The waiting goes on and on…
It is quiet enough in Shilo, except for the nearly constant gunfire throughout the day. The shooting is from friendlies though - a nearby army base which seems to be training infantry in marksmanship. It’s comforting to have a local unit with an obviously well-stocked armory and plentiful ammunition. But the sound of gunfire through out the day can be a bit much, in these uncertain times. It’s sometimes hard to tell whether the gunfire is coming from the army base or some other direction.
As instructed by the local security authorities, I carry my gun all day long from the moment I dress for shul in the predawn darkness to when I slip it into the safe before I go to bed. I’m not drafted, nor has the community issued me a rifle, nor do I particularly want one. The gun I have is small enough where I can put it in my pocket and not feel like it is going to pull my pants down. I won’t forget and leave it someplace. The best gun, I’ve been told, is the gun you take with you. This is the gun I take with me.
There are concerns that Palestinians from surrounding villages might try to attack our community. The threat could be a single terrorist trying to carry out an attack, or a large group attack like near Gaza. There is not a lot of army in our area, so we are mostly responsible for our own security. We have a well-trained reaction squad that has members on call 24/7, and many other men have been drafted to check cars coming in the front gate or manning observation posts. My 66 year-old neighbor was drafted (I think he really wanted to be). Me and my little pistol, we do guard duty as volunteers.
Lev got a 24-hour furlough on Monday, and came back home. I discouraged my wife from calling him: he most needed family time and not parent time. But he came by anyways, and it was a joy to see him. He talked a bit about the training and drills they were doing, but you could tell that he was avoiding detail. He is infantry, and though he is in reserves and not active duty, he may well see action in Gaza.
In his real army days, he was an outstanding soldier and chosen to be in a special operational unit. Not long after, his commander called me.
“Lev is fine,” he said, “Really. I just want to come and talk with you.” After being reassured an additional time that our son was not hurt, we set a time.
It was a strange meeting. He sat with us on the patio for a short time, but he didn’t want so much to talk about Lev. Or really, about anything. After a few minutes, he asked if he could see our house. It was an unusual request, but we waited as he went through the house. He found Lev’s room and sat there on the bed for a while, looking at the posters on the wall, the books on the shelves, the pictures.
When he came out he explained. “Look, I’ll be honest with you. Your son is in a unit that does things, sometimes dangerous things. I’m his commander, and I give the orders. But it is important for me, when I order him on a mission, to know that I'm not asking Private #7782992 to carry this out, but Lev Spero, who has posters on his wall, books on his shelf, parents and brothers and sisters.”
I’m proud of all my children and what they are doing for the State of Israel. I worry more about Lev, because he is in infantry and may well meet the enemy face to face. But I trust he is well-trained and I trust his commanding officer. I trust the other soldiers in his unit that love him and will protect him, just as he loves and will protect them. I pray to Hashem that by the merit of the prayers of my family and friends, of my students and his wife and children, that he will do his best to defend our country from our enemies and that he will return quickly and safely to us, his family and community.
You know, for all its warts it is still not hard at all to love living here. Interesting, unusual, connected….
A couple of nights ago, my neighbor across the street WhatsApp-ed me and asked if I would accompany him on a night patrol. So you have to understand, this is not in a security vehicle, not really professional, but a guy (nearing 80 maybe) who is going out in his Ranger to do a security check just because he loves this place and feels a personal responsibility for doing what he can, with very little regard for comfort or (when you get right down to it) personal security.
He was, back in the day (that day being in the early ’80’s), a member of the Jewish Underground, which sounds like an organization but was mostly a few people here and there who believed that most of the Arabs in Yehuda and Shomron were ok with Jews living on the abandoned hilltops, but who were driven to acts of violence by political leaders who were funded and supported by the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization - if you are not familiar with it, look it up). These radicals took it upon themselves to attack the political leaders of a few Arab cities who were particularly vociferous and extreme. He was eventually arrested and spent some time in jail, but he was also at some point pardoned and he resumed his ”normal” life. He’s not a racist, he doesn’t hate Arabs, because they are people with whom he has worked and talked. He is a fixture here, a man who is devoted to the land of Israel and knows no compromise on that. He has covered our hills with vineyards.
