A Few Good Brothers

Avraham Stav Tradition Online | May 27, 2024

The covenant of I.D.F. combat soldiers, formed in a long and difficult process, is the foundation of life as we now know it in Israel. Two weeks before returning to my reserve duty this past Sunday, Miller sent me a message: Are you coming? Miller is the commander. It’s his job to check if someone isn’t showing up. But after two days Friedman also wrote to me: So, nu, will I be seeing you? And so the whole crew began sending messages to each other: Are you coming, too? And what about Mark? Do you have any idea what is happening with Oded? Messages full of emojis and excessive punctuation, which try to convey nonchalance and mask the fear and hesitation: Will you be back?

When we were activated on Simchat Torah morning there were no questions. What other option could there have been except to jump in the car on Yom Tov and drive as fast as possible to the division’s headquarters in Tze’elim. And as long as our forces were still maneuvering in Khan Yunis, it was clear to me that I would remain on duty even when my battalion went on break. But now, after two months back home with my family, having to once again pack a sleeping bag, tent, and uniform, I found myself staring at the screen for a moment and wondering: Am I really going?

To be honest, it wasn’t just the difficulty of leaving the life I was just now getting used to again. Nor is it difficult to understand why exactly we’ve been wearing ourselves out at the front for three-quarters of a year. I have a chronic, risky tendency to believe that someone at the top has good answers to these questions. To a great extent, the feeling of anger that arose in me every time I thought about returning for another round of reserves came from the fact that it’s possible to recruit and train tens of thousands of yeshiva students and haredi youth who could lend a hand and take our place.

Nevertheless, I knew immediately that I would return to service. What took me time was to formulate the answer to the question of why. When I listened to myself for a moment I discovered, to my utter surprise, that even before thinking that “the country needs me” or that “there is no greater mitzva than saving lives,” the reason I replied to Miller in twenty seconds “Obviously I’ll be there” is that I could not let my comrades down. I couldn’t imagine Niv or Doron disappearing for the next 40 days because there is no one to take their place; I couldn’t think of Gal or Yehoshua working double shifts at night to cover my absence. Suddenly I felt a fierce, inexplicable loyalty to people who, a year or two ago, I’m not sure I even remembered their names.

This year, on Yom HaAtzmaut, the Israel Prize, the nation’s highest civilian honor, was awarded to “Team Elhanan”—the name given to Elhanan and Menahem Kalmanson (sons of R. Benny Kalmanson, Rosh Yeshivat Otniel), and their nephew Itiel Zohar, who rushed to Kibbutz Be’eri on Simchat Torah morning to combat Hamas and rescue as many souls as possible. Elhanan הי”ד was murdered on the second day of the attack.

In accepting the award, Menahem spoke to the question, “Why did we rush into the battle?” His powerful, brief speech contained only 952 words (watch it below), and each holds a lesson. In a short video broadcast that day, Itiel was asked the exact same question, and he answered it with only three words: Elhanan called us. “And it was clear,” he added, “if Elhanan needed us, we would come with him.”

A commitment to one’s comrades and to the company is a very special kind of covenant. Even as a child, a scene from the movie “A Few Good Men,” which dominated the screens of youth movements and religious high schools in the ‘90s (in those days, there were very few movies that were considered modest) resonated with me. Two marines repeat over and over again the motto of the U.S. Marine Corps: “Unit, Corp, God, Country.” There is God, and there is country, but first of all, a soldier declares, “I am committed to my unit.”

In the film, the motto is used as some twisted justification for the most awful of crimes, one which twists the perverts of the Marine Code, as memorably depicted in Jack Nicholson’s final monologue on the witness stand. But in our current conflict, tempered by our morals as a Jewish State, the untainted value infuses our service with great meaning. To be more precise: I meet my commitment to the country and to God in the sharpest and most tangible way in my commitment to my unit, to my brother soldiers in this Jewish army defending the State of Israel. The special relationships one acquires in the field is not a by-product that comes randomly, but an essential part of the matter. The cramped, Spartan living is not a bug but a feature.

Plato described in “The Republic” that the guards of the state should live in common houses and eat their meals together, in order for them to see each other as sons of the same father. Because the deep ties that make us a people do not necessarily come from the Declaration of Independence or from legal codes. Our commitment to complete strangers, with different beliefs and values, even at the cost of our own lives, is built team after team, regiment by regiment, in a long and painful process of training the muscles of the mind and heart. When all this is over, we will return, as the poet Natan Alterman wrote, to “A night pouring the charm of camaraderie of spirit / In the establishment of a new kingdom.”

Rabbi Avraham Stav teaches at Kollel Shaarei Zion in Yad HaRav Nissim, Jerusalem, when he is not serving in an artillery unit. This essay is translated and expanded from a version that appeared in Makor Rishon.

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