Rav Ovadia: Get to know our army

Why not instruct your followers to recite daily the prayer for the welfare of the soldiers of Israel?

ovadia yosef asking 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
ovadia yosef asking 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
'Scholars, be cautious with your words!" warn the sages in Ethics of the Fathers. The tongue is likened to a serpent, and so, say the Rabbis, God created two gates - the teeth and the lips - through which the tongue must pass before it can unleash its poisonous venom upon its victims. In one ill-conceived outburst, Shas Party mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef has created yet another firestorm, and taken a bite out of the hearts of Israel's bereaved families. "Should it come as a surprise that soldiers are killed in war," asked the rabbi, "when they do not observe Shabbat or the Torah, when they do not pray each day, or put on tefillin? God have mercy on them and cause them to repent, so they will lead a good life in peace." I have agonized over Rav Ovadia's statement, and tried to make theological sense of it. First, does he presume to be a prophet and know God's mind, "who shall live and who shall die?" Second, does he propose that non-observant soldiers are more prone to casualty than observant ones? Is this borne out by the facts? And does he not understand that the moment a young man dons the uniform of the IDF and places his life on the line in the defense of Israel, he automatically rises to the level of a tzaddik - of righteousness - in the eyes of God? FURTHERMORE, what shall we make of the converse of the rabbi's remarks? Is he suggesting that those mitzva-observing soldiers who fell in battle were somehow lacking in their level of observance and, by definition, were sinners because they died? Does he have any conception of how pure and righteous those holy warriors were, how they epitomized the highest level of Godly behavior that a mortal man can attain? Does he know about Roi Klein, who threw himself on a grenade in the Second Lebanon War, blowing himself up to save his comrades, all the while reciting Shema Yisrael, a la Rabbi Akiva? Or about Shmuel Akiva Weiss, who pushed alongside a fellow medic in Jenin in order to try to save the life of a fallen comrade, only to die on top of him in a hail of bullets? Or about our own son, Ari, who spent the last Rosh Hashana of his life on stakeout in the ditches of Nablus, a machzor in one pocket of his uniform, and his mother's Yom Tov halla in the other? IS THERE a single student among all of Rav Ovadia's disciples who could hope to ever attain the religious merit of these heroes of the Jewish people? As Ra'anana Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz - ironically, one of Shas' founders - told me during our Shiva: "The Talmud teaches us, in the story of the martyrs of Lod, who saved that city from destruction, that these soldiers who protect our nation have a higher place in Heaven than any other human being can ever achieve." I fear that Rav Ovadia makes these statements because he is cut off from the institution of the IDF; he is too far removed from what is actually occurring on the battlefield. Unlike King David or King Saul - Torah scholars who fought in battle and sent their sons to war - he does not have first-hand knowledge of the courage, character and caliber of our young people in uniform. And unlike the scholars of biblical days, who prayed for the soldiers and studied Torah alongside them as they went into battle, the rabbis and students of many of today's study halls have distanced themselves from the boys in green, and have no personal attachment to our military. And in that unfortunate vacuum, biting words can emerge from their mouths. I BELIEVE that Rav Ovadia does care about the soldiers. But caring is not enough. He must show it in practice. He can start by ordering all Shas institutions to recite the prayer for the welfare of the IDF on a daily basis. He can urge his students to administer the synagogues at army bases, and to supervise the kashrut there. He can ask every boy with a Talmud in front of him to study on behalf of a specific soldier, invoking God's blessing upon him. He himself can make it a point to visit each and every base in order to encourage and commend the soldiers in person. And he can show respect and awe for our fighters. When the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein - no less a talmudic master than Rav Ovadia - was visited by former refusenik Yosef Mendelevich, the rabbi deferentially rose from his seat. Rabbi Feinstein's students were puzzled, for it was others who usually stood for the sage, not vice-versa. Rav Moshe explained: "There is greatness in scholarship, and there is greatness in courage. For one who excels in heroism, even the premier sage of the generation must rise in respect before him." It would not be presumptuous to suggest that Rav Ovadia ask forgiveness from every bereaved mother and father for even hinting that their soldier-child was less than righteous. Repentance, after all, is incumbent upon even the greatest of men, and this seems like a good season to put it into practice. The writer's son, Sgt. Ari Weiss, fell in battle in Nablus in September 2002.