Letter From the Front

I'm a fighter for another month or so. Unless, of course, the army extends it again. These things happen in the army. Not an easy life. There is barely any time to sleep.

Rabbi Yehuda HaKohen,

 Rabbi Yehuda HaKohen
Rabbi Yehuda HaKohen
This is supposed to be my last month as a fighter. I was recently married. As a result, the army wants to switch me over to being a driver. On the one hand, I joined the Israeli army to fight for the nation. On the other hand, as a driver I could be home every night with my wife. It's really not an easy decision and I've had to think long and hard. I've had to seek much advice. In the end, I decided to take the driving position. I just hope that my reserve duty will still be combat. My officer assures me that he is working on it for me. So far he has been very good to me and I have every reason to trust him.

Meanwhile I'm a fighter for another month or so. Unless, of course, the army extends it again. These things happen in the army. Not an easy life. There is barely any time to sleep.

I just did a checkpoint shift from midnight to 8:00am. It was hard to stay awake. Now we (I and those who were at the checkpoint with me) are on standby for the next eight hours. We can't take off our boots or uniforms during that time. In case of any emergency, we're the first to go up. We must stay constantly ready.

It's a scorching day in the Jordan Valley. There is a breeze so hot it feels like we are under a giant hair dryer. As the squad meets for an after-lunch briefing, the call goes out. We grab our gear and rush to the troop transport. We are three soldiers plus a commander. They hand us broomsticks with flippers on the end wrapped in a sack as we board the massive vehicle. Apparently, a fire has broken out in Hamra, a non-religious settlement in the Jordan Valley, and we are being sent in to fight it.

When we arrive, we leave our M16 rifles in the "safari"-truck and race into the blaze. A brush fire must have been sparked by the heat. It's spreading fast due to the hot breeze. We run in for as long as we can, beating the flames down to the ground until we must withdraw to breathe. Between the incredible heat and the smoke, it's difficult to stay in the fire very long. A couple more soldiers and a medic show up with fire extinguishers. Also useless.

The fire is spreading. I can hear the animals screaming from the nearby barn. The fire is moving their way, trapping them. We jump the barn fence in an attempt to break the animals free. The fire is growing and spreading by the second. It's almost at the barn. We work frantically to free the animals, but are only able to break down the top half of the door. The bottom must be reinforced with something strong. By now, the barn is filled with smoke as the fire enters. It has become difficult to see or breathe and the heat is becoming unbearable.

Suddenly, an image of the New York Fire Department rushing into the World Trade Center on 9/11 enters my mind. I hear my commander ordering us out of the barn. We all manage to escape the barn before getting caught. But not the animals. No time to dwell on that, though, because one of us notices a fuel tank on the other side of the fire.

At the moment, the wind is pushing away from the tank, but wind can change. Some senior officers arrive on the scene. We race to the other end of the fire in an attempt to create a barrier before the wind changes. More soldiers arrive. If I only knew how to say "fire department" in Hebrew, I would ask where they are.

But they arrive shortly - about an hour after we began fighting the fire. They have a truck, a giant hose and gear. Now our job is done. We are exhausted. I feel that I've inhaled too much smoke and that some of my beard was lost in the fire. I want to call my wife to tell her what had happened, but I'm not really sure what to say. I decide to wait until later.

When we get back to the base, we are no longer on standby. We can get undressed and finally shower. My officer tells me that I'm being switched to jeep patrol. Thank G-d! I've been trying to get back into that job for ages. It's more action than checkpoints, while at the same time, it's less strenuous. The ideal job.

I'm supposed to start right away, but the jeep is being repaired. I have nothing to do but relax. I use the time. We end up doing two hours of patrolling at midnight. We then get replaced by the next shift of guys and go to bed. My first full eight-hour shift will start at 8:00am. I fall asleep, exhausted.

I wake before the shift. I put some snacks in a bag along with my Talit, Tefillin and prayer book. At some point in the morning, I know I'll get a chance to pray Shacharit.

There is a driver and a commander in the front. I'm in back. We spend part of the morning doing emergency drills so they can test me. I don't find it too difficult. A little after noon, we get a call about an Arab who, in an attempt to bypass the checkpoint, is hiding in an adjacent field. We're off. It's a bumpy ride into the field over the rocks. We all bounce up and down as the jeep maneuvers over the terrain. Eventually we catch the Arab, take his ID and bring him to the checkpoint to await police.

While at the checkpoint, we relax and eat some lunch. Suddenly, I see something happening. In an attempt to escape, the Arab has hit one of our boys. A struggle ensues as we race to our comrade's assistance. As we get close, the Arab grabs for my M16. I kick him and then hit him with the rifle. He tries to run out into the field. We cock our M16s and threaten to shoot if he doesn't return at once. He obeys, but begins to struggle again. His eyes are red and he makes pathetic noises. I can't help feeling sorry as my friend wrestles him to the ground. I give a soldier plastic cuffs to bind him and a commander comes to take him away.

It's not always easy to do such things. It's hard when confronted with the Arab's face and emotions. But I know what is right and wrong despite the difficulty. I leave morality to a higher Authority. The Arabs have declared war on Israel. We have a Divine commandment to fight without remorse in defense of our People and Land. And to do this, one must harden one's self and perform without emotion. Not easy for a nation as sensitive as Israel. I've had to do this frequently and each time it has been very difficult. I know, however, that challenges like these are meant to be overcome.

Hours later, when I was off duty and returning from the firing range, I still felt somewhat sad for the Arab. That was, of course, until I heard the news. Six Israeli soldiers were blown up in Zeitun in Gaza by a landmine. Hamas has taken two of their bodies. I wondered how many brutal terrorists Israel would be asked to free for the return of these corpses. Ridiculous! And only a couple of days later, another five soldiers were killed by a landmine. Eleven in one week!

I wonder why we send our boys to search on the ground. Why not just bomb from the skies? Do we consider the blood of our soldiers so cheap? Is Arab blood worth so much more? We needlessly endanger the lives of our soldiers in an attempt to appear more moral before an international media that hates us regardless of what we do. On numerous occasions, I recall making suggestions at the checkpoints that would increase the level of safety. The officers responded that we cannot implement my suggestions because it wouldn't look right. Look right to whom? When did diplomacy take precedence over security? How can our image before the world be more important than the lives of our soldiers and citizens? Is the function of our army to enhance public relations or to defend the nation?

A little over a week before the events described above, a pregnant Jewish mother and her four small children were ruthlessly gunned down by Arabs in Gaza. She wasn't some make-believe person. She left behind a widower with a future of terrible anguish. Can anyone imagine the loss this poor man has suffered? Meanwhile, our political leaders treat his misery as a diplomatic victory for Israel. Is his suffering worth no more than public relations points? We have become sick!

I'm still here though. Cherishing all the time I have left as a fighter in the army of Israel, no matter how difficult or dangerous. It is an enormous merit to serve in Hashem's army in the reborn State of Israel - the throne of G-d in this world. To participate in the Redemption of history by helping to rebuild the nation in our land.

Even if we disagree with our political leaders, even if we know that they are small politicians and diplomats unable to stand proud before the world, even when we know that they are willing to waste our lives to score political points - we are still ready to lay down our lives in defense of our nation and homeland; even at the command of these frightened leaders. It is not in their merit that they have our allegiance, but the sanctity of the offices they represent - the first flowering of our Redemption, the first Hebrew commonwealth in 2,000 years.