Fighting Words

Avraham Stav Tradition Online | November 13, 2023

It is Saturday evening, the twenty-second day of the war. In a few minutes, the great ground maneuver of the 252nd Division into Gaza will begin. Videos circulating online show large circles of fighters gathering around commanders at these moments, but the men in my artillery unit are cannon gunners and each team is positioned around its weapon battery, alert, trying to fix last-minute malfunctions that have appeared on the tactical computer. And then the voice is heard over our radios: “Security forces, this is Command speaking.” And we stop everything and listen.

What do you say to soldiers before they head into battle? What words can call them to acts of heroism in the coming hours above and beyond what they thought they were capable of? What might cause a person to risk his very existence for the sake of fulfilling the mission?

The order to go into battle issued by the commander of Division 36 on the eve of entering Gaza concludes with the words, “Now it’s our turn!” These are words that hold a simple sense of duty without unnecessary emotion and explanation. Like Aragorn’s speech before the Battle of Pelargrir: “Come after me. And when all this land is clean of the servants of Sauron, I will hold your oath fulfilled.” There are many soldiers here for whom this message resonates. We need to be here because now it’s our turn. There is a tough, quiet power in such an awareness, which causes a person to stand up, with no necessary questioning, and declare, “Hineni—Here I am.”

But in the circle of our small battery, even before the battalion commander’s speech, the privilege of saying a few words was given to Matan, a member of Team 1C. Theirs is one of the oldest and most experienced groups in the artillery corps, with an average age creeping up to 40. It’s also one of the most effective (when the antenna’s firing cable doesn’t break). The guys there have long passed the age of mandatory service.

Matan’s strategy is to arouse the rage that has been contained in us since the day of the massacre: “The scars of that dark day lit a fire within each and every one of us. We march together into battle, carrying the torch of revenge. Their cruelty will be met with the full force of our wrath, and their world will be met with a thunderous roar of justice.” This is also an effective strategy. When I awake to the explosions of shells, after mere three-hour sleep, and accidentally glance at another horror story about the events of Simhat Torah, I swear not to complain even if we stay here in the field for another two years. And when Matan finishes speaking, the battery resounds with enthusiastic chants describing the justice that will be meted out to the terrorists, even if the exact words that were used cannot be published here.

There are battle speeches that look into the face of danger. Sometimes out of a desire to enlarge it and sharpen our senses in the face of the enemy. Like the Mishnah which reminds warriors: “You are marching to war against your enemies, and if you fall into their hands, they will not have mercy on you” (Sota 8:1). On the other hand, the words that the Torah places into the mouth of the Priest Anointed for War addressing the troops try to downplay the danger and calm their fear: “Hear, O Israel! You are about to join a battle with your enemy. Let not your courage falter. Do not be in fear, or in panic, or in dread of them. For it is your God who marches with you to do battle for you against your enemy, to bring you victory” (Deuteronomy 20:3-4). God is with us and we will win—this is the religious equivalent of the speech of our battalion commander, who is now broadcasting over the connection, talking about the tremendous power of the IDF, which is going to smash the enemy. We have no need for worry.

For myself, I am more touched by the words of Maimonides, who read the verse differently: “Once a soldier enters the throes of battle, he should rely on the Hope of Israel and their Savior in times of need. He should realize that he is fighting for the sake of the unity of God’s Name” (Hilkhot Melakhim 7:15). It is not the knowledge that God is fighting for us that gives warriors the strength to place their lives at risk, but that we are fighting for Him. In this fight, we are aware that there are values greater and higher than life itself.

I review these speeches, between one round of fighting and another. Listening to the commander of Battalion 7007 talking about Judah Maccabee’s troops who are, as it were, entering Gaza with us, then reading Judah Maccabee’s speech itself in which he reminded his soldiers (2,180 years ago) of Jonathan, son of King Saul, and of Hezekiah. Watching William Wallace cry that he would rather die than hand over Scotland’s freedom to Britain, and listening to Winston Churchill promise “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” These speeches are so different, sometimes almost contradictory, and slowly you realize that the words are not important at all. Neither orderly reasoning nor structured argument leads a person to war. All the speeches seek only to echo, in thousands of different ways, a profound and primal chord that shook us on that accursed Simhat Torah morning, when we rose as one, opened our phones, and started looking for our uniforms and packing our bags. A chord was struck that calls a man to fight for his home, his values, and his God. And this chord continues to vibrate, its voice swells and will not cease until it is overtaken by the victory blasts of the Shofar and the Land of Israel is atoned for the blood that has been shed upon it.

Rabbi Avraham Stav teaches at Yeshivat Machanayim in Efrat when he is not serving in an artillery unit. This essay is translated from an earlier version that appeared in Makor Rishon. Read his recent TRADITION article on Rav Kook’s progressivism and conservativism.

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