Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Israeli Domino

So much of life in Israel is determined by what happens in other areas of our lives. This is true in many areas including the army. Elie is about to begin as a commander of incoming soldiers that are typically recruited into the army by early August. But, last year, there was a teacher's strike that delayed the high school seniors from taking matriculation exams by several weeks. Those few weeks have thus delayed the army from recruiting these same high schools students and, by extension, delays Elie's group of commanders from beginning their task.

On the bright side, it has given Elie's group more time to prepare, to learn what they will need to know. More time has been spent getting them physically ready and helping them to bond as a group. This last week, there were several events of significance. First, they heard from Rina Hever, the mother of Guy Hever, an Israeli soldier who went missing more than a decade ago.

Guy's mother lives with one of the worst nightmares a mother can imagine; Guy disappeared without a trace and no word has ever been received. She is convinced he was kidnapped and is now in Syria but no ransom or negotiation requests have ever been made. Guy was in an artillery unit and so the artillery division allows her to speak to its soldiers about Guy, what happened to him, and her hope that he will come home one day. This is yet another way that the army shows that it remembers and cares, both for those in the army now, and for those who were part of it in the past. I cannot imagine the courage it takes, year after year, to come before the sons of Israel, while your heart aches for your own son.

Elie also spent part of the week at another place where he learned about two other soldiers. One was named Koby and he was a commanding officer when he was killed in action. A few weeks after Koby's death, one of his soldiers committed suicide. His family came and told Koby's mother how distraught the soldier had been and how much Koby had helped him and the others.

Koby's mother is yet another brave mother of an Israeli soldier. She listened to all that these soldiers told her, about how Koby had helped them and about what an incredible commander he had been. He understood and supported his troops in the physical and emotional challenges they faced to become soldiers.

She gathered notes on the special things he had done as a commander and now gives courses to other commanders to help teach them about the responsibility they are about to undertake. New soldiers are under pressure to learn so much in such a short period of time. Most make it and are better for the experience; and some need help. This is what Koby knew instinctively or perhaps as a result of his own training. And, this is what his mother now teaches. It is a hard time for some new soldiers - suddenly separated from their normal support system, their friends and family, they need someone to watch out for them and that is, often, the commander.

Elie and I discussed this quite a bit and he gave an example of how this is already known in the army. In the first weeks of training, after the soldiers are "dismissed," the commanders just happen to be nearby, watching and evaluating.

At one point, as a group, Elie and the others were taken out to relax. The army even gave special permission for each soldier to drink up to 1/2 a liter of beer. I found this particularly amusing because our family is notorious for simply not liking alcohol. We simply don't drink. It's a taste that we never acquired and therefore never helped our children acquire.

A few years back, at Elie's preparatory academy, Elie was made the "designated guard" because everyone else was drinking, while Elie simply wasn't interested. More often than not, wine would go bad in our house sooner than being finished and so we seldom even open a bottle. So it made me smile to think of the army giving special permission to a boy who doesn't really drink alcohol is a special treat. I asked him if he drank the beer, and he told me he did. Did you like it? I asked. Well, it wasn't bad, Elie told me, with a smile.

Finally, on Thursday, as the week drew to a close, these commanders were taking bowling - a final chance to unwind before they meet again on Sunday in the south. There, for the next two weeks, they will be put through the training that they are expected to give the incoming soldiers over the next two months. It will be a hard couple of weeks of intensive lessons, shooting exercises and more. They deserved a break, and the army recognized this and gave it to them.

Another pressure for these incoming commanders is that despite starting "late" because of the delay from the matriculation exams, Elie and the other commanders are still expected to finish on time so that they can take part in the army's next rotation. For Elie, this means continuing with these soldiers in the more advanced training, longer lessons, and since the initial weeks will take place in the desert in the summer, it will mean beginning training long before dawn when the heat sets in. The army will not cancel its restrictions for operating during intense heat, so Elie and the others will train around these requirements.

It also means, because of the delay, that we have had Elie home most weekends and will have him home until the soldiers come in, at least for the next two weeks. He came home Thursday (I met him at the bowling alley and drove him first to his grandparents house to say hello and then home for the weekend). Overall, it was an incredibly relaxing weekend with Elie joking around and simply being wonderful. He helped get things ready on Friday (helped in the shopping and cooking), helped organize, and simply be around.

