If we are taught in Pirkei Avot that 13 is the age of mitzvot or religious obligation (ben shalosh esrei la’mitzvot), then it seems clear from the opening verses of this week’s sedra of BaMidbar that 20 is the true age of responsibility.
“Me-ben esrim shanah vama-alah kol yotzai tzava be-Yisrael” – 20 years and older was the age designated for all able males to serve in the military protection of the then-nascent Jewish people. It is, therefore, no strange irony that in our own time the Israel Defense Forces find young Israelis – male and female, I might add – of the same age cohort, serving in the defense of their country. While it is the case that gius, the military draft, is at age 18, it is so because it is the post high school age and a time when young people have yet to develop full executive function and are still able to be molded and re-socialized by their superiors for the necessary behaviors and roles of a military force.
My own experience with a son who just last week at age 21 completed his Israeli army service is that there is something noteworthy in the Torah’s designation of age 20 and above as a time for the military draft. In fact, many of the Biblical exegetes, Rashi and Ramban included, note, “she-ein yotzai le-tzava pachot me-ben esrim shanah,” that one should not enter the military at an age younger than 20. Indeed, it has been my observation from what soldiers have shared and while spending time on my son’s base, that the real military duty and the heaviest responsibilities begin after training and the proverbial 20-plus years has proven itself to be a watermark of newfound experience and responsibility. In our own times regrettably we have seen too many 20-year-olds by necessity thrust into leadership roles they previously never would have imagined for their lives. And we see too many in the 20-year-old range being taken from us in defense of our Jewish homeland, as part of a military draft that is not an optional but a necessary part of maturation in Israeli society today.
One tradition teaches that our province in and over the Land of Israel comes at the cost of much suffering, “Eretz Yisrael niknait bi-yissurin.” And while history has proven this rabbinic maxim to be true, it is often little comfort for those who have suffered injury and the loss of loved ones, “l’ma-an kiyum ha-Medinah v’cheirutah,” in the struggle for the survival and freedom of our cherished homeland. The theological underpinnings of Jewish suffering throughout the ages, and in our own times during the Shoah, present untold challenges to faith. One cannot explain “why bad things happen to good people.” Instead we are challenged to consider our responses to hurt and harm, loss and tragedy, namely what we are still able to do when suffering is visited upon those who least deserve it.
The cost of this necessary devotion and commitment to our land through military service was brought into even larger focus for me of late during our son Yoni’s last week of service in the Israeli army, when his battalion lost a soldier during an operation to quell a riot in Bir Zeit, a Palestinian university town in the west bank. Every loss of a life is the loss of a world, and of human potential denied its proper realization. Every tragedy changes families permanently. But the death of Yoni’s comrade and friend, fellow Sgt. Noam Adin Rechter Levy, revealed a deeper awareness of the precarious state that so many parents are prepared to accept for their children in Israel’s ongoing War of Independence.
He was like our son: with dual citizenship from having both Canadian and American parents, and the son of a rabbi who received his smicha at RIETS when I did. Rabbi David and Sharon Levy started out in Wichita, Kan., when my wife, Berni, and I began in the pulpit in Portland, Maine. In fact, an article about where new rabbis are coming from featuring the stories of two small town boys, David Levy from Morgantown, W. Va., and Larry Zierler from Sarnia, Ontario, unlikely candidates for the Orthodox rabbinate, was carried in different Jewish papers back in 1985. And how likely was it then that our two boys, the same age, Noam about to turn 21 and Yoni already there, both “me-ben esrim shanah vama-alah” and ultimately of the same military rank and unit, would fight side by side and pose together for a picture, arms around each other, only hours before they took on the assignment that would be Noam’s last in life and Yoni’s final one in uniform?
To speak to Noam’s mother and hear her speak of the gift that was – and that she hopes still can be in some ways from the beauty that survives in memories of one who was so generous and giving with his few yet fruitful years – is to learn of a kind of hope that comes from the deepest part of the heart and reaches to the highest heavens. While ever so thankful for our Yoni’s safe return, his shichrur, release, from his almost two years of military service will always be cast under a dark cloud of loss that is so near and dear to him. It is a pain that I can only appreciate but never fully understand.
What challenges me so is the asymmetrical nature of Jewish suffering and the price the world continues to exact from us through their silence and acquiescence to the face and force of terror. Indeed, I live with an awareness that “according to the effort is the reward.” I see myself as a person of great faith but I cannot subdue the gnawing questions that come from these interminable losses. As proud as I am of our son’s military service and of a maturity that belies his young years, I am pained by what we must do to survive in our God-given homeland. Noam was a senior ranking medic with the Duchifat infantry battalion, who weeks earlier tended to the medical needs of a wounded Palestinian found ba-shetach, in the field, as was his military duty and moral obligation.
I submit that the task at hand, as we consider the biblical military narrative and that which we know of today and have had to pay dearly for, is not only to better love and realize the potential that is always present in every life, but also to better appreciate the dedication and sacrifice of these brave hayalim, who fight for life and not death. The picture of Noam that was carried by the media shows him all smiles. He never lost his warmth even amid the cold realties of a war we have not asked for.
May the spirit of his life lead our community, near and afar, to a greater embrace of the harmony we can and must first create among our own, if we are ever to believe that it might be possible with others. I pray that one day we might see the aforementioned tradition of having to suffer and pay such a high price for our claim to Israel turned on its head. And I must believe that God waits for the same.