughout the room, ripping through his shirt and piercing his body.
However, thanks to the position of the Psalms in his breast pocket, the book absorbed the impact, preventing major injuries. Mordechai and his fellow soldiers testify that it was surely a miracle.
According to the younger Schwartz, his father still has shrapnel from the incident embedded in his body today.
Despite the injury, Mordechai went on to serve as a combat medic, evacuating wounded troops in Sinai during the Yom Kippur War, which started about a month after the grenade incident.
He also treated the wounded in 1982 during the First Lebanon War.
According to the IDF Spokesman’s Office, after becoming a full-time soldier following the 1973 war and serving another 20-plus years in which he rose to company commander, Mordechai kept the book of Psalms with him at all times.
That is, until he turned it over to his son, when he enlisted in a tank unit in March 2002.
Schwartz, today 35 and the married father of five, talked to The Jerusalem Post about his army career – including the importance of the special book of Psalms – while seated in the synagogue of the Mitkan Adam IDF anti-terror training school base, near Modi’in, with the book in hand.
Schwartz was at the beginning of his basic training when the IDF undertook Operation Defensive Shield, following the Seder night terror attack at Netanya’s Park Hotel on March 27, 2002, which claimed the lives of 30 Israelis and tourists, and wounding 140 more.
As a result of the situation, Schwartz’s unit was given an expedited training regimen before being sent to do guard duty on the Syrian border during the operation.
Eventually, the unit was called in to partake in actual combat in the Palestinian Authority-controlled town of Jenin and surrounding villages, where Schwartz says they spent up to 18-hour shifts inside their tanks.
Towards the end of the operation his unit was sent into Jericho and then into Bethlehem, where their company commander was killed by enemy sniper fire while chasing a group of terrorists into an alleyway.
Schwartz also fought with his tank unit in 2006’s Second Lebanon War, before returning to civilian life, studying Torah and obtaining his rabbinical ordination.
During a reserve duty stint, he decided to pursue an officer’s training course to become a career rabbi with the army, in his words, “with a deep desire to continue and contribute to the country.”
Schwartz says he believes he has a great responsibility as an IDF rabbi to “give meaning” to his soldiers’ service, by teaching them that they are following in the footsteps of their ancestors in protecting the Land of Israel.
“When I speak to the commanders as they go into battle, I tell them to go over the Tanach [Bible], and see that our leaders were always forced to fight,” says Schwartz, referring to spiritual motivation he provided, for instance, near Gaza – both in 2008/2009 in Operation Cast Lead and 2012’s Operation Pillar of Defense.
“Whether it’s Moses, Joshua, David or Solomon, everywhere you drop a mark in the Tanach, it discusses wars fought by the leaders of Israel.”
He adds that “the only commandment in the Torah in which pikuah nefesh [saving one’s life, which takes precedence over all other commandments] doesn’t apply, and you are supposed to sacrifice your life, is for the protection of the Land of Israel.” This is what leads Schwartz to believe that he has great responsibility in his position.
He says he spends many Shabbatot with diverse groups of soldiers in the field, since it is an important time for soldiers. A special camaraderie develops, and via lectures and classes, Schwartz is able to remind soldiers what they are fighting for.
He says he believes “in the importance of working with all types of Jews in the army – religious and secular, men and women,” to give them meaning and strength throughout their service.
But regardless of what he is busy with in his role, the small book of Psalms comes along. “The Psalms protect me,” he says. “If you need strength, you open it and pray from it, whether it’s during guard duty, or before special missions.
The Book of Psalms was written by a warrior – King David, who we know fought in holy battles all his life.”
Schwartz adds: “While King David wasn’t allowed to build the Temple [because his life involved much war and blood], he planted the foundations for the Temple, built by his son, Solomon. But he wrote the Psalms as a person always standing in front of God, praying for his protection.”