Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Will, The Wish and The Whim

There are three commanders within the tight unit where Elie is currently assigned. Each has his responsibilities, his team and equipment during the week. Just as we stop for Shabbat, the army too goes into a slightly different mode. In Jewish law, the Sabbath has many laws and restrictions. The sum total of these "restrictions" frees you to experience the full richness of the Sabbath. Without them, Shabbat would be another day.

A friend once told me, “you are so lucky, you have Shabbat.” At first, I thought that was ridiculous – Shabbat is a gift we all have but in the end, I realized she was right. By living with the restrictions, even when they are hard, we give ourselves a wonderful gift. We free ourselves from the regular and mundane, so that we can enrich our lives. It doesn't matter if we have pressing work deadlines. The lighting of the candles Friday night signals an end to our connection with that world.

We have only this one day away from all worldly pressures and we treasure it. It’s true, we don’t travel on the Sabbath. Some would think that backwards or restrictive, but we feel that we are blessed to be locked in our own world, together with our families. We don’t work. The world doesn’t intrude – not by phone, not by the Internet. For those 25 hours or so, all that we have is each other, our friends, our community, all locked within those few blocks of space around our home. We don't hear of earthquakes and war. We don't worry about bills and tests and deadlines. We simply enjoy. We rest. We relax.

In the army, those who can’t go home, still feel the difference. There’s no training on the Sabbath – nothing beyond the most important of tasks – defending the base, the area, the country. When you aren't on patrol, you are allowed to sleep, to rest. You don't have to do anything on any particular schedule. Those not needed for the weekend are usually allowed to go home. In Elie’s case, each of the three commanders takes a turn, each staying one weekend while the other two go home. So, this week, the commanders met to decide who goes, who stays, and when.

Elie really wanted next weekend off – the Shabbat at home with his family (his Hebrew birthday together), and then the holiday that follows Sunday night at his yeshiva with friends from many of the past years. He's been hoping for this weekend for weeks. One of the others immediately volunteered to stay up north. Elie was thrilled. Shabbat and Shavuot to do what he really wants. Feeling relieved, he volunteered to stay this weekend and the third commander would get the next weekend’s turn.

I got a call on Tuesday night telling me this. I accepted and adjusted. Ok, this weekend he won’t be home – his English birthday. Even after so many years in Israel, it’s hard for me not to associated the last day of May with the first day of Elie’s life. Adjust, I ordered myself. Be happy that he’s happy. Acceptance is a necessary skill a soldier's mother must learn. I'm trying and I even succeeded this week...at first.

He called me Wednesday night again - unusual the last few weeks when we've had fewer conversations, but welcome nonetheless. The commander who was supposed to take the third weekend forgot his gun somewhere on base, Elie explained. I know enough about the army already to know that this is a major issue. The gun is like your right hand, your responsibility, your solemn duty to know at all times, even in sleep, where it is.

Sure enough, their commanding officer did indeed take it seriously, but decided to use this as another lesson. “You’re a commander now," Elie told me he heard the officer say. "What punishment would you give one of your soldiers? Punish yourself.”

Elie had already figured out what would happen, and so it was no surprise, he told me, that the young man soon came over and told Elie that he was "punishing" himself by canceling his weekend leave.

And so, fortune came to Elie on the misfortune of another. Elie would come home. My heart soared; I started to plan. I bought him two games for his new PSP (one to give him now for his English birthday and one to give him next week on his Hebrew birthday), I started thinking about what kind of cake to make him – what shape, what flavor. I defrosted meat for his favorite meatballs. I was thinking of buying balloons to decorate the living room and make it feel like a party. Elie’s coming home.

Ah, but I forgot the whims of fortune and the inevitability of change in the army. The other commander, like Elie, wants so much to go home. During these months, “home” sometimes means leaving the base on Thursday and coming back on Monday. Punishment for forgetting a gun means the weekend…but the weekend in Israel for most people begins Friday and so the young man figured out that he could go home today and come back tomorrow before the Sabbath and still fulfill the exact terms of his punishment. The officer probably felt his point was taken and decided not to get involved.

