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War and God

May 9, 2009 | by

An award-winning Israeli book that recounts a rabbi's experiences in the Yom Kippur war strikes a chord in both secular and religious society.

It was Yom Kippur and 21-year-old Haim Sabato awoke with a smile. Though it was a somber day, he loved the idea of separating the body from the material world of food, drink, work, and recreation, so that all his intentions could be focused on the spiritual. Every year on that day he asked himself how he could pray with more focus, and how to better serve God, family, and community.

Such thoughts were the only ones he allowed himself as he made his way from his Jerusalem home to the synagogue for the holy day prayers.

Within hours of hearing about the Syrian buildup, he would be inside a tank on the front line under heavy assault.

But soon after reaching the main street, he was distracted. He couldn't help but notice the occasional traffic, on a day when even the most secular don't drive. The usual silence was punctured by the back and forth whoosh of army vehicles below and the buzz of helicopters above.

Inside the synagogue, there was also an atypical stir. Quiet whispers around the room confirmed his fears. "They called up my neighbor to Intelligence," he heard from one corner.

He turned his attention back to spiritual matters, the fervor of his prayers rising. At 2 p.m., a piercing siren echoed across the city and he trembled. After a momentary lull, he and the others turned back and prayed even harder. When the congregation finished the afternoon prayers shortly after, he raced home to await his orders.

It was 1973 and the fervently religious Sabato was dreaming of becoming a rabbi. But when the siren went off, and he discovered that Israel was faced by Syrian tanks in the north and Egyptian forces in the south, he knew that he would be among the first called up to duty.

A member of the national religious community, he had served in the army and was now in the reserve corps of a tank unit guarding the northern border in the Golan.

Within hours of hearing about the Syrian buildup, he would be inside a tank on the front line under heavy assault. Within days, most of the tanks in his unit would become disabled and many of his friends and comrades would be dead, including Dov, his closest friend since childhood.

But despite tragedy after tragedy in the first days of the war, and his first taste of despair, Sabato couldn't let his attention slip. As a tank gunner, surrounded by an advancing Syrian army, lives depended on him keeping his eye on the periscope for accurate shooting. And as a faithful Jew, he was also determined to keep his eye toward God and spirituality.

The juxtaposition of these seemingly unlikely acts of faith and the drama that surrounded them would shape Sabato in the decades to come, as a rabbi, as an author, as a man.

Now, nearly 30 years later, Sabato has told his story in Adjusting Sights (Toby Press, 2003, translated by Hillel Halkin), a first-person account of a yeshiva scholar in battle, in friendship, in prayer.

Released last year in Hebrew, Tiyum Kavanot, the book -- part diary in retrospect, part recreated narrative -- captured the attention of Israeli critics and won two Israeli literary awards, the Sapir and Sadeh prizes. Scholars also lauded the book for its lyricism, reminiscent of S.Y. Agnon.

Prof. Avi Amzalleg, a scholar of musicology and literature at University of Haifa and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, who has read the book at least three times to date, calls Sabato "the Agnon of Sephardim," and "one of the best writers of this generation."

"Many authors today don't relate the Israeli experience in a language that comes from a place of Jewish roots," he says. "This book interests me because of its depth, because it's the language of the Mishna, because it reminds me of the ideology of Jewish Spain and the idioms of Sephardic Jews, and because it describes the modern Israeli experience using the ancient Mishnaic language."

Indeed, Agnon was one of Sabato's influences, along with such authors as Anton Chekhov and Moli`ere. "Not simply for the stories, but for capturing the nuances," Sabato says.

But most of all, he was influenced by the language of the Torah, Talmud, and such Jewish writers of the Middle Ages as Maimonides, Yehuda Halevi, Ibn Ezra, Ibn Gvirol, and Shmuel Hanagid.

Born in Cairo to a long line of chief rabbis from Aleppo, Syria, Sabato grew up in a world steeped in traditional Judaism, literature, and color. His grandfather regularly quoted Maimonides, and his mother regularly quoted European literature. Sabato studied language, literature, and Western civilization in the French Lycee, and also had a traditional Jewish upbringing in Torah, Talmud, and Jewish literature and philosophy.

In Cairo, and in Jerusalem's immigrant Beit Mazmil neighborhood where the family settled in 1957 after being forced to leave Egypt, Sabato says they always lived "like a bubble in soda."