Anyhow, we went out riding together in his Ranger, which he drives as if it were a Formula 1 racer, stopping at overlooks and driving around the periphery of our community. We talked with soldiers and community members who were standing guard. We drove up the hill of the tel, once the ancient community of Shilo, where, according to tradition, the Mishkan (Tabernacle) sat for 369 years. Coming around a sudden bend, I saw a flash of green light. We surprised a small herd of... I suppose they are deer, but they run like antelope, with the springy jumping motion that is so incredibly graceful and unusual. “Turn and run, my beloved, like a hart over the fragrant hills.”
We also saw a drone operated by the army to cover one of the more vulnerable egresses into Shilo where, for a lack of manpower at that hour, there was no one on guard duty. We are slowly filling up these observation posts: people of all ages are signing up. When there are gaps, we still need to maintain our security, and this is done through mobile patrols and night-vision drones. The drones are expensive and were paid for through contributions to our community from concerned supporters, mostly in America.
I was in the shuk of Petah Tikva yesterday, buying the makings of another humongous cholent. I also buy my coffee in the shuk, at a tiny Ethiopian foodstuffs store. They have green unroasted Ethiopian beans that I like to roast at home in my professional coffee roaster - actually a slightly modified popcorn popper. For the past few years I usually go to a similar store in the Mahane Yehudah shuk in Yerushalayim, because I am often there and it seemed as if the store in Petah Tikva had closed. In fact, it had just changed location, and I stumbled across it yesterday, gladly.
Now this was just one of those things. Years ago, the first time I had bought coffee there, I had also purchased a large amount of cracked corn. The store owner asked what I planned to do with it, and I told him I was going to turn it into whiskey. He was very interested and we had a long discussion about Ethiopian and American alcoholic beverages. In the end, I promised to bring him some bourbon. But every time I went there to buy coffee, I forgot to bring him some. We’d laugh about it, and then his store disappeared, and that was that.
Yesterday, though, I brought a small bottle of my whiskey along, because you never know. And I found his new store. It had been years, but he recognized me, and was so pleased I was to be able to give him the whiskey I had promised. But he was even more tickled than I was, not for the whiskey itself, but for the thought of remembering to bring it, of remembering him, of my finding his tiny store in the Petah Tikva shuk. We were both smiling, and I told him the teaching of the P’setzna Rebbe, the Eish Kodesh, who - in the words of R' Shlomo Carlebach - would tell his students that the most important thing was to do a tova (a good act) for another Jew. I thanked him for helping me to do that, and he responded in the Hebrew equivalent that he would pass it forward and do the same.
I’ve not said a word about my sons: Shmuel is stilling Tel Aviv training with the rescue teams, Shemaya is in his community of Yitzhar, guarding and patrolling as part of Tzahal. Hanoch is home for Shabbat, and Lev is at his base. This extended waiting period is so difficult on the nation, on the soldiers waiting in their bases, on the economy as a large part of the workforce is absent. The expected operation in Gaza is both feared and … I would never say longed for, for any military operations has its sorrows, and sorrows in such a small country are always personal. Yet, after this week as more and more details of the torture and barbaric cruelty visited upon our people become public, we realize that this is a milchemet mitzvah, an obligatory war, a war against Amalek, against an embodiment of evil. Amalek is a concept that I’ve struggled to understand for years, and a concept that many Jews struggle with, because we are a nation of merciful and humanist people. Bloodshed for its own sake is abhorrent, because all humans are created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of Hashem. But we have a duty to fight against evil: One who is merciful to the cruel ends up being cruel to the merciful. Reading and listening to the deeds of three weeks ago and those who celebrated it, supported it, sent their teenaged children on bikes to watch it, recorded it on their cellphones - one would have to be morally blind not to see here the face of evil, of Amalek.
I’ll write more about that next time, I think.