Saying goodbye to reserve duty

More than anything the words of David Ben-Gurion are echoing in my head. Every Israeli is a full-time soldier on 11-month leave, said the great man...and now that I’m about to exit this stage, I’m really not sure how I feel.

IDF reserve soldiers 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
IDF reserve soldiers 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
I must admit, it wasn’t what I was expecting, this feeling. Far from it.
I opened my mailbox and took out the white envelope. One glance at the IDF postmark was enough to give my heart in a familiar twist. I opened it, ready to digest the dates of the next bout of reserve duty, or miluim, the usual thoughts forming in my mind – how long? Where?
Only this time, it was different. In typical IDF short and blunt terms, the letter informed me that my discharge ceremony would be held next week. Unless there is a major war, God forbid, IDF soldier No. 50***75, several months into his 41st year, has worn the all-green for the last time, shot his last IDF bullet, stood his last hour of guard duty and eaten his last can of luf (the mystery meat in emergency rations – thank God for that!).
To be sure, if there’s a war and a tzav-8 (emergency) call-up, I’m going whether they call me or not – it already happened to me twice – but it’s not going to be the same.
I’m done. Finished.
What’s strange is, I’m really not sure how I feel about it. God knows a part of me has been waiting for this day for most of the 22 years that I’ve served in the IDF in one form or another. For years I’d dreamed of this day. How many countless hours had I cursed my fate, standing in the freezing rain trying to keep warm, or lying in the sand in the boiling heat trying to do the opposite? How many stints of miluim had I looked jealously on my older army friends who were finished, and with anger at those civilians who never lift a finger to do their bit? (The “sucker” feeling at the fact that many other able people dodge miluim, was always hard to stomach. Especially after eating the luf.) I had been certain that this day would bring with it intense joy – but now that its here I don’t feel elation.
Mixed feelings, to be sure. Confusion.
On the one hand, it’s good – it will be a relief not to have to regularly leave my home for a week or a month, and to not to have to say goodbye to my wife and children. I will not miss the night-time missions into dangerous spots or the palpable fear when one feels the enemy close.
I will certainly be happy to be done with that constant undercurrent of nervousness, waiting subconsciously at every moment for the phone call, text message or email that calls me up. (At least one thing has changed in the army. When I went in it was a radio call up, and cell phones were still science fiction).
On the other hand, it’s not good – there is a feeling inside me of being put out to pasture, of being useless and not wanted. Not seeing my army buddies any more. Miluim friends are a unique group of people, who rarely see each other but are all willing to fight and put their lives on the line for each other if need be. The IDF plays such a central role in Israeli society that you feel like an outsider when you are done.
More than anything, though, is the feeling I can only describe as a deflated ideological balloon. I believe in reserve duty on an idealistic level, and I always felt proud that I have – or rather, had – the health, ability and opportunity to do what Jews couldn’t do for centuries – defend my country and what I believe in.
Not since the ill-fated days of Bar Kochba had there been a Jewish army, and I was privileged to serve in it! I will never forget the words of Rabbi Sabato, of Yeshivat Birkat Moshe: It is the biggest mitzva one can ever do.
In my capacity as a professional tour guide, it is with immense pride that I tell my clients, no matter whether the they are Jewish, Christian or any other religion, that I still do reserve duty, despite my age. This is because I believe that any visitor to our beautiful land should understand that with great things like the miracle of the establishment of the State of Israel after the millennia comes great responsibility, responsibility that falls on all of us.
Miluim was good for me. I met good people from all walks of life I never would have otherwise met. It was the biggest single instrument in my integration into society, having come to Israel at age 14. Over half my life I have been a part of this. Not too distant in the future lies the next stage in this circle – when my children get the call-up.
But, for now, it is over.
For sure, I can volunteer, and I may well do that; but there is a difference between being legally obliged to serve and serving on a volunteer basis. As our rabbis put it, “Greater is the person who is commanded to do something and does it, than one who is not commanded to do so and does it.”
As my friend put it, all things come to an end, even this mitzvah. You have fulfilled your duty. When Succot is over, we leave the succa, when Yom Kippur is over, we eat. So too with this mitzva.
More than anything the words of David Ben-Gurion are echoing in my head. Every Israeli is a full-time soldier on 11-month leave, said the great man...and now that I’m about to exit this circle stage left, I’m really not sure how I feel.
The writer is – for the moment – an IDF infantry reserve soldier. He is a licensed Israeli tour guide and an educator at Ramah Programs in Israel, and lives in Jerusalem with his wife and four children.