After the first three months in the army, most combat units have successfully completed the first level of basic training. They've mastered, for the most part, the concept of discipline, of using a gun, of being...well, a soldier. In those first three months, the boy that entered moves so much closer to the man that will, God willing, exit some three years later.
To mark this moment when the boy becomes a soldier, trusted by the army - one of them, there is a ceremony. It is called the Swearing-In Ceremony, in that this is when the soldiers make their commitment to serve and defend the State of Israel. It's an incredible concept, really.
First, they receive two symbols of Israel: they are given a Bible, and they are given a gun. Really, they've had the gun for many weeks already, but this is the formal handing over of a concept and a reality. From this moment, the gun really becomes theirs; the responsibility to know where it is at all times, to use it only as trained.
Second, they are given the "oath," if you will. This too is a beautiful concept. They weren't asked to swear an oath when they entered the army but rather now, three months after they have already worked so hard, changed so much. This too, is a very Israeli concept. Come, learn what we are asking you. Understand this is not a picnic. You will be taught to use a gun...and God help you, you may well have to use it. If you are in artillery, you will be taught to shoot large missiles at accurate targets far in the distance. Paratrooper? You will be taught to jump from planes and land in far off places, there to fight for Israel. Navy? You will patrol our borders. Air force? Our skies.
No matter where you are going...you now have a taste, after three months, of how you will be treated, of what will be expected of you. So understand...and then swear. It is actually the opposite of what the children of Israel answered to God thousands of years ago.
Then, we said, "We will do...and we will hear." We will commit ourselves to you...now tell us what we have committed ourselves too. Here, Israel says to them...this is what you will do, now let us hear the commitment to follow.
The army of Israel has an amazing concept - it's summed up in two words, "Follow me." Follow me, says the commander - always I will lead you. I will not send you where I will not go. Follow me. Elie has learned to lead and that means he goes on operations, and others follow him. Where once he followed others, now others follow him.
I missed Elie's "Swearing-In" ceremony. There were things going on in the country...I don't even remember what. They took the boys to the top of a mountain and had the ceremony there, there without the parents. I have no pictures...none that I can post or show...and yet in my mind I can see the desert, the sun, the soldiers of Israel.
A few weeks ago, a lone soldier's mother contacted me. She was flying in to Israel to attend her son's Swearing-In ceremony at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. I unashamedly (is that a word?) invited myself and yesterday stood and watched as her son and so many others stood.
I did my best to translate and sometimes wanted to cry from the beauty of the words. Sometimes didn't want to translate. They were speeches of pride that would break a mother's heart.
Commanders, the officer said as he addressed not the new soldiers who stood before him, but the commanders who had brought them thus far...Commanders, he said, we are trusting you with these fighters, they are children of ours. Take care of them, guide them, teach them.
He thanked the parents for trusting them with their children, their precious sons. And he thanked the families of those who have lost sons, forever bereaved. They began the ceremony with another officer speaking of those we will not forget. Those who fell in the War of Independence in 1948, the 1956 war, the Six Day War in 1967, the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the Lebanon War in 1982, and the Second Lebanon War and the most recent Gaza War...and all the operations in between and with honor and pride, he welcomed these soldiers into the Paratroopers Division.
There were many people watching the ceremony; the rooftops overlooking the Western Wall Plaza were overflowing. This young man's mother had traveled across an ocean...and amazingly enough, we found ourselves standing next to the mother of another soldier - she too had traveled across the world to see her son pledge his service to Israel.
I found myself standing there - three women from America whose sons serve the army of Israel. The emotions we felt were the same - the pride, the joy, the worry...and I felt so lucky to be the one living here. In the next few days, they return to their "home" and leave their sons here, far away. Later that evening, I would returned home to my family, my soldier son already in the house.
After the ceremony, I took my leave as I watched families gather around their sons. An hour later, having driven home and seen my youngest go off to sleep, I surfed the Internet to a favorite site of mine. It's a simple site with much information but more, it has three webcams showing live picture of the Western Wall...24 hours a day. There, an hour after I had left, I saw the plaza was still full of families enjoying these special moments with their sons, our soldiers.
When the lone soldier's mother wrote to me and told me that she was coming but that her husband would have to remain in the States and was sad he would miss the event, I told her about this site (http://www.thekotel.org/). Her husband went there and watched in disbelief. Yes, he could now watch his son's Swearing-In ceremony live.
In the end, however, it wasn't necessary. The State of Israel - in recognition of his son's promise; in thanks for the motivation and dedication his son has already shown to his new home, paid to fly him to Jerusalem, to be there with his wife as they watched their son, live and in person, receive the symbols of Israel, the Bible and the gun.
I left them, happy to know I had made new friends; touched to have watched such a beautiful ceremony, and feeling a bit compensated for missing Elie's Swearing-In ceremony.
Shabbat shalom to this wonderful family, to their son who has made such a promise to my homeland...and his. Shabbat shalom to Elie, who happily joins us this week, and to all of Israel...here in this land and around the world.
May it come in peace and may we all be blessed with the beauty of this special gift God has given to us all.