It was time for Havdalah. The long Shabbat had ended on the sandy shores of the Mediterranean. Three stars had been seen in the cloudless sky. This would have been the moment to bring out the silver Havdalah set, the elegant cup for wine, the twisted candles, the fragrant spice. This was the moment to commemorate the close of the sabbath and welcome in the new week. And it was an especially poignant time to wish fellow celebrants a shavua tov, a good week.
The assembled young men awaiting the Havdalah service, including our grandson, were all wearing the well-worn uniforms of the Israel Defense Forces. None could recall when they had last showered or washed their clothing. On a normal Shabbat at their homes throughout the Land of Israel, they would have been immaculately dressed, having enjoyed a restful Shabbat, and they would be looking forward to a fun-filled evening with friends.
Tonight’s Havdalah concluding their sabbath would be different. Tonight they were guardians of the beaches of Gaza. Shomrim of Israel. None knew how the evening or the days ahead would evolve. Their very survival was at stake.
The immediate concern was preparing for the Havdalah service. Creativity was needed. They would substitute Kool-Aid in a plastic cup for the typical silver goblet of wine. The candles were replaced by strips of driftwood embracing each other and ignited by a cigarette lighter; and the besamim, the fragrant spices, were a discarded cigarette. Yet it was indeed a most holy Havdalah as the brief service, with its poignant prayer, was intoned. “Behold the God who gives me triumph! I am confident, unafraid for He has been my deliverance.”
The soldiers, paratroopers all, concluded their brief service and continued with their duties. Somewhere in homes throughout Israel the same prayers were recited as parents and loved ones anxiously endured the unique and terrible suffering that comes from having a dear one on the battlefield.
And back on the home front, we had a momentary reprieve.
On the third night of Chanukah, I left my husband in Jerusalem, where he continued the shiva for his sister, Florence. I joined much of the rest of our family in Modiin for our annual party celebrating the Festival of Lights and our nephew Amit’s 14th birthday.
The party guests spread out from the living room to the spacious merpesit. The weather was comfortable, the food scrumptious, prepared with love and lots of whipped cream by my niece Tali, an executive officer in the police force of Medinat Yisrael. Happily, her husband, Noam, a lieutenant colonel in the miluim, the army reserves, was able to return home from the north for a few hours, put on civilian clothes, and lead the lighting of the chanukiah. It’s a beautiful ceremony, especially in Modiin.
That new city was built at the site of the ancient home of the Maccabees. Its growth is thrilling, a fulfilled dream of visionaries who saw a dynamic new city where others saw empty, barren, unremarkable sandy space, within commuting distance of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, as well as numerous smaller towns and villages. Tali and Noam were among the early pioneers who moved there to raise their family. Then the dust was everywhere, and the services were limited. Hard to imagine now in this thriving and still growing place of 100,000. Modiin is no longer an outpost. It is well on its way to becoming a huge population center in the middle of the Land of Israel.
This year, however, was not as celebratory as our parties in years past have been. War rages, and many heroic chayalim already have perished. At a gathering such as ours, many men and women are active participants in this war, a few in uniform. It’s possible to see who are the parents of those active-duty soldiers. They are the ones searching for strength, looking for courage, trying to be brave while facing the impossible, the terrible fear that one of their children will abruptly be brought down, killed in the fighting for Israel’s future, the terror of the unexpected knocks on the door. These are the parents to whom sleep doesn’t come, to whom goals and plans for the future are frozen in time. These are parents living nightmares from where there is no escape. It’s in the eyes. The haunted eyes.
So, at our party, there was a uniformed young man with his gun affixed, ready to have his meal, show his parents that he was fine, and then return to Gaza. He’d taken a big trip to calm the fears of those who raised him, loved him, and feared for him.
There is no fear quite like the fear that parents confront when their children are defending this land of ours. Most of them have been girded for this from their child’s infancy. Loving this human, part of your very own flesh, and praying that he or she will outlive you, that no terrorist will fill his or her body with bullets. It’s too horrible to contemplate but too impossible to ignore. Even the most optimistic can never say that my child, who is serving in the midst of a vicious war, is safe.
Yet some stories from the front lines are a different kind of drama. They are the tales of the soldiers who survive the fighting and have experiences that they will never forget. There is that Havdalah on the shores of Gaza. There are Shabbat dinners of McDonalds served cold, no chicken soup or challah. There are beds in strange deserted apartments and wandering through neighborhoods bereft of local citizens. There is window-shopping in elegant stores. There are deserted streets filled with the rubble of the battlefield. There is the sound of silence in neighborhoods that ceased to exist. These are scenes of survival in Gaza, and they are tragic in ways apart from killing. They will be with these chayalim forever. They will never be forgotten.
And above all is the loss of young lives. For most this is the first time they have witnessed the deaths of their friends. It is unbearable. I have seen tough young men sobbing, unable to understand what is happening and how to deal with it.
But this is the army of Israel. There is no looting. The high-priced goods in the deserted stores remain untouched. The personal items in the apartments, where urgent needs for rest are fulfilled, remain in place. Nothing is taken. These soldiers seek sustenance and not more than that. They are exhausted, seeking a brief respite, a temporary space. They do not choose to be here. They would prefer their own homes, warm, inviting, with home-cooked food and indulgent family. They are in these unwelcoming spaces only to heal and regain their energy, if that is even possible. No one yearns for peace more than these young soldiers. And no one will defend Eretz Yisrael more than these young soldiers.
Paradoxically, the world in which we dwell is not supportive of our chayalim. These innocents are despised. They are the salvation of our people, and yet the world calls them aggressors. Something is very wrong in our world. Something is twisted beyond recognition. Twisted like a swastika.
We ask God to grant us victory and may these heroic young people be His tools. Amen.
Rosanne Skopp of West Orange is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of 14, and great-grandmother of four. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. She is a lifelong blogger, writing blogs before anyone knew what a blog was! She welcomes email at firstname.lastname@example.org