I am standing by The Western Wall in Jerusalem, a place I have stood many times before. I have prayed here, I have cried here and — God forgive me — I have mingled here.
Tonight I am here for something altogether different, something I have never done before, and am unlikely to ever do again. It is a Tekes Hashba’ah, a swearing-in ceremony for my son, who is being inducted into the Israeli army, more specifically the Golani Brigade, an elite combat unit.
Max is among 800 young soldiers being inducted this evening, marking the end of most of their basic training. He officially receives an infantry pin for his beret, a Golani patch, his gun and a Tanach, a Bible, on which he takes an oath of allegiance to defend both the state of Israel and the Jewish people.
My wife, Debbie, and I arrived two hours early for a good spot. Debbie is in the front row, right behind the barricade. I, being taller, am standing further back so as not to block the view of others. Beside me is an elderly gentleman, seemingly here for the same purpose. Behind us, an obvious tourist is speaking loudly into his cellphone, telling someone in English how excited he is to have stumbled onto this event. “The soldiers have a ceremony here tonight. You have to see it! It’s the most amazing thing!”
The elderly man glances at me with a faint smile. For some reason he assumes that I am not just another tourist. Perhaps the look on my face is a giveaway, betraying some of what is in my heart. I am a tourist, and I am also the father of one of these soldiers. I am proud, and I am petrified.
“Are you here for the tekes?” he asks in Hebrew.
“Yes, for my son,” I respond.
He raises his eyebrows. “Chayal Boded?” he says, asking if my son is a “lone soldier,” the term for a soldier whose parents do not live in Israel.
“Yes,” I respond.
“Kol hakavod!” he says, which I would loosely translate as “Bravo!”
Music is playing in the background as the soldiers march in. Behind us the tourist is still yelling into his phone. “Can you hear the music? They’re marching! Hold on, I need to take a picture.” He has a big camera.
I ask the elderly man about himself. He is from a kibbutz in the north, and is here for his grandson, whose parents live in the U.S., where they worked for the kibbutz. Because of this, his grandson is also considered a Chayal Boded.
I have been speaking with this man for less than three minutes, yet feel bonded to him in a way that I have never known. I have been playing golf with the same friends for years and share no such connection with any of them. It seems somewhat surreal, even mystical, how thousands of years of history have brought this man and me together on this night, in this spot, the holiest place in all the world, where Abraham, the first Jew, offered his son Isaac up as a sacrifice to God.
I can see Max as he looks around to find us. His face is aglow with pride and determination. He has fought hard — mostly with his mother — to get here. Hopefully, that will be the worst of his battles.
After a few speeches, a high-ranking officer steps to the podium and asks the soldiers to pledge their fidelity to defending the state and its people. Many of the soldiers respond at the top of their lungs, “Ani Nishbah,” I swear, and then another large group yells, “Ani matzhir,” I declare. The latter group, in which Max is included, is observing the religious prohibition against swearing.
One might think this procedure needs to be modified for all to recite the same formula. Perhaps so, but at this moment I am struck by the dichotomy, an expression of Israel’s duality as both a secular and religious country, and how this plays out among the soldiers before me. They serve together, unified, as brothers in arms, willing to sacrifice all for one another. Perhaps there is hope for our future.
The final event is “Hatikvah.” I thought I had sung this many times before, but I really hadn’t. Not like this. And in my heart I find myself bargaining with God, as did our patriarch Jacob, beseeching His protection over Max and his brothers, promising greater fealty in my observance and devotion. I’ve never really believed in bargaining with God — things are never so simple — but here I find myself, my soul crying out: Ani matzhir!
Andrew Kane is a clinical psychologist and author of two novels. His most recent book is “Joshua: A Brooklyn Tale.” He first wrote about his son’s decision to join the IDF in August in this space.