Sunday, February 28, 2010

Is the Army Fun?

Is the army fun?
Question I get asked by friends all the time.

Maybe fun is my friends designated term for inquiring about my well-being. Or maybe they really are curious whether my military experience is full of good times ala summer camp or an all night karaoke parlor in coastal China. Or perhaps the question is their way of expressing the hope that I am still approaching the usual deprivation and all out suckiness of the army with a smile. A smile, of course, because when folks say the challenges in the army are all mental, what they really mean is that they are far easier to overcome if you approach them with a positive spin and twinkle in your eye.

The army is also far easier to tackle if you feel good about the guys by your side. It is hardly a secret that unit cohesion is the sine qua non for a successful military endeavor. Watch or read any military themed work of fiction and the message will be something along the lines of "I do this for the guys by my side." Trust and communication, the basis of any relationship, are also the difference between taking out terrorists in a pre-dawn raid and coming to terms with a friendly-fire tragedy the morning after. In special units like my own, special attention is paid to group cohesion with commanders empowered to kick out soldiers they deem socially delinquent. Feeling upbeat, finishing the course and successfully rubbing out the bad guys, in short, are nearly entirely a reflection of the friendship that exists between the troops.

All of which brings me back to the question friends ask, a question I asked and answered while standing guard in a rainstorm this past Thursday night. The rest of my platoon were off performing a comic skit for the Nachal soldiers we had trained with since early December, a lighthearted way of saying farewell as my unit prepared to depart Nachal with the close of basic training. Someone had to guard our tent while the merrymaking took place. Having not been provided with a role in the skit, I was informed by one of my guys that the least I could do was fill the guard position so one of the folks who had been included in the group activity need not waste his time in the cold. A B.A. in East Asian Studies was hardly necessary to read the casual message my peer(s?) were sending me by failing to include me in the evening's fun and games.

And so I stood all by my lonesome, out in the blistering rain, reflecting on where and why I had failed to bridge the credibility gap with my peers over the course of basic training. Part of me considered reaching back to my experience in university and use my frustration and casual isolation as motivation to work even harder and truly excel in the tests that lay ahead. A wiser voice urged another path, understanding that the path I had chosen in university has a limited lifespan. I also considered that one of my goals in the army was to learn to succeed without succumbing to the isolated workaholic-ism that had governed my school years.

Standing in the cold rain is a good way to come to terms with the obvious. The obvious answer to whether I find the army fun is not yet. Not until I really relate to the guys by my side, not until I see them in a similar light as I would were they twenty of my best buddies from my past will our collective challenges, painful as they may be, pass the fun question with flying colors.

Ad Mati Till Thailand

v'Nafshi nivhala mi'od, v'Ata Hashem, ad mati?
My soul is utterly confounded, and You, my G-d, how long?
Psalms 6:4

How long, cries David in the psalm I recite twice daily in my prayers [the Tahanun prayer], how long will You watch my suffering and not save me? David's cry, Ad Mati, echoes across the landscape of the Israeli army, bringing together Jews of European and Arab descent, lost tribes from Ethiopia and India and Bedouin and Russian immigrants no matter their religious persuasion. In IDF slang, the two word phrase Ad Mati means "how much longer is this godforsaken army experience?" Or in other words, "Fmylife."

Whether Ad Mati is uttered in jest or misery, soldiers get in trouble if overheard muttering the forbidden phrase. Officers don't like the "screw this" mentality the words convey, no doubt because they at times share the shame frustration as the troops. The ban likely adds to the enduring popularity of Ad Mati, ensuring that no day or bathroom stall escapes a cry or spray-painted scrawl of Ad Mati.

Ad Mati is joined in the list of forbidden phrases by at least two other terms: Kama Ode and Aifo Kulam. Kama Ode, "how much more?," shares the same virulent message of Ad Mati. Aifo Kulam, "Where is everyone?," is a problem when posed to officers, since the unstated answer is Thailand, namely the exotic land the rest of the officer's draft class has escaped to while he/she remains mired in the military.

Hanukka to Purim, End of Basic Training

Three months ago the light of Hanukka served as a beacon for the start of my military service, promising beauty amid the shadows as basic training got under way. Now Purim has arrived and with the holiday of masks and miracles, my first chapter in the army comes to a close. This week I start the first round of training with my unit, leaving the safe confines of the Nachal Brigade and basic training in my wake.

