To Be a Soldier

In the contemporary State of Israel, the army is not just something technical, such as the executive arms of the State. It is a part of the life of the State and its citizens. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak spoke about his desire to build a small, intelligent army – namely, to turn the IDF into a professional army. Regardless of whether or not a small professional army is indeed the proper answer for today’s challenges, it is nevertheless clear that in the current situation, as well as throughout the history of the State of Israel, our army is not a professional one. Rather, it is part and parcel of the Israeli experience.

Tonight, I wish to speak about the army, not from the military point of view, but from an educational angle. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, who never was a military man, had a special attitude toward the concept of “soldier” (hayal, in Hebrew). He both created and used a large number of military terms, including Israeli ones. For example: he would bless his Hassidim, adults and children alike, that they merit to be a HaYaL -the initials of which stand for Hassid, Yare Shamayim (=God fearing), Lamdan (Torah learner). He also created what he called “Operations,” (including “Operation Tefillin” and “Operation Shabbat Candles”) which were carried out in veritable military format, with “Operation Tanks,” and the like. He also spoke extensively about these issues. Why?

Hassidic books discuss the distinction between son and servant. In the prayers of the Days of Awe, and elsewhere, we find the phrase: “Whether like sons or like servants.” What distinguishes a son from a servant? A son does whatever he does out of great love and total devotion for his father. As such, he has many advantages. A servant, on the other hand, does not operate out of great love, but is characterized by total obedience. The relationship between son and servant, however, is not one-dimensional. It is not always the son who has the upper hand; rather, there are cases and situations in which the servant plays the main role.

And how does the concept of “soldier” fit in? On one hand, the soldier is totally obedient, 100% servant. On the other hand, he has something which the servant does not: mesirut nefesh, self-sacrifice. The soldier’s willingness to fight to his death is not part of the slave’s makeup. Rather, it embodies the very best of what the son has to offer. When the Rebbe spoke about “soldiers,” he spoke about this combination of obedience and self-sacrifice. This readiness to give one’s life out of obedience and the acceptance of the yoke.


There is one point of special significance in this regard. We are living  in Israel no less than in other places on the globe – in a world in which there is love, but there is no awe. Compared with the world of the distant past, that was largely based on awe, fear and dread, this world which is motivated by love and goodwill has an aspect that is simply beautiful. It is a world in which people do things because they want to, not because they have to. It is also a world of rights: women’s rights, children’s rights, even animal rights. However, this world does not contain terms such as awe or acceptance of the yoke. It is a world totally devoid of duties. I deal with education, both formal and informal, so I can attest that the concept of “love of God” is a concept that I seldom meet among adults, but quite a lot among youth. This is not the case, however, with the concept of “fear of Gpd.” How many of us are really afraid of Hell? “There is no fear of God in this place” (Genesis 20:11).

The Zohar says that Love and Awe are the two wings that raise both human beings and the mitzvot. No bird can fly with one wing only. A bird with a handicapped wing can fidget around, but not rise. Similarly, just as one cannot “fly” with the wing of awe only, so one cannot fly with the wing of love alone. In the world in which we live, there is a flaw in the quality of awe and fear. Not in the sense of fear of the whip, but rather in the sense of the world-view whereby one does things not because one feels like doing them, but because one has to. Israeli youth, just like their American and French counterparts, are spoiled even when their parents do not spoil them. According to Israeli law, parents are forbidden to hit their children. It is a breach of the law of the State. Even an insult to a child is liable to result in a legal suit. This is even truer for teachers. So, many children still go to school merely because they want to, but they completely lack the concept of awe, of duty, of obligation.

The Shulhan Arukh starts out as follows: When one opens one’s eyes, one recalls that one is lying before the King of the Kings of Kings ? and immediately one jumps out of bed, all ready to accept the King’s yoke. Who among us sees his own children jump out of bed like that ? be it because of the King or because of any other force? The prevailing feeling is that there is no king. Therefore, the child who wakes up will turn in bed a few more times. And if he is full of the good inclination, he will eventually get up, go to school and pray.

When does an Israeli child learn the concept of “duty”? When does he learn that he cannot get up whenever he feels like it, nor go to sleep whenever he wishes? When does he understand that there are things that are permitted ? and a whole lot of things that are forbidden? In this sense, the army gives Israelis an education that their common American and French counterparts lack. However, this concept of duty that Israelis learn in the army stems not solely from fear. It is impossible to run an army, any army, only with bayonettes on the soldiers’ backs. True, armies are largely based on discipline, on the fact that soldiers do not do what the “feel like” doing, but what they have to do. Armies are also based on hierarchy. A soldier may think that his superior is a total idiot, but he will nevertheless obey him. This is the aspect of the army as an educational entity that infuses our world with concepts it sorely misses: service, duty, command.

The most central concept of Judaism is the concept of mitzvah, commandment. The word mitzvah means, literally, an order, a command. What is it that creates the link between us and the Almighty? Is it not our overflowing love for Him? Rather the fact that we fulfill His commandments. The mitzvah, this relationship between the Giver of the command and the one who fulfills it, is the only thing that can bridge this gap, this infinite abyss that separates our world from God. This abyss can be surpassed not with love, not even with understanding, but only with deeds. We cannot speak with dogs, and therefore cannot create any instructive dialogue with them. We can give them orders. When a dog fulfills his owner’s command, it also knows that it has thereby created a true relationship with him. Similarly, we fulfill the commandments not because we understand them, but because this is the only way to create a relationship with the King.

During the month of Elul, and in the Days of Awe, we speak a lot about the King. In this sense, we ought to be grateful not only to our army, but also to the very concept of “soldier” ? who is willing to give his life, to totally obeying the command. He who has acquired the concept and essence of duty, of acceptance of the yoke. Because it is not only in the army, but also in the realm of business, as well as in many other places, that there is a world out there which does not depend upon my desire, which does not ask me whether or not I do or do not feel like doing certain things. It is a world based on the “must,” on the duty, a world in which everyone of us is required to be something of a soldier.