As usual, Elie's younger brother got the candles ready for the lighting as the Sabbath comes in and brought the plates and glasses to the table and his youngest sister set the table. We sat down to our meal and my husband said the traditional kiddush, the blessings over the wine. Each Friday night, he also says a blessing over each child. Elie's oldest sister was not home this weekend and so Elie rose to receive the first blessing.

My husband hugged him and began the words, as his hands were placed on Elie's head. Elie is taller than his father, and bends his head low to receive his blessing. There are three blessings, actually.

The first: May God bless you and protect you.

The second: May God shine His face upon you and be gracious to you.

And the last: May God raise His face to you and place upon you peace.

It's the last one that gets to us each time and there is a slight hesitation when my husband says the word "shalom." Peace. Peace should mean safety for a soldier, just as war would mean danger. That single word covers all that we wish for Elie - safety and health - peace.

As we sat down to the meal, Elie noticed that there were different kinds of glasses on the table. This is typical with families with children, especially in Israel where the floors and counters are made of stone. There is little leeway here. A glass falls; a glass breaks. You buy a set and when that goes or is on its way out, you buy another. Eventually, you have single glasses from previous sets and while you may try to make a matching table when there are guests, this is eased when it is just family, as it was this weekend.

Elie's sister had apparently set the table, giving his father and me the "large" glasses, while Elie and the others received slightly smaller versions. Elie asked me where the large glasses had come from and I explained that they are what remains of the previous set. I went off to serve the soup and as we all sat down, Elie grinned and held up his glass and took a sip of ice tea. It took a minute until I realized that while I had been in the kitchen, he had swapped glasses with me and I now filled a smaller one without noticing.

Everyone laughed and then later, while he was in the kitchen, we poured his drink into a third cup. I poured my drink into "his" cup and then his drink back into "my" smaller cup leaving it beside his plate. Elie came back, and as he took a drink, I raised my glass and sipped my drink, grinning right back at him. All the time, I watched Elie's eyes, and knew the exact moment when he realized what I had done. It started in his eyes and by the time it stretched over his face and ended in a laugh, we were all delighted. It was so good to have him home.

It was like that all weekend. He was constantly "wrestling" with his younger sister, delighting in her shrieks and setting her down, only to have her rush right back at him for more. He got in a taffy fight with his brother - each throwing taffies at the other, and laughing when our dog actually ate one. We talked, we ate, we relaxed, we laughed. This is, ultimately, what the day is for, and it was magnificent and, in many ways, yet another result of the delay in matriculation exams, giving Elie more time at home.

It's now Saturday night. Elie's backpack is packed for his return trip tomorrow. Mostly, I'm calm and relaxed myself. For the next few months, Elie's experiences will be similar to those he had at the start of his training, but from the commander's perspective. Just as they began by making Elie run a meager half a kilometer before building up to the many kilometers he can now run, so too, he will begin with his soldiers. There are few unknowns here from my perspective. He knows how to dress so that he won't be too cold in the winter. He knows how often to drink so that he won't dehydrate. He knows how to shoot and handle a gun and now will teach others the realities and the responsibilities. He knows his rights, what the army allows and what is not allowed.

Other mothers are now counting down until their sons go into the army, worrying and trying to find comfort. They are wondering what to buy, what their sons will need, who will comfort them and befriend them. Others stand where I once stood, on the edge of change, on the edge of tomorrow.

I go back to the early pages of this blog and marvel at how far Elie has come and even more, how far I have come. I was so nervous, so unaware. The unknown stretched ahead of me and I prayed that it would all go well, that Elie would find friends and comrades, but more, that he would find those who would care for him.

He has found so much in the last year and a half or so. He has found the friends and comrades, but even more, he has found himself. And, within himself, I believe, he has discovered someone he can like and respect. He has conquered the challenges in so many ways and he has done it while retaining that special humor that is his alone. It's the humor that has him switching glasses and then watching, with that gleam in his eye, to make sure that I notice it. It's the confidence to laugh when the same trick is played back on him.

If I could tell each of those mothers of new soldiers something, it would be simply a message that your son will be so much more than he is, but still remain all that he was. I can't tell you not to worry and not to fear. That would be hypocritical because I still worry and fear. So instead, I will tell you that amidst all other emotions, don't lose out on the chance to feel pride beyond all that you have known, and honor and gratitude. Focus on each time he is home, enjoy it, celebrate it and try to have faith that all you have done to bring him to this point, will be enough to see him through it. Release him back to the army with joy, and that's how he will come back to you each week.

May God bless the incoming soldiers, the outgoing soldiers, and the soldiers like Elie who are still making their way through - may He place upon you peace.

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