You did it. This morning, you marched off to the Army. Ok, it was more like sauntering than marching – you’ll march soon enough. And you merely took a bus to a processing center which sent you to basic training. Nevertheless, this move, which you did with your customary grace – and a smile on your face – culminates our three years here as Olim, immigrants; a lifetime of Israel visits – and thousands of years of Jewish yearning to control our destiny in our own state, including defending it as necessary.
You made it look easy, but I know it wasn’t. This army business is serious. Last night, as we celebrated your impending enlistment, a Lebanese sniper killed a soldier, Shlomi Cohen. Selfishly, I am relieved your unit is important but non-combat. Nevertheless, you will face life-and-death decisions requiring split-second reactions honed by rigorous training. Furthermore, for the next two years you are sacrificing your cherished freedom.
I acknowledge the opportunity cost. Your North American peers are attending top universities; you could too. While they pursue their passions, you will follow orders. While professors challenge them to think independently, commanders will compel you to act cooperatively. While they, at worst, risk bad grades, you, at worst, could be risking your life or that of others depending on you.
Admittedly, this army service is one more cost you have paid for a decision your parents made. We brought you to Jerusalem’s Amish country: ever unfashionable, yet perpetually meaning-seeking. We rooted you in an occasionally provincial but warm familial Israel. And we forced you to be smart in a foreign language, Hebrew, with its exasperating masculine-feminine, shtayim-shnayim confusions.
I empathize. I loved attending university so much that, in a case of arrested development, I never left, becoming a professor – and, given my work and sleep habits, a perpetual graduate student. As an American historian who has taught in Canada since 1991, I love North America – I delight in America’s freedoms, in Canada’s expansiveness.
That, of course, explains why we are so proud of your decision to serve. You know what you are sacrificing. In today’s Israel your two-year gift to the Jewish people is essentially voluntary. But you also realized that serving your country can serve yourself too.
Olim often focus on what we miss while ignoring what we gain. The friends who embraced you so lovingly last night, sending you off with a safety pin so you remain confident, a balloon so no one knocks the wind out of you, a picture frame so you remember all who love you, a mirror so you affirm your individuality while in uniform – and other gag gifts with profound messages, are part of the payoff. The skills you will acquire and the responsibility you will exercise – within just a few months – represent an often overlooked dividend. And the contribution you will make to history is priceless.
Four years ago, during the 2009 Gaza War, you asked me, “Why are we here?” I answered: “If we flee, who are we? If we let others fight for us, what are we? And if none of us fight, where will we - and the world - be?”
In our family, we are people of the word not the sword. That makes your move, to wield Jewish power smartly and sensitively, effectively and ethically, after centuries of Jewish powerlessness, all the bolder.
Today, you joined thousands of others who have served the Jewish people in ways that I with my words never have. Now, you are protecting our family, friends, and home. You are affirming Jews’ identity as a people not just a religion, with national rights to build our state in our homeland.
You are also living the idea that democratic Israel offers citizens rights and responsibilities, with a broad tent which can contain much disagreement, without forgetting our defining principles and shared fate. And you are defending democracy. If we lose, the West loses too.
During that Gaza War, while visiting an Israeli Air Force air traffic control tower, I stumbled upon a familiar sight: a bunch of college-age kids slouching around. Suddenly, they snapped to attention, and these laid-back students became a highly-functioning unit, expertly guiding one helicopter to land as a jet took off. Their professionalism impressed me, as did the amazing life experience these smart, ambitious youngsters would bring to the classroom when they eventually attended university. That’s in your future too.
A year later, I remember telling a friend who is far to my left politically that I was sobered hearing Israeli high schools boast about the high percentage of graduates serving in elite units when American schools boast about college acceptance rates. “But these kids have an amazing opportunity to grow through national service,” my friend responded. That’s now your present reality.
When you were born, your newborn’s stroller faced inward as you focused on us, your parents. Within months that newfangled stroller flipped around, as you started looking outward at the world. I realized then that growing up means ever-broadening your outlook. This morning, my last glimpse of you was of your back, carrying your gear, confidently facing this new adventure.
We, your parents, represent your tradition, your foundation, your past. We are with you in the present, as you navigate this noble yet challenging new reality. We hope, even while facing outward, that you will always feel us present with you as you shape your future, and -- with your ideals, skills, and passions -- you shape the future of our people, our country, and our world.
This morning’s recruitment officer wished everyone “sherut kal v’mashmaooti,” an easy and meaningful service. I add “and safe, for you and all the soldiers,” then say, “Amen.”
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