…We Promise To Be The Shield Of The Jewish People And Its Nation Israel… [Parshat Tazria-Metzora By Rabbi Zalman Lent]

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This Monday is Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s annual Remembrance Day for fallen soldiers and victims of terror.

On the evening before, and on the morning of Yom Hazikaron, a siren is sounded, during which the entire country comes to a silent standstill. Even on the busy motorways and roads all traffic stops until the siren ends, and the frenzy of daily life in Israel pauses momentarily, a silent and moving national tribute to those whose lives were lost defending our people; to those whose lives were cut short, dreams unfulfilled, leaving behind just memory and inspiration.

For much of the history of the Jewish people, soldiers and terror have been two sides of the same coin. Whether at Nazi gunpoint, at the tip of a Crusader spear or Roman gladius, or at the mercy of an inquisitor’s strappado the Jew learned very quickly that power and justice were rare bedfellows. It is a sad indictment of mankind that given a weapon and the power to wield it freely, the most sane and rational of individuals is capable of causing great pain and suffering to those he controls. In virtually every case of battle and invasion throughout world history, soldiers have gone beyond the battlefield and committed acts of atrocity and violence against innocent civilians caught up in the conflict.

In the book of Deuteronomy, G-d gave clear instructions to the Jewish people that although going to war was sometimes necessary, and even obligatory, this did not suspend their moral code or their adherence to Torah law: “When you go forth against your enemies and are in camp, then you shall keep yourself from every evil thing (Deut. 23:10).” Our Sages understand this to be a warning against impurity, immorality, idolatry, (unnecessary) bloodshed, and slander. Yes, war by definition means having to take the lives of those who wish to kill you, but that is still done within a strict moral code.  Abandon that moral code and you lose your Divine protection: “Therefore your camp must be holy, that He may not see anything indecent among you, and turn away from you (Deut. 23:15).

In modern Israel, this is a moral quandary the military frequently find themselves in: How to defend the land, deter terror and violence, whilst upholding a high moral code. When rockets are fired from schools and playgrounds, how do you respond? When young children are used as shields by snipers, or when teenagers throw concrete blocks through windshields of cars carrying women and children, how do you respond? When ambulances are used for transporting fighters, and when patients being treated in Israeli hospitals hide explosives under their clothes, how do you respond?

On a Birthright Israel tour a few years ago, our group was assigned a gentle giant of a security guard, an ex-soldier named Yoav. I asked Yoav what the most difficult part of his service was, and he replied almost without hesitating. He told me of the time he had a rifle pointed at him by a young child of about ten years old. A man, presumably the child’s father, was instructing the child how to aim and fire at the soldiers, knowing full well that they would not fire back at a young child. They didn’t, but they lived with a constant fear that one day they would be forced to take the life of a child, simply to save their own. What harder decision can a soldier make?

In the media we see, hear and read often about abuses allegedly committed by the IDF, and of course there are rotten apples in every barrel, who act in unethical ways. Across the board however, the Israeli military holds its soldiers to the highest possible codes of ethics and discipline, and enforces these rigorously.

Colonel Richard Kemp CBE was Commander of British Forces in Afghanistan and served in the British Army from 1977 to 2005. He completed 14 operational tours of duty around the globe including the Gulf War, the Iraq War, Bosnia, Macedonia and Northern Ireland. During the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead in 2009 he testified in front of the UNHRC that, “During Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli Defence Forces did more to safeguard the rights of civilians in the combat zone than any other army in the history of warfare.”

Where once soldiers brought dread and terror upon Jewish populations, they now bring peace and protection. In the streets of Israel as you look at the faces of the young men and women in uniform, you know that although they would rather be studying in university or partying with friends, they are proud to do what they do, to protect and defend and to keep the land of Israel safe for all its citizens, Jew, Arab or Christian alike.

In September of 2003 an Israeli Air Force delegation was in Poland to honour the Polish Air Force. Before they left, they asked permission to fly over the now silent barracks and gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau. In the fighter jets they carried a list of names of those who were murdered there exactly sixty years prior, on September 4th 1943 — 661 Jews from Drancy, France.

The formation of three F-15 Eagles was led by Brigadier General Amir Eshel, himself the son of Holocaust survivors. As they flew above the camp, Eshel broadcast the following poignant words to an IDF ceremony taking place below: “We pilots of the Air Force, flying in the skies above the camp of horrors, arose from the ashes of the millions of victims and shoulder their silent cries, salute their courage and promise to be the shield of the Jewish people and its nation Israel.”

Let us pray that this year is the last year we will see fresh graves dug on Mt Herzl in Jerusalem, and the first year of concrete and lasting peace for all of humanity. Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Zalman Lent

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Rabbi Zalman Lent is a Community Rabbi in Dublin and director of Chabad of Ireland.


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