Traveling from the assertive legacy of Hanukka to the inscrutable holiday of Purim, from eight days that boldly recall the Maccabees armed defense of the Jewish people to a topsy-turvy holiday where political guile spares an exiled Jewish community from genocide, has not been easy for me. Through the wind and rain of Israel's winter, basic training alternatively found me staring at the Kotel with pride in my eyes and a smile on my lips and toiling under tremendous load in the pre-dawn hours of a desert rainstorm. The hardest challenges were losing touch with the friends and lifestyle years of academic life have allowed me to nurture. Finding a new community within my unit remains an ongoing challenge. And yet, Hannukka lies in the past, and Purim is insisting I take on the example of Esther and Mordechai for the difficult path that lies ahead.

Time, as always, is so short and so past jewels I wish to share, of Krav Maga and kitchen duty, Thailand and the Sinai, nerve gas and army dental care...all will have to wait for the few and far between free weekends I will have off in the next round of training. Meantime, perhaps check out Yoram Hazony's The Dawn for an insightful take on the Purim legacy, wish me well, make the most of your lives and as always, be in touch via email and whatever else can reach me wherever I will be.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

What to Bring to the Army

See checklist at the end.

With another crop of conscripts heading for the army in a few weeks (Israeli combat soldiers draft three times a year: March, August and November), now seems a good time to add my two cents to a question soldiers--and their concerned families and friends--likely are asking: What should I bring to the army? That is, what gear and goods does a combat soldier need beyond the uniform and odds and ends he/she receives from the army?

Having just wrapped up basic training, here is my answer--with the disclaimer that the following list reflects my own experience serving in the Nachal Brigade in the winter of 2009/2010. I should add from the start that, as is obvious from what follows, I am a fan of quality over quantity. In other words, less is more, pack good gear, travel light and enjoy the benefits. Oh, and store everything you have in, and bring along extra, plastic bags.

Lets start with clothes. At Bakum, the central military induction center all soldiers report to on their first day of service, everyone receive several pairs of (what I hope are new) underwear, socks and running shorts, plus two sets of alefs, army slang for the dress uniform soldiers wear when not on base. Once soldiers arrive on base, three faded green uniforms (pants and shirts), three or so green long-sleeve and short-sleeve undershirts and two pairs of white woolen gatkes (long underwear) are doled out. With all that cotton and polyester, the basics are covered for folks who are satisfied with the less than ideal gatkes and socks, not to mention the sky-blue thong-like army underwear. If you have the means, however, my advice is ditch everything you get save for the uniforms and obtain the following:

(a) 3-4 pairs of Under Armour-like underwear. 3-4 because combat soldiers will rarely switch clothes more than once or twice a week. And with laundry waiting on free weekends that come nearly every other week, it is not necessary to have extra briefs taking up valuable space. Ex-Officio is my recommended brand but the key is underwear that is warm and comes with as many odor free and anti-chaffing bells and whistles as possible. Get a cheaper pair and chances are you'll just end up investing the extra monies in Goldbond anyway.

(b) 4 pairs of thick hiking socks, Thorlos or the like [update: my expensive Thorlos have not been up to par so take any recommended brand names with skepticism]. Plus two pairs of plain socks for sneakers. If you are only going to drop dough on one item, socks would get my vote. The logic is simple: In the army, feet take most of the punishment and one of the best way to avoid blisters and many other painful dilemmas are with good, thick socks. Like underwear, most soldiers will rarely change socks more than once or twice a week so four pairs is generally enough for a two, even three week span.

(c) 1 thermal long-sleeve green undershirt, plus one of the undershirts issued by the army, will keep you warm during the many cold days and nights to come. Similar story with long underwear: ditch the gatkes and invest in an Under Armour-like pair that will be a godsend on freezing nights in the field.

Everyone needs one white t-shirt to wear underneath their dress uniform when leaving base Friday mornings. Having an extra white t-shirt on hand is a good idea for Krav Maga sessions, which sometimes require everyone to wear white tops. Some guys may advise packing a t-shirt and shorts for exercise runs but considering soldiers receive standard running shorts and t-shirts, bringing from home is not necessary. Finally, a sweatshirt and sweatpants--or whatever you prefer to wear to sleep on a cold winter's night--are a must, for nighttime and for shabbat.