In the language of poetic metaphors not uncommon to the rabbi, Sabato says his family always floated above the poverty and problems of the neighborhoods where it lived, by living in the world of ideas and storytelling.

"It's not mysticism," he says. "But one picture or gesture is enough for me to tell you a story. It just comes out of me, and sometimes the story turns out to be true. I can see a man open a can of sardines and before me I can see his loneliness and at the same time his love of the world."

Sabato relied on such powers when he turned to his own story for the first time, nearly 30 years after the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War.

He never kept a diary, and spoke rarely of the war afterwards, but found that it continued living on in him, both feeding and ravaging his spirit. He not only remembered the stories of what happened to him, but also couldn't stop seeing the men around him, religious and secular, whose stories nobody knew.

Like a volcano, the words and memories poured out of him. "My wife was afraid for me; I was reliving the war."

Most of the time he tucked his memories away, and focused on the new life he had built with his wife and children and as a founder and leader of the Birkat Moshe Hesder, a leadership training yeshiva for adults.

But one day, more than two years ago, Sabato couldn't sleep. In the rare moments when he had free time away from his work and studies, he loved to sit down at the computer and write essays. And so he made his way to the computer thinking he would write about spiritual matters.

But "like a volcano," he says, the words and memories poured out of him over the next few days. "My wife was afraid for me; I was reliving the war."

Though Sabato realized that he needed to write about the war, he didn't set out to write a war story, he says. "I wanted to write a story about courage, friendship, prayers, and faith."

He sat down and in a few days of crying and trembling, and with nearly no revisions, his story came to life.

Soon after its Hebrew publication in 2002, Sabato found it had struck not only a literary chord. Before long, the author's mailbox was stuffed with letters from all sorts of Israelis.

Religious scholars and students were moved by it as a piece of Jewish and Israeli literature that functioned neither as a traditional religious text nor as a profanity of sacred ideas.

"Because of modesty issues a religious person is extremely limited in what he can read," says Sabato, who explains he does not, on principle, write about politics or relations between men and women. "You will not find one unclean word."

For Sabato, purity also relates to judgment. "I am not a prophet or a great rabbi; every person must question themselves [not others]."

But Sabato's philosophy and language reached beyond the religious sector. Secular readers were startled by the opportunity to see life through the eyes of a religious Israeli, one who had shared their war experience, but who also described religious matters in a way that did not threaten them.

In battle, he showed his secular comrades offering him encouragement and even sometimes turning to him. "Gidi had shouted, 'Gunner Pray! We are taking fire!' I prayed. There wasn't a hair's breath then between my heart and my lips. I had never prayed like that before "

When trying to make sense of the gestures of prayer at such times, Sabato tells of a sage who said, "A man should always consider both himself and the entire world half-sinful and half-just, so that even a single commandment can tilt the balance."

Beyond stories and explanation of prayer under duress, the book is littered with references and allusions to Torah, Talmud, and legend, uncommon in the canon of Israeli war literature.

Eliezer Devere, 22, who just finished the last leg of his tour in the same tank unit in which Sabato served, says the book made him understand religious soldiers better.

"When you see perspectives on wars you usually see an idealistic Zionistic perspective and I never saw this perspective before -- how does a yeshiva student, a religious guy, deal with army, with war?" he says.

"Mainstream society is afraid of 'the other,' but in the army you realize that all the soldiers [of different backgrounds] are the same. War is hard for everyone; but I learned that faith is in addition [to the experiences], not instead."

Indeed, in Israeli literature the voice is usually secular.

"Not many religious writers are popular," says Sabato. "From the yeshiva it is natural to [go on and] write. It's a world of literature and Torah. But during the Enlightenment, books were blamed for people who left Judaism; books became the symbol of antagonism to religion."

This, he says, made fewer religious authors write -- making such writing less accessible, but also making religion less accessible to other Jews.

"There is something abnormal today. People who live the Torah faith can't write, and those who do write do so as a caricature, or in opposition to, or ironically -- it's never authentic."

Israeli television and theater actor Ili Gorlizky, a self-described secularist, says he was surprised by how much he was moved by Sabato's writing.

