Op-Ed: Menashe, A Paratrooper in the Yom Kippur War
The last time I saw my friend Menashe was over forty years ago.
I was riding on a bus on the way to Lod airport to continue my medical training abroad, traveling down Hachalutz Street in Haifa. Amidst a tangle of clothing shops and shoe stores, falafel stands, ice cream machines and hot corn vats, I caught a brief glimpse of Menashe. He was tall, strikingly handsome, sporting a long dark beard with piercing brown eyes, he seemed a biblical figure lost in time. We waved to each other for a brief moment until I lost sight of him as the bus rattled on towards Haneveim Street.
We both grew up together in the Hadar section of Haifa in the 1950’s. It was a mixed neighborhood then of low and middle class Vatikim (old timers) and scores of Jewish refugees from Europe and North Africa who were struggling to piece together the fragments of their lives. Hebrew, Yiddish, Arabic, German and French were routinely heard in the steep sloping streets that hugged the Carmel Mountain. Known as “Red Haifa”, it was the only city in Israel that ran buses on Shabbat, reflecting the ubiquitous presence of the socialist movements in this relatively secular port city.
I met Menashe at a very young age; our parents both prayed in the same Great Synagogue. Menashe, his brother Avraham and I were members of its famed cantorial choir. We attended the Yavne elementary and high school and for several years Menashe sat on the bench directly in front of me. Menashe was a member of the Bnei Akiva Zionist youth movement, where he loved to hike and play the accordion. A brilliant student, Menashe excelled in the sciences though his focus was in Talmud and religious studies.
Central to his spiritual development was the influence of Rav Moshe Rebhun, our primary educator (mechanech). Tall, thin, pale and spectacled, a truly brilliant Talmid Chacham, Rav Rebhun hailed from Berlin. He was schooled at the finest universities in England and upon his aliya became an ardent student of the Chazon Ish. Rav Rebhun taught both Shakespearean English literature and Talmud. But far beyond his thrilling scholarship he educated by example. As a highly disciplined, devout and highly demanding teacher he instilled in his students a deep veneration of Jewish thought, fear of G-d and an expansive love of learning. When he offered non-mandatory lessons in Jewish philosophy in the early hours prior to morning services, many students attended these exciting sessions. Years later Rav Rebhun wrote about Menashe:
“As far as we are permitted to evaluate our fellow man we ought to say that Menashe Z”L was a Tzaddik”….In the army he paved a way to the spiritually distant and to their hearts so that, to quote Menashe, the Name of the Lord (shem shamayim) will be sanctified from one end of the world to the other. And who was not attracted to the magic of his shining personality?”
Menashe kept a diary while in high school:
“…I am interested in observing what the future will bring about and I will therefore endeavor to live and monitor the development of the Jewish nation.”
Following high school Menashe joined the IDF’s Nahal paratrooper program. Shortly after he completed basic training the Six Day War broke out. In a postcard to his uncle, Menashe wrote:
“Thank G-d I am healthy and I am waiting with tranquility to the hour of victory that the Lord (Hakadosh Baruch Hu) will bring us….between one shell and another we take a quick peek at the gemara, chumash or tanach or the changing map of the land of Israel.”
Menashe, who considered the Chafetz Chaim his spiritual Rebbe wrote about his awareness of the coming redemption:
“As we are reaching the Kotel I feel the approaching redemption. And when I study the writings of the Chafetz Chaim I feel as if I am touching redemption with my hands and as if the world to come is in front of us and we must hasten and prepare ourselves for it.”
Following his discharge from active duty Menashe joined Yeshivat Mercaz Harav where he was greatly influenced by his Rosh Yeshiva Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook. For several years upon my annual return from studies abroad I would join Menashe in the Yeshiva dormitory for Yom Kippur services. His magnetic religious persona and the compelling Yeshiva atmosphere were enthralling.
Menashe wrote about repentance: “Each of my prayers is a great new awakening to repentance as I feel a great need to ascend and be elevated in levels of Torah.based on my abilities”
The Yom Kippur war found Menashe teaching in Haifa. He was married with a one year old son, Elyakim, and his wife was in her eighth month of pregnancy. On the eve of Yom Kippur just before the sudden outbreak of war Menashe intercepted his students at the school gate and asked for forgiveness in the event he had inadvertently offended anyone. The next morning, on Yom Kippur Menashe joined his paratrooper reserve unit and fought the invading Egyptians in Sinai.
One week later, on Saturday night Chol Hamoed Succot Menashe wrote:
“Shortly before Shabbat the Torah ark which was fastened to the roof of our bus suddenly fell and splintered on the road behind us. The soldiers responsible for securing it and concerned friends asked what should be done in this situation. I advised them to attend Torah reading in the synagogue on every Shabbat for at least one year.”
