Friday, April 25, 2008

Shades of Friendship

On a long drive back from the border of Lebanon, past the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and through the Jordan Valley to home, Elie told me about a problem he was having with one of his soldiers. And, in so doing, what he was actually describing to me, was the many shades of friendship he is experiencing and through which, once again, he is being tested.

The greatest test of all to friendship, comes in the very essence of the army's structure. Every four months, the ground shakes and the army shifts. Teams are formed and teams reassigned; teams dismantled and new teams trained. Elie has been through three shifts and is now heading towards the conclusion of his fourth.

In the first and second shift, he and many of the same young men were trained - first to be soldiers and then for the specific task or need of the army. About twelve started with Elie in his small group. Two left for various reasons. Ten went forward and completed the second round together. Bonds were formed, friendships developed and strengthened. The friendships of the first phase did not include the commanding officers. First, during this phase, the young soldiers had to learn the levels of authority.

In the second phase, having learned the discipline that was required of them, their commanding officers became more, not just images of authority, but friends as well. It is quintessential Israel - "follow me" at its best. Here too, friendships and bonds solidified. They were all in it together, moving forward, learning, being challenged.

In the third round, a few went on to be trained to command a unit, as Elie was, and many stayed behind, entering their own phase of service. Without Elie realizing the ramifications, small walls were built between his friends of the first and second round, and those with whom he went through the third period.

After the third round, Elie and the others who completed the Commanders Course were assigned - some to train others and some, as with Elie, to return and begin commanding their own group of soldiers. Elie was thrilled to find himself back with several of those who were with him in the first and second round. Only now, it was Elie's job to command them. For most, this was a gentle shift, one worth some jokes and smiles. For most, this was not a difficult transition. They would still do many things together, but this time, instead of Or telling them what to do, it was Elie. Elie had learned well, not just from the lessons he learned during the course, but also from Or as an example. Part of the Commanders Course, in fact, was conducted by Or, who explained some of the more personal challenges each commander would face. Elie was prepared to return to his unit with a new role, and most accepted this new position of authority for my son. For one, this was a source of challenge.

"You're my friend. You were with me from the beginning. I'm not going to take orders from you," he told Elie in anger.

This is a young man that had personal problems before the army, but slowly but surely, has been finding the path back, straightening out his life, and doing well. He doesn't do drugs in the army and has gotten himself out of the civil charges filed against him. When he asked Elie for permission to come back to the army late one weekend so that he could take care of personal matters, Elie called and did all that he could until he finally secured permission.

It seems, from our discussions in the past few months, that Elie senses something special in this young man and wants to help. Elie gave a personal statement or recommendation that the soldier took to court and the charges were dismissed. They share a similar past, if not a common present.

Elie's friend comes from a religious family, and yet chose to test himself and his family by leaving behind much of what he was taught - and yet, he only shares food from soldiers who are kosher and fasted on the day before the Purim holiday, and went to hear the Megillah being read. He will return one day, both Elie and this boy are sure, but not today, not quite yet. Elie gives him nothing but acceptance in this area, not judging or forcing him in any way and was surprised to find himself suddenly challenged by one he considered a friend.

What did you do when he said that to you, I asked Elie.

"I thought about it and didn't answer him. But next time, when he did something wrong, I gave him an even harder punishment."


"Because that way he saw that I was his commander and that he has to listen." There was anger in the young man's challenge and nothing would have been gained by Elie's arguing back. Elie chose his time, and his method for getting his point across.

It worked for a while, and then this week, the young man once again challenged Elie, openly and in front of the other soldiers.

What did you do?

"He's not going home for Shabbat this week."

My heart hurts for the boy. My heart hurts for his family, and my heart hurts for Elie. It's the last weekend of Passover - the Sabbath and Passover combined, doubly holy, especially special. The last time he had to punish him, he made him stay a few more hours before going home. Now, the young man missed his free time completely.

And if he doesn't listen again? All that is left, Elie tells me, is sending him to military jail for a few days for refusing an order. This will, in effect, stop his service for the period he is in jail and add on the time in jail to the end of his three years in the army. Elie wants to avoid this.

And, once again, in his anger, the boy said to Elie, "you are my friend."

And this time, Elie answered, "Yes, I'm your friend. But I'm also your Commander. Don't make me choose between them. You know what I will choose."

Yes, Elie will choose his role as a commander because he has to, because under real conditions, all depends on his ability to command and be commanded. He'll also speak to his commanding officer about his friend because, as Elie explained, "I think he wants to hurt himself more than anything else." No, not physically, but simply by making bad choices and Elie wants to help him. That, perhaps, is the deepest essence of friendship - not just to be a friend and go along, but be a friend and help when its needed.

That was one shade of friendship we discussed. The other was equally interesting and though Elie discussed it as a completely different topic, I saw immediately that it was the flip side of the coin.

Elie's position on his base is such that he is required to answer to two people: his "katzin" or officer for most daily things and a higher officer for operational issues. It's a rare chain, I believe, that gives Elie access not only to a level above him, but one above that. This other officer is very friendly and they get along very well on a personal level. On two major issues recently, Elie has had to go directly to this officer with a report, and both times, the officer backed Elie and supported his position.

Elie could easily turn to him for everything, bypassing the officer immediately above him, and yet he is careful not to do that. Elie explained to me that he would be taking advantage of his friendship, if he were to approach this officer for assistance and he would damage the friendship he has with his immediate commanding officer if he didn't give that officer the respect he has earned.

All in all, it was an interesting ride home, listening to my son explaining the shades of friendship and realizing that there are so many lessons our children learn outside the home and by bringing them home, they enrich us. Even more, they settle us. These lessons are all about what they learn in life and I see that he has learned something that many never learn. He has learned the value of a friend, both being one, and having one.

And, he has learned the value of himself. He will give respect to his commanding officers, both as commanders and as friends, and he will demand it of his men, even at the cost of friendship. As always, I am so humbled by my son, humbled by his wisdom and, though he would never think of it in these terms, his friendship too.

I am friends with my oldest daughter - have been for years. It is something that we both admit (and cherish). As Elie talks to me about his experiences, I begin to believe that we too are friends. Like Elie, this week I was challenged with one of my other children. I could have been their friend, or their parent. It was a hard decision for me, laying down the law when I so wanted to bend. I chose to be a parent, knowing it was the right decision and hoping that in the process, I wouldn't damage this friendship that was growing with another of my children.

Ultimately, I want to be friends with my kids - I want the respect I have earned as a parent, but I want the trust, the sharing, and the acceptance they would give to a friend as well. The very same week I met this challenge at home, Elie met this challenge on base. We both came back apparently that much wiser and I am, once again, so amazed and proud.

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