My youngest child, Elie, (20) was recently inducted into the IDF. Elie is now doing basic training in an elite combat unit of the paratroopers known as Maglan (Ibis). For the previous two and a half years Elie was in the Yeshivah of Upper Nazareth. Yes, it turns out that of our five children, our most religious and spiritual child will be our only combat soldier.
In the days before his induction I saw that Elie was reading a booklet geared to religious boys entering the army. For Elie, the booklet reviewed a lot of the things he had learned over the last few years. The booklet contains three talks by Rabbi Mordecai Shternberg, head of a major yeshivah that combines strict orthodoxy with Zionism and nationalism. In this column, the first of what I imagine will be a series of columns over the next few years about Elie’s military service, I want to give you an idea of the kind of spirituality with which Elie is armed.
Rabbi Shternberg begins by pointing out that it is a divine commandment (mitzvah) for Jews to conquer the land of Israel. It follows therefore that when one serves in the “great and holy army that is called the Israel Defense Forces,” one is fulfilling this mitzvah, and that “from a certain perspective the commander in the army represents the word of God to us.”
At this point I imagine that many of you are reacting to Rabbi Shternberg’s words the way my oldest son Nathan reacted: “The ISIS guys think that they are serving their God, and Hamas thinks that they are serving God too, right?” Most of us prefer not to involve God in military matters; along with Bob Dylan, we imagine that if many peoples go to war “With God on Our Side,” then God chooses no sides.
Rabbi Shternberg has no such problem. He states emphatically: “The war against our enemies today is a war of lofty righteousness against base evil,” and that “we are fighting for the complete and perfect divine good.” Rabbi Shternberg says that the “people of Israel is pure and the holy work of killing our enemies does not distance us from this purity.” The existence of the IDF is “part of the return of the shekhina [God’s presence] to Zion, of the establishment of the Temple, and of repairing the world [Tikun Olam] in a perfect redemption.”
I spoke with Elie about Rabbi Shternberg’s booklet and he admitted that some of the things that the Rabbi writes are hard to accept. Nevertheless, Elie firmly believes that his service in the IDF is fulfilling not just a civic duty but a religious duty, that he is serving God by serving his country. While this belief is a challenge to many western liberals, I do know that it is an authentic Jewish belief that has firm roots in the rabbinic tradition and in the Hebrew Bible.
As is the custom, on the Saturday morning before Elie’s induction, the sexton (gabbai) in our synagogue recited a special blessing: “May the Holy One Blessed Be He watch over Elie and bring him success in whatever he does, and he should find favor and good sense in the eyes of God and human beings. May the Holy One Blessed Be He bestow upon Elie the merit to complete his service healthy and whole, and in him shall be fulfilled the words of Leviticus: ‘And every man to his family shall You return.’ And let us say: Amen.”
By Teddy Weinberger