Tag Archives: Religion and Spirituality

All the Little Things: The Land

15 Oct

Almost from my first day in the Army, I got to experience Israel in new ways that I never could have expected. While some were just extensions or magnifications of earlier experiences, others brought me into arenas that were completely new. From both a religious and less-religious perspective, becoming more in touch with the land itself, continues to represent a significant part of my army service. For example, my very first base was, and still is, located in the mountains and steep hills of the upper Galilee. Although I had been to the Galilee before, never had I had the opportunity to look out over the region from a guard post, with the lights of the sacred city of Tzfat resting just a couple of hill tops to the East.

IMG_1356[1]Southern Israel. The desert, another place that I had visited before, but had never spent any significant time, save for a couple days of hiking here or there. Most of my army service has been in the Northern Negev. When I arrived there a year ago next week everything, like it is now, was burnt by months of summer sun save for a few of the hearty desert plants which are able to extract enough moisture from the morning dew to allow for their survival. Not needing any dew were the scorpions, spiders, and snakes that can be found under the infinite rocks and boulders. Before using them, we were instructed to shake out sleeping bags, shoes, socks, gloves, and anything else that might be a good hiding place for any stinging or biting desert creature. One of the many pleasures that army life provides.

Eventually the rains arrived, modest as they were, and washed out some of the bugs. There was that huge freak storm in December which brought snow to other parts of the country. Inside our tents, it also rained, for which I had much less appreciation than watching the desert attempt to absorb the fat raindrops that pelted the parched sand. Little by little, the desert began to bloom, new shoots sprouted out of the ground, and the hills surrounding our base took on a greenish hue. By the time we had our dreaded eleven consecutive days in the field in mid-January, there was green aplenty, and of course equal amounts of thick mud caked to our boots. Finally the camels had what to graze on, and some were so brazen as to approach the front gates of the base in the middle of the night, snorting, chewing, and thankfully, not spitting. They diligently mowed down large patches of the new grass. So there we were, in the middle of the night chasing camels away from the base, not sure I would have ever expected that.

Until now I have been mostly concerned with the ground, but the desert skies also provided an new opportunity. Certainly well documented is the fact that the Jewish calendar is based, at least in part, on the cycle of the Moon. And while I had gazed at the moon in the past, never have I spent a year monitoring so closely the Moon and the stars surrounding. Thanks to the army, I was also able to use those same starts as extraterrestrial landmarks for rudimentary navigation. Whether it was some of the seemingly torturous military activities or just a good opportunity, I found myself using the moon to mark the passage of time, from one month, one holiday, and even one night to the next. When my watch was taken away during the aforementioned dreaded days in the field, using the sun and moon to mark the times of day and night proved to be extremely helpful, and even comforting. I imagined what it must have been like for Jews at varying points in history to use these solar and lunar demarcations while traveling to Jerusalem before pilgrimage festivals. Furthermore, the changing of the seasons from late fall to winter, spring, summer, and back again, as indicated by the hour of sunrise and sunset continues to draw my interest. One day on guard duty, I built a rudimentary sundial to mark the passage of that guard shift,

Although it represents a relatively small fraction of my service at this point, my time in the Galilee and Golan Heights has brought new perspectives as well, even as the sun and moon remain constants. I traded the sand for rich black soil, which when wet forms an extremely squishy mud that is much more difficult to remove from my boots than that of the desert, imagine library paste with a touch of cow manure. As the rains are just now beginning, the shadows created by the high clouds are magnificent. The holes in the clouds allow the sun to break through casting bright splotches of sunlight on the top of the Hermon or surrounding hills, while leaving us in the sometimes chilly shade. Rain in one place, sun visible just a few hundred meters to the North or South. Rainbows. Hot and sometimes a little steamy during the day, windy and fairly chilly at night, the dramatic shift requires a quick donning of a fleece jacket.

I suppose that any experienced hiker has made similar observations, although the hiker is not simultaneously charged with defending the land that he or she is traversing. Perhaps, after committing all of these thoughts to writing, that is the significance of all the little things that have made up my service to this point. While I could continue almost indefinitely with anecdotes and details, I think that the point has been made. The army brought me, and continues to bring me face to face, sometimes literally, with the land that I have sworn to protect, even with all of its thorns and rocks. And there, in all the little things, lies the beauty.

A Very Army Hannukah

30 Nov
Last night of Hannukah

Last night of Hannukah (Photo credit: Len Radin)

Jewish tradition, in a number of places, wrestles with which element of Hannukah to emphasize. Was it the military victory of a small guerrilla force over a much larger and battle-hardened enemy, or the miracle of one small jug of oil that should have been enough for one day, but lasted for eight. Historically, there is more evidence for the military success, which was miraculous on its own accord, but the little jug of oil which appears in the Talmud, Shabbat 21a-b, is a more enchanting narrative that feeds the minds of children, adults, and soldiers alike.

Having completed my first five weeks of service, with the most recent week coinciding with the arrival of the first days of Hannukah, I am increasingly inclined to believe in the unfathomable military victory. In order to be successful, so many of the proverbial chips must fall correctly. From training to the battle itself, there are logistical challenges that must be overcome, the movement of personnel and equipment, fueling soldiers’ stomachs as well as their vehicles. Terrain and weather are uncontrollable variables. Maintaining a high degree of readiness while not exhausting the physical resources or mental capacities of soldiers may also be a key to eventual victory. Sometimes, as in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, a tactical mistake by the enemy turns the tide. They are not to be relied upon, but when they occur, generals must have the forethought to exploit their benefits. So while the Talmud’s account of a small jug of oil conjures up all sorts of impressive imagery, I am not necessarily willing to dismiss or diminish the Maccabees’ military feats.

On our base last Wednesday, as the sun was approaching the horizon, groups of soldiers, four, six, or eight at a time, ceased their various tasks and found their way to one of our central meeting areas. Awaiting them there were hannukiot, candles, and plastic plates topped with sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts). One-by-one the soldiers lit candles, reciting the blessings either from memory or with the help of friends. Once every soldier present had kindled the lights, song and dance erupted. Popular Hannukah songs were eventually replaced with songs of Israel and Zion. The loud male voices echoed across the desert hills, and for those few minutes we were transformed from soldiers who are entrusted with defending the land militarily, to children celebrating light, life and that small jug of oil. Perhaps the two stories can coincide after all.

חג אורים שמח