This week’s parasha, Shoftim, contains rules of war, including the exemption from battle for someone who has just built a home, planted a vineyard, is married, or is afraid of battle. These verses of Torah convey the requirement to offer terms of peace before attacking a city, and the prohibition against the pointless destruction of things of value. These rules are presumably addressed to all involved in waging war, whether they are leaders, citizens and soldiers. Such rules are clearly necessary, since war, while sometimes necessary to defeat evil, is always ugly and harsh. Human beings must have rules of war in order to achieve, to the greatest extent possible, civility in conflict.
The Torah’s mention of war and soldiers is especially poignant for me this week, as my son Josh will enter the Israeli army in just a few days. His “giyus” (induction) is scheduled for September 15 and I regret that I can’t be there to hug him, wish him good luck and tell him in person that I’m proud of him. I hope to be in Israel in a few weeks for the “Tekess Hashba’a,” the day he’s sworn in as an Israeli soldier.
We’ve known that Josh would enter the army for some time. His service will be just six months long, which is all that’s required of an Israeli citizen who is already 25 years old (18-year old young men and women serve for close to three years). Since he is a computer programmer, he will likely be assigned to a unit where he will work on a programming project for the army. First, he will go through basic training to learn army discipline and how to use a weapon. His unit will likely visit Israel’s military cemetery on Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem, where he and his fellow soldiers will visit the graves of soldiers who have sacrificed their lives in all of Israel’s wars and will hear moving testimony from their commanding officers about what they’re fighting for and why Israel needs a standing army of dedicated soldiers.
Josh probably could have been excused from serving in the army had he wanted to avoid it and pushed to be exempt. He has a good job and had to arrange for a 6-month leave of absence in order to serve. But he wants to serve…he sees his commitment to the army as national service, which it is. Arguments that support his exemption from the army are irrelevant to him. For example, the Israeli government just passed a law that people who arrive in the country at the age of 22 or older no longer have to serve. Josh arrived after his 22nd birthday but before this new law was passed, so it doesn’t apply to him. The point can be made that in principle the Israeli government doesn’t want him to serve and that being drafted is only a consequence of timing. But, to Josh’s credit, he rejects that point. He’s told me that it’s not up to him to decide whether or not he should serve, and that the army would face significant challenges if every drafted person decided on their own whether or not they’re needed by the army. As a parent, I’d rather that he not serve in the army (even if he’ll be stationed in an office for six months and not on the front lines). I’m proud of his ethics and his Zionism.
What does a parent say and feel when their child enters the army? To be sure, most parents of Israelis entering the army have much more to worry about that Amy and I do. I say that with humility and deference to the father or mother of young person who may be sent to a dangerous place to fight for Israel’s safety and security in actual battle conditions. Still, entering the army is not something about which to be casual or flippant.
Beyond a few pangs of worry about how Josh will fare as a soldier, I find myself feeling proud of his service to Tzahal, Israel’s defense force. I’ve asked myself if I would feel the same way if he were entering the United States army, or even the army of another country in the world. Honestly, I don’t think I would. That is not because I am not a loyal and proud American- I am. That is not because I don’t care about the needs and fate of American soldiers- I do. A good friend of mine is the mother of a former Marine who spent many years serving our country in Iraq and Afghanistan. I know how worried she was during the time of his service, and how devoted she remains to this day to attending to the needs of soldiers serving overseas. I empathize with her and try to understand her feelings.
But there is something authentically Jewish, even spiritual, about serving as a soldier in Israel’s army. This is a Jewish army. Israel’s army is different from other armies in the world because it exists to defend the Jewish people, and that should mean something to us as Jews. It is an army that is built to defend not only Israelis but Jews everywhere in the world from the dangers of the present and from the humiliations and agony of history. Tzva Hagana L’Yisrael—Israel’s army—has a sacred duty to keep the Jewish people safe in the land of the Jewish people. This is the army that will ensure that Jews have a safe place to live, unthreatened by those who seek to harm us precisely because we’re Jewish.
While the parent in me wishes that Josh could be exempt from any form of danger, the Jew and Zionist in me understands the meaning and importance of what he’s about to do.
I’m proud of my son.