Another must is a broken-in pair of running shoes. Leave the fancy basketball sneaks at home and if you have never done so before, check out what kind of feet you have (arch, pronate, etc) and buy the matching pair of running shoes. I also recommend getting a serious pair of orthotics (midrasim, in Hebrew) from a knowledgeable physical therapist or the like. Even more than socks, orthotics will help protect your legs and entire body from the grind that awaits. A different sort of protection for your feet is necessary in the grimy showers. Solution? Pack shower shoes.

The shoes on your feet most of the time are the boots issued by the army. They require daily polishing and so a brush and a can of shoe polish (black or brown depending on your unit) are critical. A spare pair of 120 cm long black shoe laces is also a good idea.

In addition to a sturdy winter jacket, the army provides gnarly woolen gloves that I found sufficient. A woolen hat and neck warmer (cham tzavar, in Hebrew; snood according to the English) are necessary, though I am not sure if lone soldiers need concern themselves with buying the latter since they seem to be the preferred gift from multiple lone soldier assisting organizations (I have two myself!). A final cold weather extra that can be nice to have on hand is a light blanket.

A swiss army style knife set, called a lederman in the IDF after a popular brand, is good to have. More important is a head-light and a permanent black marker for marking all your gear. And absolutely critical is a sturdy watch with an electric timer. Casio G-shock watches are all the rage in the army. While I prefer a lighter watch, the reality is that the only requirement for your watch is an electric timer. Equally critical, so necessary it seems almost silly to mention, is a big backpack. The army issues a 'lil backpack on induction day but the pack you'll heft back and forth on weekends off will be your own.

I won't go into details on what sort of bathroom and medical gear to pack. In either case, the basics are a good idea and smaller containers are preferable. Do not forget a roll of toilet paper, very necessary for the days when the on base supply is lacking. Remember that serious medical needs will be handled by the medic or even doctor on base. Foot powder (TALC), band-aids or creams for muscle soreness are what to consider for personal needs.

Much could be written about all the minor extras one should also bring to the army. The hour is late and so I'll sign off with three final comments. First, bring a book for reading on shabbat in the army. Second, head to your closest Ricochet-like gear store and buy some thin and thick black electric tape and string so you will have extra tools on hand for fixing your gear. Add two lighters and a small scissors to your fix-it kit and you will be the man during the many hours devoted to touching up gear. Finally, snacks will be your manna more times than you can imagine. So do not stint on the granola bars and dried fruit, or whatever comfort food you crave.


Items soldiers receive from the army that I recommend using, like the running shorts and plain green t-shirts, are not included on this packing list.
Some of these items, like winter-wear or thermal items, squads often try to find an outside sponsor for and purchase for everyone after a year or so in service. That said, it is still worth having your own gear from day one, especially if you draft in November with winter on the horizon.
The gift packages lone soldiers receive now and then from Friends of the IDF, Garin Tzabar, Nefesh b'Nefesh or the Michael Levin Lone Soldier Center tend to include the same basic items: neck-warmer (cham savar), snack food and toiletries. As a result, there is no reason to ever buy a cham savar as a lone soldier. Ever!


__ 3-4 pairs of quality underwear (anti-chaffing,anti-odor, etc.), brands like Ex-Officio or Under-Armour. Include at least one pair of serious boxer briefs for maximum warmth and protection.
__ 4 pairs of thick hiking socks (for boots). Any color, though darker colors are preferable.
__ 2 pairs of running socks (for sneakers).
__ 1 thermal long-sleeve green undershirt, by a brand like Under-Armour.
__ 1 thermal long underwear, by a brand like Under-Armour.
__ 2 white undershirts (for dress uniform/krav maga training).
__ 1 sweatshirt & sweatpants (winter PJ and Shabbat wear essentials)
__ 1 woolen hat (winter) (a neck warmer is critical but is a very common gift from lone soldier charities)
***Uniforms, dog-tag (diskeet), running shorts and t-shirts are provided by the army. That, and a gun...***


__ 1 pair of broken-in running shoes
__ 1 pair of shower shoes, like Crocs or basic flip-flops.
__ 1, preferably 2, pairs of custom-made orthotics (midrasim, in Hebrew), from your local physical therapist. Two pairs are preferable in order to place one in army boots and a second in running shoes. This is necessary since for most of training, soldiers are given minimal time to dress for runs, not enough time to switch orthotics from boots to sneakers. Two pairs is also economical, since the orthotics will take a beating in the army and likely need to be replaced eventually anyway.
__ 1 can of shoe polish (brown or black, depending on your unit)
__ 1 shoe polish brush
__ 120 cm black shoe laces (backup for ripped shoe-laces on army boots)


