From the Front Lines

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

The Sages of the Talmud teach that the Holy One, Blessed be He, dons t'filin (phylacteries) every day (as it were); they suggest that in the boxes ("houses") of God's t'filin are verses paralleling the boxes ("houses") worn by the Israelites, the first verse in God's t'filin being "who is like unto Your nation Israel, a most unique nation on earth."

Let me share with you four vignettes from this war in Gaza which confirm the Divine assessment of the uniqueness of our people.

1. One of the first sacred "Korbanot" of this war was Yuval Heiman, born in Efrat, seventh generation Jerusalemite, whose great-grandfather, along with three other members of the Heiman family, had fallen in the War of Independence.  Yuval was circumcised and "Bar Mitzvahed" in Efrat, graduated with distinction from Derech Avot, Ohr Torah Stone, won many trophies and medals for excellence in sports, volunteerism and Bnei Akiva, and was an outstanding member of Bahad 1, Officers Training School.  Yuval was slated for a shining future as a great Jewish leader, but then....

When I entered the shiva home, Yuval's grand-father Yehuda - a silversmith and regular attendee of our Daf Yomi class - ran to the door to greet me with a warm embrace.  We both wept silently.  Then Yehuda caught himself.  "In this shiva house we do not weep; of course, we are overcome with grief but the dominant feeling in our hearts is pride and zekhut, the privilege of being able - in our generation - to sacrifice for the Jewish future."

Moshe and Zohara, Yuval's parents, both explained that of course they cry - but at night, into the pillow, privately and not for others to see.  The profound message they convey is the merit of living in the generation of rebirth, of their ability - which the past generation of the Shoah could not do - to take Jewish destiny into their own hands and pave the way, albeit with heart-breaking commitment and sacrifice, for Jewish future and redemption. 

In effect, they were repeating the words of the brother of Great Grandfather Heiman, who said - upon establishing Kibbutz Nehalim after losing the four members of the Heiman clan in the War of Independence - "the place, (Ha Makom), our home in Israel reborn, comforts me among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem"... 

2. I went to Tel Hashomer hospital to visit El-Yosef Malkieli, an outstanding commanding officer who suffered a near-fatal wound in his leg.  He and two of his young charges were standing by their personnel carrier (nagmash) when a hand-grenade was thrown in their direction.  El-Yosef instinctively reached out to catch the grenade and so to deflect its potential harm away from the many and only onto himself.  He was struck on his leg, and only he and his two soldiers were wounded and knocked unconscious.

When the soldiers were revived, their first words were, "How is Malkieli? Please God, he's alive!" And when El-Yosef opened his eyes, his first question was, "How are my boys? Where are they?"  An army in which the first thoughts of the commanding officer is for the welfare of his "men", and the first thoughts of the "men" is for the welfare of their commanding officer is bound to be successful.

3. I had been spending a period of time teaching and lecturing in New York when I went home to Israel for some twelve hours to pay the condolence call and visit the hospital which I just described. When I arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport, it was eerily empty of its usual crowds; the Federal Aviation Administration had cancelled all American flights to Israel.  Only El Al was flying into Israel as usual.

Suddenly, I heard guitar music and immediately joined some thirty-five people in a spirited circle (or rather two circles, each one single-sex) of dancing. In the midst of the rockets and missiles, the sirens and scatterings for shelter, these American Jews were coming on aliyah.

They asked me to say something, to give them a blessing; I told them how proud I was of them, how their very presence had been a blessing for me.  One of them said that they all took heart from something they had read in one of my early columns: "If Israel were merely Disneyland, then you only come if there is sun and peace; but if Israel is Mother-land, then when your mother needs you, that is especially when you must be there."

And then the spokesperson added, "And for us, Israel is now homeland. You protect your homeland whenever necessary; you certainly don't stay away..

4. The day before I came home to make my visits, my daughter Elana was in a Petah Tikvah Judaica gift shop purchasing a challah board.  A mother and her young son were inquiring about large, knitted, black Bratzlav kippot, which would cover the entire head.  She explained to the store-owner that her son was one of four observant boys in their Gaza army unit, and the usual small-style knitted kippot jostled under the large army helmets and made it uncomfortable for them.  The owner searched around a bit, and brought out four large black kippot.

"I need forty," smiled the mother. "But you said there were four observant soldiers in the unit, so why would you want forty kippot?," logically inquired the store-keeper. The mother explained that when the other members of the unit heard her son's request for large kippot, they inquired about the reason for wearing a kippah in the first place; her son explained that there was a verse in Psalms which avers that the Divine Presence is above each individual, and this Divine Protection is symbolized by the kippah. All the soldiers then requested large kippot for under their helmets, claiming that they are all desirous of continued Divine Protection, especially in Gaza. 

The store-keeper managed to find forty large kippot, for which he refused to take any money... 

"Who is like unto Your nation, a most unique nation on earth."