Monday, March 3, 2008

It's All in the Position

We went up north today to celebrate Elie's finishing the Commanders Course. It was held at the Artillery's Memorial and Museum, amid displays of Israel's older (and retired) weaponry and a series of walls with names of fallen soldiers. "These are the names of our heroes," the sign proclaims.

Someday, probably after Elie is out of the army, I'll go there and read the names of those who have fallen. For now, I simply can't bring myself to approach to closely. The wall understands, I hope.

The ceremony began. The music started and the soldiers marched in. There was Elie amid more than 160 other new commanders. When the finished marching and took their places, Elie was indeed in the second group, facing in our direction. But even more special was the fact that somehow in the positioning of the soldiers, as I looked to where Elie was standing, I saw that at the edge of the large area, where the stones meet the grass, was a flag pole with the Israeli flag flying in the wind. And there stood Elie, as if perfectly placed - with the backdrop of the flag. It was wonderful. It was magical. "Did you set this up?" I was asked as a joke.

No, I didn't set it up - it never would have occurred to me to set up such a perfect picture. Because our organization's national conference was being held the next day, two international guests had flown in to attend. I used the opportunity to show them something that most visitors probably don't get a chance to see - this military ceremony.

One of the guests had been in the US armed forces. As the ceremony progressed, there were noticeable differences. One was the way the officers and soldiers related to each other. There was so much more slaps on the arms and even hugs of affection. At one point, a soldier put his gun against his leg in order to greet his commanding officer. The gun fell to the floor, making a loud clanging noise. In the US, my guest explained, the soldier would be punished later for this.

I asked Elie about this later and he smiled. No, not in Israel.

The commanding officers moved through the ranks of soldiers, pinning the three bars to the arms of each new commander. The soldiers smiled as the officers spoke to them and congratulated them. In Elie's group, long after the other commanding officers had finished, Elie's commanding officer continued to slowly work his way through, greeting each soldier, congratulating him, and giving him both a hug and a smile. There is a warmth among brothers here.

The speaker, a high-ranking officer in charge of the artillery division, spoke of their training, of their responsibilities as commanders. He spoke of how they would lead their men into battle, but hopefully into peace. He spoke of how they had learned so much in these past few months and what they would likely be doing in the future. And finally, he thanked these young men and their families on behalf of the State of Israel. It was a very nice speech, but mostly, it was wonderful just watching the boys standing there, strong and proud, handsome in their dress uniforms.

"Did you ever call your commanding officer by his first name?" I asked my visiting friend. I must confess that I was relatively sure of the answer even before I heard that this was impossible in the US. Not in Israel. Elie greeted each of his commanding officers by name, as they greeted him. Only in the first weeks in the army are they required to maintain this level of formality.

The soldiers marched around in formation and finally reassembled on the far side of the open area for us to see. The image of Elie and the Israeli flag flying behind him remained in my mind as they positioned themselves and faced their families.

"These are the commanders," said the speaker to the cheers of the audience and then the beautiful sounds of the Israeli national anthem was heard (and sung by the soldiers). Hatikvah - The Hope - speaks of our longing to be a free nation in our land, after 2000 years, to finally come home and be here, in the land of Zion and Jerusalem.

The ceremony ended and the boys all joined their families - these are the new commanders in our army, our sons.

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