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My Gaza War Diary

May 8, 2009 | by Rabbi Ephraim Choban

The power of faith and unity on the frontlines.

Saturday night, December 27, the seventh night of Chanukah. I'm listening to the news at home that the IDF has launched a major operation. They called it "Cast Lead," from the song by Chaim Nachman Bialik known to every Israeli child, about a dreidel made of cast lead. Suddenly, a children's Chanukah song has become an army operation. "This is it. Maybe it'll put an end to the suffering in the South. It's no accident that they gave the operation this name. The courage of the Maccabees lives within us!" I think to myself.

Eight years of never-ending mortar attacks. Eight years of air-raid sirens. Eight years of destroyed streets and homes. Eight years of fear. An entire generation of children in the south born into this; all they know is a life of "red alerts" and bomb shelters. "Color Red" is the slogan over the PA system that warns you you've got 15 seconds to run to shelter. And in the midst of this "routine," people try to lead normal lives. Eight years of Israelis in the south feeling abandoned. Maybe we'll finally be able to change things.

The call isn't long in coming. At 2 AM, the phone rings. It's my unit commander. "Ephraim, it's an emergency call-up! Report to the unit first thing tomorrow morning."

"For how long?"

"Don't know, but bring enough equipment for at least a month." At 5 AM, the bus to the unit picks me up. As we head down south I think, "What's going to happen tomorrow morning? Who will look after my family? What will be with my students?"

Suddenly, all the little everyday things seem less important. We reach the base, sign for the equipment, and I quickly find myself on the way to the border leading to Gaza.

Missiles are landing not far from us. Every moment is a miracle.

Along the way, we already see signs of war. The roads are full of soldiers and tanks on their way into Gaza. In all the noise and confusion, we can't tell whether the artillery and the missiles are ours or the enemy's. Missiles are landing not far from us. Every moment is a miracle. At any moment, a missile can injure us and destroy our lives. I feel the Divine Protection watching over us.

We reach the assembly point. We check the tanks and armored vehicles, the weapons, the ammunition. And then the really hard part -- getting ourselves emotionally ready.

The first few days are pretty unclear. The operation has begun, but there still hasn't been a ground incursion. We're just "sitting on the fence" waiting for orders. There's a feeling that's hard to explain, not of fear but of questions: "What's going to happen? And when?"

When there's free time, especially before the danger starts, our thoughts race. A soldier comes up to me and seeing my religious appearance says, "I'm afraid. What's going to be? Which of us won't come back? My wife's in her ninth month and she's supposed to give birth any minute. When will I get the chance to see my son? Will I even become a father? For you, it's probably a lot easier."

"We can't allow ourselves to think this way," I answer. "We go into battle without fear. We are not alone! The entire Jewish people is here alongside us! And we're relying on them. This is how you have to think! This is how you have to speak! Think positively and things will turn out fine. This is how you go to war. We are not going to war because we seek money or honor or anything else, but only because we want our right to peace and quiet. No nation in the world could remain indifferent to what we've gone through! In a situation like this, there is no greater privilege. And because of this, there is no reason why we won't win. I promise you we'll come out of this okay, and not only that, but I'll come to your son's bris! That is our prayer."

My confidence comes from the words of Maimonides that I was raised on:


"He who fights with all his heart, without fear, with the sole intention of sanctifying God's Name, is assured that no harm will befall him and no evil will touch him. He will build for himself a lasting house in Israel, and he and his children will merit good all their days, and will be worthy of life in the World to Come" (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 7:15).


But I also have a question for him: "Why do you think it's easier for me?"

"Because you believe. You have someone to lean on," is his answer.




Calling in the Name of God

Before we go into Gaza, Hamas tries to frighten us. We're told that they have loudspeakers blaring: "Soldier, I am not afraid of you! Jewish soldier, though you have tanks and rifles, I am not afraid of you. I believe in God and I will triumph over you!"

As a believing Jew, a different thought comes to mind. It is written: "Some trust in chariots, and some in horses; but we call out in the name of the Lord our God" (Psalms 20:8). But it seems like the opposite is happening. We are calling out to God and they are calling to the same God. What is happening here?

The answer is clear. This is not a struggle based on strength, on who will be victorious, for our enemies know very well that we have a much stronger army. They are trying to break our spirit. This is not just a physical battle; it's a battle of beliefs. Which will be the faith that triumphs? Will it be the God of Mohammed or the God of Israel?

This is a profound test. They know what they're fighting for. They want the Land of Israel, Jerusalem, al-Aqsa. Do we truly know what we're fighting for?

This battle is intended to strengthen our belief that "God will not cast off His people, nor will He forsake His heritage" (Psalms 94:14). The home front has got to be strong! The entire Jewish people must say without hesitation: We are here! We have returned to our land, and we will never be thwarted again! I feel all the words of the prophets, every verse. All the things that I believe in live within me. History is happening through me. It not my private fight but that of all the Jewish people, who are the bearers of truth in a world searching for peace without terror.

Saturday night, January 3, one week later. The order has come; we are going in. Long lines of soldiers, tanks, and armored vehicles wait at the entry point. I stand there marveling at this strength, this courage, this spirit. Everything takes on special meaning. No longer are we a weakened body living in Exile, a small child beaten by the neighborhood bully. We have stepped out of exile and into redemption. We are a people standing on its own two feet.

We no longer feel the bitter cold, just the courage and the power of the moment.