__1 big backpack (for lugging your stuff to and from base, and storing gear within on base).
__ 1 watch with electric timer. Casio G-shock are common but only criteria for watch is that it is sturdy and has an electric timer.
__ 1 head light
__ 1 bathroom bag, filled with basic toiletries: shampoo, soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, electric shaver and charger and electricity adapter as necessary. A roll of toilet paper is essential, since bathrooms tend to be poorly stocked.
__ 1 small bag, filled with basic medical supplies: foot powder (TALC), Goldbond (anti-chaffing powder), creams for muscle soreness, band-aids, anti-allergy pills as necessary.
__ 1 small bag, filled with tools for fixing up gear, the most common task in the army: permanent black marker (for labeling all your gear), 2 pens, 2 lighters (not for smoking, for working on gear), thin and thick electric tape plus black string (from a hardware store or army-surplus store like Ricochet), swiss army style knife (Leatherman is the most common brand), small scissors as necessary. During navigation training, a set of thin colored markers is essential.
__ 1 light blanket (use as a pillow, sheet, etc.)
__ 1 eye cover (a basic slip-on makes for ideal naps on buses and in the army. No need to splurge on any of these dandies)
__ 1 spare kippa
__ 1 traveling/protective case for tefillin (religious). Include pocket siddur in tefillin case.
__ 1 laundry bag
__ 2 books (Shabbat and downtime reading)
__ MP3 and earphones (downtime, bus rides, etc)
__ Snacks, whatever kind get you going, though dried fruit and granola bars are my recommendations.
__ 5-10 plastic bags, for storing dirty shoes, wet gear and general organization.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Them Punishments; plus a Run-In with Write-On

Following this week's four day long exercise in the north, my platoon boarded the bus for the long ride back to base with heavy misgivings. Our commanders knew that the exercise had been far from demanding and that could only mean one thing: pain and punishment would be coming soon as a reminder that we were back under their control.

In the last few weeks, our commanders have turned to ever more creative forms of punishment. Since most of our failures lie in the twin realms of discipline and responsibility--the only real goals of basic training, according to our officer--punishments are designed to fit the crime, mida k'neged mida. After losing track of the whereabouts of two of the guys in our platoon, our commanders responded by assigning everyone a buddy and ordering couples to henceforth hold hands as we walked around base. When one of our radio kits went missing, we were told that for the duration of basic training, we would have to carry around the platoon's two sets of water/stretcher/radio kits.

Our four and a half hour bus ride south was full of talking, snacking and snoozing. Soldiers listened to music while others called family and friends as we rolled past the Jordanian border. Half the bus, however, sat in silence. Before the bus driver even started the engine, our commander laid down the rules: no one in my platoon was to talk, eat, sleep or use any phones or music players for the trip south. After an hour's awkward silence, he returned and, claiming soldiers had disobeyed the ban on talking, ordered us to place our palms on the ceiling of the bus. So much for the punishment fitting the crime, I thought. Then again, suffering in silence for the next thirty minutes did return a dose of shared camaraderie that my platoon had missed during our week in the woods.

Our hands in the air punishment ended when the bus pulled into a rest stop off Highway 90. One look out the window and anyone could have foreseen what would take place. A bus full of Jewish American high school tourists had chosen the same rest stop. Jewish teenage girls' admiration for Israeli soldiers is well known. Little need be said of soldiers' appreciation for the young foreign female. Throw in the minor fact that the American students were participating in a program for young leaders in the pro-Israel advocacy community, and the writing was on the wall.

The soldiers in my bus let out a whoop when they saw the pretty American girls ambling around the rest stop. Even the officers smiled when their soldiers charged off the bus and the more daring troops tried their best English pick-up lines on the willing American students. My own platoon was held back on the bus by our officers, more from the general desire to get in our heads then limit our flirting opportunity. When we were finally allowed off the bus, I wasted no time in talking up the director and staff of the student group. Turns out they were from Write-On for Israel, an organization I am familiar with having witnessed its emergence during my final year in high school.

While it was cute watching the Nachal soldiers throw themselves at the eager American students, seeing the two different crowds really brought home the road I have traveled. A few years ago and I would have found myself on the other bus. