Parshat Vaetchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11)
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Efrat, Israel – The sages of the Talmud teach that the Holy One, Blessed be He, dons tefillin every day (as it were) (BT Brachot 6a); they suggest that in the boxes of God’s tefillin are verses paralleling the boxes worn by Jews. The first verse in God’s tefillin is: “Who is like Your nation Israel, a most unique nation on earth?” (I Chron. 17:21).
Let me share with you four vignettes from last year’s war in Gaza which confirm the Divine assessment of the uniqueness of our people.
1. One of the first sacred korbanot (victims) of this war was Lt. Yuval Heiman, born in Efrat, whose great-grandfather, along with three other members of the Heiman family, fell in the War of Independence.
Yuval was circumcised and “bar mitzvahed” in Efrat, graduated with distinction from Ohr Torah Stone’s Derech Avot School, won many trophies and medals for excellence in sports and volunteerism, and was an outstanding member of the IDF’s Officer Training School. Yuval was slated for a shining future as a great Jewish leader, but then….
When I entered the shiva home one year ago, Yuval’s grandfather, Yehuda – a silversmith and regular attendee of our Daf Yomi (religious studies) class – greeted me with a warm embrace. We both wept silently. Then Yehuda caught himself. “In this shiva house, we do not weep; of course, we are overcome with grief, but the dominant feeling in our hearts is pride and zechut, the privilege of being able – in our generation – to sacrifice for the Jewish future.”
Moshe and Zohara, Yuval’s parents, both explained that of course they cry – but privately, at night into their pillows. The profound message they convey is the merit of living in the generation of rebirth, of their ability – which the past generation of the Shoah could not do – to take Jewish destiny into their own hands and pave the way, albeit with heartbreaking commitment and sacrifice, for Jewish future and redemption.
In effect, they were repeating the words of the brother of Great-Grandfather Heiman, who said – upon establishing Kibbutz Nehalim after losing the four members of his family in the War of Independence – “the place (hamakom), our home in Israel reborn, comforts me among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem…”
2. Also, last year, I went to Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer to visit Elyosef Malkieli, an outstanding commanding officer who suffered a near-fatal wound in his leg. He and two of his young charges were standing by their personnel carrier when a hand-grenade was thrown in their direction. Elyosef instinctively reached out to deflect it away from a large group of his soldiers.
He was struck on his leg, and he and only two of his soldiers were wounded and knocked unconscious.
When the soldiers regained consciousness, their first words were, “How is Elyosef? Please God, he’s alive!” And when Elyosef opened his eyes, his first question was, “How are my boys?” An army in which the first thoughts of the commanding officer are for the welfare of his men, and the first thoughts of the men are for the welfare of their commanding officer is bound to be successful.
3. I had been spending time teaching and lecturing in New York when I returned home to Israel for some 12 hours to pay the condolence call and visit the hospital which I just described. When I arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport, it was eerily empty; the Federal Aviation Administration had canceled all American flights to Israel. Suddenly, I heard guitar music and immediately joined some 35 men in a spirited circle of dancing. In the midst of the rockets and missiles, the sirens and scatterings for shelter, these American Jews were making aliya, immigrating to Israel.
They asked me to give them a blessing; I told them how proud I was of them, how their very presence was a blessing for me. One of them said that they all took heart from something they had read in one of my early columns: “If Israel were merely Disneyland, then you only come if there is sun and peace; but if Israel is Motherland, then when your mother needs you, that is especially when she needs you, you must be there.”
And then the spokesperson added, “And for us, Israel is now our homeland. You protect your homeland whenever necessary; you certainly don’t stay away.”
4. The day before my visits, my daughter Elana was in a Judaica shop where a mother and her young son were inquiring about large, crocheted kippot, which would cover the entire head. She explained to the store owner that her son was one of four observant boys in their Gaza army unit, and the usual small-style crocheted kippot jostled under the large army helmets and made it uncomfortable for them. The owner searched around a bit, and brought out four large kippot.
“I need 40,” smiled the mother. “But you said there were four observant soldiers in the unit, so why would you want 40 kippot?” inquired the storekeeper. The mother explained that when the other members of the unit heard her son’s request for large kippot, they inquired about the reason for wearing a kippa; her son explained that there is a verse in Psalms which avers that the Divine Presence is above each individual, and this Divine Protection is symbolized by the kippa.
All the soldiers then requested large kippot for under their helmets, claiming that they are all desirous of continued Divine Protection, especially in Gaza. The storekeeper managed to find 40 large kippot, for which he refused to take any money.
“Who is like unto Your nation, a most unique nation on earth.”