We no longer feel the bitter cold, just the courage and the power of the moment. We climb onto the tank and proudly hang the Israeli flag up high -- this symbol that only a few know is based on the colors of the tallit. A soldier walks among the tanks and gives out small pages with a special prayer said before going into battle. We grab a quick moment before everything begins to say the prayer. I say these words with special feeling: "May God...grant us the merit of triumphing over our enemies and putting them in their place. May the power and courage of Israel be exalted, and may we fulfill the verse: ‘And all the peoples of the earth will see that the name of the Lord is upon you, and they will stand in awe of you.'"




We go in. Three years earlier, I was in this same place, on these same sands, under these same trees. I had come to visit a friend. Since then, the prophesies of doom have come true. Instead of a battleground turned into thriving fields, the opposite has happened.

I serve in a rescue unit that extricates tanks that have been hit. The night is very dark. A tank has become stuck en route and we are laboring to get it out. Every report of a tank that is hit makes my heart stop for a moment. We haven't finished yet and a report comes in of another tank that needs to be pulled out. We continue till we've completed our mission.

Thank God, there's been no report of casualties so far. We're not allowed to go outside because of the shooting. We even have to go to the bathroom inside the tank, in a bottle or a bag that gets thrown out. We find the time to grab a little sleep sitting up inside the tank.

Morning comes and a sliver of light makes its way in through the opening. It's time to say the morning Shema prayer. I ask the commander for permission to take off my helmet inside the tank for a few minutes to put on tefillin. We say the prayers sitting down, inside the tank of course. Although we have to say them quickly, the prayers are very powerful. Every word takes on new meaning.

We finish praying and suddenly hear shooting in our direction. They miss our tank; we don't get hit. The tank that we had come to rescue fires back to the best of its ability. After an exchange of fire that lasts several minutes, the other tank commander notifies us over the radio that the enemy has been eliminated. We continue the rescue mission and manage to pull out the tank and all its crew alive and well. I have the feeling that I've contributed to the war on two fronts: in battle and in prayer.

The army endangered the lives of its own soldiers to keep innocent Gazans safe -- something that no other army in the world would have been prepared to do.

So it goes for the next few days. From time to time, we get reports over the tank radio of casualties and of the progress of our forces. The army had prepared us for a much higher number of casualties. They had told us we'd be rescuing crippled tanks non-stop. Thank God, the number of wounded is miraculously much smaller than anticipated.

During the war, we heard of many protests around the world. It's not clear to me why. Under combat, our moral code as fighters was evident to all. Throughout the fighting, the IDF did everything possible to protect the innocent. The army endangered the lives of its own soldiers to keep innocent Gazans safe -- something that no other army in the world would have been prepared to do.




Leadership and Responsibility

We went in, we came out. We've rescued several tanks, and performed our duties well. Now another force is brought in to help us. And the question comes up: What missions should we take? Now that there is a new force, should they handle all the work? Should we try, very discreetly, to ask for the less dangerous missions?

A fierce argument breaks out among the crew. Some of them decide that they've done their part, they've had enough. Other soldiers, full of faith, filled with a sense of personal and collective responsibility, ask to go out again and help in any way they can.

One of the basic principles that we teach at Aish HaTorah is not to ask 'why me,' but 'why not me.'

One of the basic principles that we teach at Aish HaTorah is not to ask 'why me,' but 'why not me.' This is the power of mutual responsibility. The power of leadership. In my eyes, this is the courage that is demanded of us. To do the job not just so we can check it off our to-do list, but to help and contribute the most that we can. Those who go in again and again, despite the fact that they could go home and be in a safe place, they are true heroes.

The Power of Faith

During the fighting, a friend and a student of mine are wounded, one of them seriously. The other one suffers "light wounds" -- which means that we're praying he'll regain the use of his arm. This remark -- that it's easier for me because I believe -- stays with me all the time. Maybe it's true of the sense of certainty when going into battle, but the believing Jew still has many difficulties. When he confronts the wounded, the dead, the pain of the families whose boys were killed, it's hard for him, just as it is for everyone. But his faith still strengthens him, and his belief in the justness of this war is not shaken.

Faith has the power to give strength. Faith has the power to give a different way of looking at reality. Faith had the power to take the people of Israel out of Egypt and carry them through the desert, from darkness into light. Faith has the power to give us hope even in hard times. People who believe do not despair! Hardship does not break them but motivates them to fight to rid the world of evil.

Only with great faith will we recognize -- and will the world acknowledge -- the justness of our path and our right to the Land of Israel.

"The power of His deeds He has declared to His people, in giving them the heritage of the nations" (Psalms 111:6). It is the Jewish people who must recognize the power of God's deeds. It is they who must recognize our right to the Land. And the moment that we know this, all the nations of the world will grant us our rightful place in our inheritance. They will understand that it is not dominance that we seek. We are nation charged with the mission to bring light to the nations of the world. We are a nation that leads and takes responsibility, that seeks to give and to help others.





The day of our discharge arrives. Our feelings are mixed. On the one hand, it's good to return home from the front. But on the other, we know that the job isn't finished. We're prepared to do it again whenever we are called.

I feel that I want to thank God for the privilege I was granted. And I am certain that I am giving voice to thousands who feel as I do. I want to thank God that my comrades and I came home safe from the war and that we finished the war with a resounding victory. I want to thank God for the fact that the home front stood strong and united, and thanks to this, we were victorious. Despite all the hardships there, I have no doubt that it would have been harder for me to sit idle and not take part, with God's help, in aiding our heroes.

I also want to offer thanks for the public support that emerged in so many places around the world; from Mexico to England, people demonstrated in the streets on behalf of Israel. This support gave us great strength to carry on despite all the difficulties.

Unity brought us victory -- and so it will forever more! May the merit of these words bring healing to the wounded soldiers and success to the people of Israel.



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