Four days later on Wednesday, Hoshana Raba Menashe and his paratrooper unit were in a heated battle at the Chinese Farm just east of the Suez Canal, Operation Abiray-Lev (Stouthearted Men). The defeat of the Egyptian army at the Chinese Farm paved the way for Israeli forces to cross the Suez Canal. It was the most critical and brutal battle of the war and led to the Israeli victory on the Egyptian front.
“From a spiritual perspective we are always on a high level, always encouraging and sensing the fateful hour….we see ourselves as small screws in a large machine but no one is complaining. We understand that everything Is done for the benefit of the Nation (K’lal). This acute awareness translates into an inner feeling and this inner feeling penetrates my bones till they proclaim: “Who is like the Lord, Savior of Israel.”
Later when Moshe Dayan visited the battlefield he recounted: "I am no novice at war or battle scenes, but I have never seen such a sight, not in reality, or in paintings, or in the worst war movies. Here was a vast field of slaughter stretching as far as the eye could see."
One day later on Thursday, Simchat Torah, Israeli forces crossed the Suez Canal.
On Friday Menashe wrote: “Thank G-d we are managing and in high spirits.”
On Saturday night, Shabbat Bereishit, while charging the axis leading to the City of Ismailia Menashe was killed. Ephraim Brandt the battalion commander describes Menashe’s last minutes: “At hour 18.15 Menashe’s unit was ambushed by Egyptian commandos. A fierce battle erupted. Menashe’s unit stormed the ambush and penetrated a dense grove where the enemy soldiers were camouflaged. One of the Israeli soldiers was hit. Menashe and the medic hastened to treat him when fire opened from the brush. Menashe was hit in his chest and died immediately. The soldiers returned fire and eradicated the Egyptian shooters.”
Many years later my wife Rina and I were invited to visit Beit Orot in East Jerusalem with Knesset member Chanan Porat. As we were overlooking the breathtaking view of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount I turned to Chanan: “I know you were a student at Mercaz Harav. Did you know my friend Menashe?” I asked.
“Let me tell you about Menashe” he said. “It was the eve of Simchat Torah. We had just weathered through the most difficult battle and lost so many friends. We were hunched on the dunes at the Chinese Farm with heads bowed in retrospection, well aware of the grave causalities we were likely to suffer the next morning while spearheading the crossing of the Suez Canal. Everyone was in a reflective and sad mood. Suddenly Menashe rose; “It is the eve of Simachat Torah” he shouted. “It is a mitzvah to rejoice!” Jumping up he led the entire unit in dance in the desert dunes, singing:
“Behold, I am sending you Eliyahu the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of Hashem (G-d).”
In a memorial book, Segulat Menashe, published in memory of Menashe his commander writes to Menashe’s parents:
“Your son Menashe, May the Lord avenge his death, was singular in the entire battalion. He was a paragon (mofet) for all of us, an exemplary soldier throughout the years; brave, industrious, helping everyone and inspiring all that needed encouragement. Above all he was the binding link (kesher) between all the battalion soldiers and Judaism. All of us, religious as well as secular, admired his faith and his cleaving (devekut) to our national tradition. He served as an example and a guide for all of us. On the eve of Simchat Torah when all of us were mourning the many casualties, he invigorated all the soldiers that reached the Egyptian front and electrified all in an evening we will never forget.”
Several years ago Menashe’s family held their first memorial gathering. Commanders and members of the elite paratrooper unit, both secular and observant, spoke about Menashe's heroism, his stellar character and his love for Torah, the people and the land of Israel. While a slideshow about Menashe was projected onto a large screen in the darkened high school auditorium I was struck by the presence of a tall thin bearded figure in his 30’s in the corner of the room. Could it be the same striking biblical figure I had waived to decades before on Hachalutz Street in Haifa? Startled, I turned to my friend “who is that person?” I asked. “That is Elyakim (G-d will rebuild), Menashe’s son”, he replied.
“Behold, I am sending you Eliyahu the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of Hashem (G-d). And he shall return the heart of the fathers to the sons, and the heart of the sons to their fathers…”
Note: Rephrasing Rav Joseph B. Solveitchik in Halachik Man:
This article is merely a patchwork of reflections, a most deficient portrayal of a hero and a Tzaddik. If I erred may Hashem in His Goodness forgive me as my only intention is to remember my friend Menashe forty years after his untimely passing.
Itzhak David Goldberg is a professor of clinical radiation oncology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and the CEO of Angion Biomedica Corporation.