The problem, however, is that with both officers leaving Thursday, Elie is alone to handle things. He can't leave until one officer comes back. If he is to come home on Friday, now that the other young man decided to go home today, Elie must wait until this commander comes back to base. That means, under the best of conditions, that Elie could only leave the Golan in the early hours of the afternoon. He would probably still get home in time for the Sabbath, but it would leave him no time to relax, no time to do anything. He would come back exhausted; sleep, and go back.

I could hear the disappointment in his voice when he called to tell me today, and the anger. “He’s being stupid,” Elie told me. "He's giving up a whole weekend at home in a few weeks for one night now!" Elie didn't feel that he should lose out on his weekend, but technically, he was only being given the "gift" of going home because the other commander was offering to cover for Elie, since he would be there anyway.

“What can you do?” I asked Elie, already beginning to resign myself to his being home for such a short period of time. I offered to drive up north to get him – it still wasn’t really enough and so Elie decided that he would stay on base.

This is the Shabbat I volunteered for, he explained and so it is my Shabbat “on.” Elie explained that under the agreed upon dates, Elie would get off next weekend as planned and the one after that as well, when this commander who chose the third week was required to stay. If he’d agreed to let Elie go home for the whole weekend, this weekend would be both a punishment and a Shabbat on duty for him. Everyone would get the same amount of days off, only the order was switched. By choosing to take this Thursday for himself, this commander was making the weekend exchange unbalanced. What can you do, I asked Elie again.

Elie decided that it wasn't worth losing a long weekend for one day and two nights at home. If Elie stays on base, he is the commander in charge and the other commander's stay becomes only a punishment. In a few weeks, when the next turn to go home comes around, that commander will stay on base, and Elie will come home. "It's really silly," Elie said. A waste, really. To have two commanders up there for now reason.

But it's also not fair that if Elie comes home, he would get a shortened vacation and then be required to take the third Shabbat. All in all, both boys lose out. Elie loses out because he was set psychologically to come home and because it means he’ll be spending his English birthday there; the other commander loses out because he’ll be home one night and then have to take his full turn in a few weeks.

In the long run, it means Elie will be home for a greater period of time (two full weekends and the extra day of the holiday). In the short term, it means the roller coaster of emotions – his surprise at being allowed to come home and his disappointment at having it fall through at the last minute, caught us off guard again.

It’s a lesson we have to keep learning – nothing is final in the army until you walk through the door. The hard part for me this time, is not that this one only caught me, but that it seems to have caught Elie too. His voice betrayed first his happiness at being given the holiday weekend next week and his acceptance that he would be on base this weekend. Then the added happiness that he'd be home this weekend too, and then his frustration at having it taken away.

So, as Thursday ends and Friday approaches, I won’t be baking a birthday cake to celebrate Elie’s 21st birthday and I won’t have a chance to look at him at the exact moment of his birth and marvel at all he has become. But what I will do, and this has taken me quite a journey to get to, is accept that we’ll have his Hebrew birthday, that he'll be home next weekend, and that this lesson too is one he will carry with him. The ability to adjust to changing circumstances, to accept and adapt, is something that is so very important. I know too many people who can't adjust themselves and their surroundings to life's shifting realities. It's good, despite the disappointments along the way, that Elie is learning this lesson young. Sometimes, no matter what you will, no matter what you wish, the whims of fortune don't deliver. Who you are, is often summed up in how you handle that reality

We won't be with you on your birthday, at least not according to the solar calender, so I'll wish you health and happiness, safety and love. May you live to 120 and may each day of that long life be full of health and only good things and may you always know, deep in your heart, how much we love you, how proud we are, and how much we are always with you, even when we aren't together.

יום הולדת שמח, Elie - happy birthday.

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