Saving scripture

A project to restore more than 200 IDF Torah scrolls honors the memory of a fallen soldier compared to Bar-Kochba.

Torah scribe 521 (photo credit: Courtesy Derech AMI)
Torah scribe 521
(photo credit: Courtesy Derech AMI)
Afly on the wall at the IDF recruitment office can hear conscripts talking animatedly to their friends about the units they hope will accept them. There are units whose names conjure up extra prestige – like the Shayetet (the navy’s Flotilla 13 commando force), Duvdevan or Maglan.
But the most coveted assignment, for young men of sharpest wit and strongest body, is Sayeret Matkal – the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit. This elite special forces unit carries out the most dangerous and courageous operations, both in Israel and beyond its borders.
Even to be invited to the “gibush” – the first intense level of screening – for Matkal, as it is called colloquially, is a badge of honor, and only a select few make it past that initial stage.
In the Second Lebanon War of 2006, in which 44 Israeli civilians and 119 IDF soldiers were killed, the name of one Matkal man stood out above the rest: Lt.-Col. Emmanuel Yehuda Moreno. He was the highest-ranking officer to die in that war, and the operations he performed during his career were so highly classified and so secret that to this day it is not permissible to publish his photograph.
Moreno fell in combat toward the end of the war in a complex and secret commando mission against Hezbollah in Lebanon’s Beka’a Valley. Some of his commanders and his soldiers have compared him to Bar Kochba, the leader of Jewish revolt against Rome between 132 and 135 CE.
According to one fellow soldier, “James Bond films pale in comparison to Moreno.”
This past April, his brother, Rabbi Shmuel Moreno, who heads Derech AMI – the post-army Institute for Jewish Studies in Honor of Lt.-Col Moreno – initiated a project called “Safra Veseifa.”
Meaning “the book and the sword,” Safra Veseifa involves repairing IDF Torah scrolls that have been damaged, often due to the rugged physical conditions in the field.
“What distinguishes the IDF from other armies in the world is that there is a Torah scroll on each base, that strengthens [the soldiers’] fighting spirit and reminds them what they are fighting for,” the project directors say.
Derech Ami has taken upon itself to repair the more than 200 IDF Torah scrolls that are now invalid. Training the institution’s students in this skill also enables them to acquire a profession besides their Torah learning.
The checking and repairing of the scroll must be painstaking and thorough.
The Moreno scrolls undergo hundreds of hours of meticulous proofreading and editing, including a final computerized scan to ensure accuracy. The process takes from three to six months.
When the scroll is pronounced “kosher” it goes back to active service; it is sent to an army base, and the IDF holds a rededication ceremony. The project is dependent on donations, and the army permits the donor to decide in whose name he or she wants to rededicate the scroll. The cost of repairing each scroll is approximately $10,000.
Since April, donors from Jerusalem, Ra’anana, New York, New Jersey, Denver and San Francisco have pledged funds to repair 23 Torah scrolls. The ones dedicated so far will end up, among other places, at the Iron Dome battery near Ashkelon; in the IDF delegation to Poland; and at the army’s Emergency Preparedness Unit.
WHO WAS Emmanuel Yehuda Moreno? Born in France in 1971, he made aliya with his family when he was a year old and grew up in Jerusalem, attending religious high schools and participating in the Bnei Akiva youth group. He studied in the Eli pre-army yeshiva military academy, completed a degree in law while he served in the IDF, and worked for the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), before returning to the Matkal unit. He was married with three children.
According to a 128-page book, Silence is Your Praise, published in his memory, he worked constantly on his character traits. In a powerful Jerusalem Post column on August 22, 2006, Caroline Glick described not only his heroism, but his humble behavior – how he lived quietly with his wife and three children in a moshav near Sderot. Former defense minister Shaul Mofaz, who had been Moreno’s senior commander in Matkal, described how he had heard that Moreno and his wife, Maya, would use his paycheck to help four or five other families.
“Emmanuel was a man of stature; an officer, a leader, but also an individual of iron will,” said Mofaz.
In a series of interviews on the website dedicated to the fallen officer, one of his comrades in arms, “M,” calls him “one of the most talented warriors who ever lived in Israel. I think the comparison to Bar Kochba, made by one of his commanders, is accurate. I’ve known many fighters, but I don’t think the Jewish people ever had one like Emmanuel – for both his faith and his heroism.... He never thought about himself, only about the big picture.”
In 1994, Moreno took part in a sensitive operation in which the IDF captured Mustafa Dhirani in his family home, in the heart of Lebanon.
Channel 2 reported that at one point Dhirani had held missing IDF pilot Ron Arad captive, and it was believed that his capture might lead to information about Arad. For years, Dhirani would sleep with a loaded gun under his pillow. When the unit burst into his bedroom in the middle of the night, he didn’t even have time to pull out his weapon.
Kadima MK Avi Dichter, a former Matkal soldier, refers to Moreno as “one of the sayeret of the sayeret – a member of a group that was the most elite even from within the Matkal unit. There is no way of knowing how many lives were saved by some of the operations [in which he was involved]. A lot of glory that nobody knows about, and apparently will never know about, is related to Emmanuel’s abilities.”
Naftali Bennett, who served with Moreno and today is a front-runner for Habayit Hayehudi Party, says, “His value system was different. Generally people have regard for people who have succeeded, who’ve made money, who have a degree, who have military ranks on their shoulders. With Emmanuel, all that didn’t count. What was important was if you’re a good person, how much you help, how much you care about the people of Israel.”
Bennett spoke to him a few days before he died. “He said, ‘This war will wake up the nation, will cause the nation to understand what’s going on.’... I had the impression from him that he was preparing for something. I had no idea what it would be or when....  I was impressed by his calmness.... I think about him all the time, ask myself what he would do in this situation or that…and I hope it will help us to be better individuals.”
One of Moreno’s brothers, who fought in the same unit, said that the last time they had spoken, Moreno had said he knew this was a difficult war and it would require a human toll. “We spoke about the fact that we both have families, children, but if we had to, we were ready to sacrifice ourselves.”
Among his awards were the Jerusalem Prize for Jewish Heroism, from the Jerusalem Conference; the Medal of the IDF Chief of Staff; the Medal of the Chief of the Intelligence Services for his life’s work; and many decorations for military operations, the nature of which, for security reasons, cannot be publicized.
AT THE memorial service earlier this year marking the sixth anniversary of his death, a senior intelligence officer summed up the vast impact Moreno had had on the country.
“From a place of anonymity, Emmanuel became a national figure, an emulated role model for the nation, for young fighters, for commanders, for comrades, for his family,” he said.
“From a man who lived in the shadows, Emmanuel became a figure of distinction and renown.... From a person who, in his lifetime, influenced military operations and command strategy, through his character and his connection with those to whom he was close, he became a figure who has impacted almost an entire people.”
However, he continued, “if Emmanuel enters our lives as a mythical figure, we will miss the point.
Emmanuel teaches us about the possible, about how to accomplish today what we did not achieve yesterday. It is about how we will become a little bit better – yet we are still only human beings, not angels.”
From Moreno’s death, he said, “we can take with us love, courage, kindness, sacrifice, great faith and great joy among the sadness.... And even though I am not a religious person in the usual sense, I can say that Emmanuel can be with us, because God is with us.... And what is the meaning of God being with us? The meaning is that we, too, are creators of worlds – creators of our own internal worlds. The choice is in our hands.”