"Without thinking twice I can say this is the best Israeli book I have read in recent years. He has so much power with the Hebrew language that comes from a place of Jewish education and tradition. But he also reaches every man. I relate to him because he thinks deeply, he relates common experiences, and his words took on a philosophical dimension for me," he says.

"It's amazing because he is so religious, but he speaks my language -- he helps close the gap between the religious and the secular."

His most far-flung letter came from India, where a young Israeli woman was traveling the world in search of meaning.

"I wrote it because it was in me, not for social purposes. I didn't even plan to publish it," says Sabato. "It was only later I saw that kibbutzniks [and other secular people] were reading it, and even inviting me to speak."

His most far-flung letter came from India, where a young Israeli woman was traveling the world in search of meaning. "Until then she said she didn't believe in anything and [after reading the book] decided to come home," he says. "She had had no connection to Judaism and this was the first time she saw how Jews pray and believe. I got hundreds of letters like this, and they are still coming in."

Israeli war stories are not only usually written by the secular, but also tend to come from the top levels of society, Sabato says -- commanders and academics, not from the ordinary soldiers. "I wanted to show the courage of simple soldiers, stories that nobody wants to remember and nobody who wasn't there would believe."

He introduces readers to the soldiers who keep on going after being shot and burned, and to the human and even tender moments between the soldiers who urge each other on in the face of fear, exhaustion and injury.

In the book, as the battle is raging, Sabato reports, "I realized that this war wasn't going to be won by tanks. It would be won by people..."

Indeed, he was shocked at the time by the condition of the tank corps. While reports filed after the Yom Kippur war analyzed the failures of Israel's preparedness, not all the war documents have yet been publicly released. Sabato's account may surprise some readers, as it shows Israeli soldiers fighting the war under conditions of dysfunction and disorganization from above.

From the first day of the war, tanks were ill-equipped, breaking down, and stalling; vital tank, ammunition, and radio equipment were lacking. The soldiers were hurled into chaos the minute they arrived on the scene. From the first day on the Syrian front, Sabato describes a Golan littered with burned tanks and shot-up equipment and individual soldiers struggling to make advances despite injuries and mayhem.

He also describes an idealistic Israeli society, including soldiers away from the front, who did not understand the seriousness of the battle: An Israeli university tells a student fighting in the war that he was not allowed to postpone his exams; a soldier listening to Sabato's account of the war waves him off as shell-shocked.

Later the soldier apologizes: "I was the first person you ran into when you came down to Yiftach for another tank. You were bushed. Your eyes were bloodshot. You were smeared with soot. Your tankers' suit was filthy and shapeless and you were holding an Uzi without a strap. And while you looked sane enough, you said that your company had lost most of its tanks and the Syrians were at Nafah, knocking out our armor and shooting down our planes with missiles. You didn't stop talking. I was on duty at the entrance to the mess hall with another man and we were grinning. We didn't believe a word you said. You didn't notice us making signs that you were shell-shocked."

Sabato says it took long hard years for Israel to realize the full extent of what really happened.

"People didn't know how much confusion there was and how much was riding on us. We felt if [the Syrians] passed us, they wouldn't be stopped. They would take Tel Aviv, Afula, and so on," he says.

After taking critical losses in the first weeks after the invasion, the remaining Israeli forces finally pushed the Syrian and Egyptian armies back. More than 2,500 Israeli soldiers were killed.

Since the war I have learned never to judge people; you never can know what happened to people in their life. I also understand now that I am truly religious.

"People are still traumatized by '73. There is not enough attention paid to battle shock."

But since finishing the book, one part of Sabato's spirit rests easier, while another part remains forever connected to the war that changed his life permanently.

"Since the war I have learned never to judge people; you never can know what happened to people in their life. I also understand now that I am truly religious," he says. "In the hardest hours when I was alone I believed, I prayed, I observed Shabbat, and it thrilled me. I also paid attention to the details of little things, from friendship to sacrifice, and this personal awareness has deeply influenced me"

Now, nearly 30 years later, Sabato still wakes every Yom Kippur with a feeling of optimism, but without the same youthful innocence he felt before the war.

"At Yom Kippur a man tries to stand before God without barriers. Since the war, I feel closer to God; the barriers are even less. In war, you are completely exposed before God."

To purchase a copy of "Adjusting Sites," click here.

This article originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post.

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