This is not the first time I’ve come to Israel during war, but this time is different. I’m here not only because I love Israel; I’m here as a father, a grandfather with two grandsons in the IDF – one on an air force base, doing important defense work, and one in Gaza, putting his life on the line with thousands of others in Operation Protective Edge. It is excruciating to witness the concern of my daughter, Elana, and son-in-law, Michael. Their minds and hearts are preoccupied every moment about the well being of their son in Gaza, as are parents and family members of thousands of Israeli soldiers.
Elana and I visit the Heyman family sitting shiva for their son, Yuval, who fell on the battlefield last week. As Elana embraces Yuval’s mother, Zohara, I try to imagine what they are thinking. My guess: Elana offers prayers of comfort to Zohara while Zohara blesses Elana that her eldest come home safely.
Yuval’s father, Moshe, is a strapping figure with a long IDF history. His eyes reveal his pain: deep, full of emotion. We share a long embrace in parting. I whisper in his ear, “Hashem yihei itcha” – God will be with you. Moshe responds, “Hu kfar iti” – He is already with me.
I spend much of the next few days at the Beilinson Hospital in Petach Tikvah, where those with more serious injuries – soldiers and civilians – get transferred.
I sit with Ilan, a civilian injured when a rocket hit a gas station in Ashdod. Large chunks of his head had burnt; shrapnel entered all over his body. While the Iron Dome has intercepted many rockets, nothing is foolproof.
Soldiers are everywhere. In one room I meet D, whose unit was hit by heavy fire while taking over a suspected terrorist hideout in Gaza. D describes the sudden heaviness in his legs, how he’d called for help but wasn’t heard. For long moments he’d believed he had been left behind, asking himself, “Is this the place where the end will come?” But he had not been left behind. The medics who reached him apologized for not getting there sooner, but to him they are heroes; they risked danger to come to his aid. D describes with deep emotion how a wounded medic, lapsing in and out of consciousness, still persevered, doing what he could for him.
B lies across the way, his mother by his side. Together we sing “Lema’an achai berei’ai”– Because of my brothers and friends, please let me say: peace to you. I hold B’s hands; he closes his eyes and joins. I don’t know that I will ever sing this melody again without seeing B’s face.
J, an American, a “lone soldier,” is in the intensive care unit. He had been in a building hit with Hamas explosives; his lungs are damaged from the poisonous fumes that entered his body. J’s mother died a few years ago; his father and brother are at his side. I decide to offer what support I can by calling Rabbi Aaron Frank, who’d been J’s principal at his high school in Maryland. I imagine Rabbi Aaron’s words of solace resonate more for J than mine would.
In the lobby I encounter 88-year-old Miriam Rozen. She tells me her mission in life is to give support to Israel’s soldiers, which today are those recently wounded. With a cane in each hand, she resumes her mission alongside me, keeping up as we move from room to room, floor to floor.
When we later exit the hospital, Miriam walks straight up to three soldiers in combat gear. Together they make a holy picture of contrasts: a frail great-grandmother standing with soldiers dressed for battle, their faces softened by her expressions of gratitude.
*Arriving back in Efrat, I catch the news on CNN showing Palestinian suffering at the hands of the brutal Israeli Army. I, too, feel deeply and profoundly the suffering of innocent Palestinians. There is no difference between blood and blood. But the circumstances of their deaths are far different than what is being portrayed.
What is Israel to do when rockets are launched and tunnels are dug, with the goal of maiming and killing? What is Israel to do with a cowardly enemy, whose fighters hide behind women and children, who launch rockets from population centers and shoot from the windows of hospitals?
The soldiers of Israel are the soldiers I met at Beilinson today. They are our children and grandchildren, decent and kind. Though today they wear their uniforms with pride, I know they would much prefer to shed them, would prefer a life – a world – where Israel had no need for an army.
Given my politically right leanings, years ago I would have hoped that Israel would continue this battle. But now, with a grandson in Gaza, I find the situation, and my beliefs about it, much more difficult. The decision that Prime Minister Netanyahu makes is a critical one, not only for Israel’s well being but also for each of its soldiers, as not everyone who goes in will come out.
Late that night, images of the day flash before me. I think of 88-year-old Miriam’s example: in moments of crisis, everyone can do something. For Jews around the world that might mean attending rallies, visiting Israel, adopting an Israeli soldier, offering prayers, providing food or supplies – never letting a day go by without doing something.
What I can offer is being with Elana, Michael and their family. Helping with the kids, offering words of support wherever and however I can – from heart to heart.
Rabbi Avi Weiss is the spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.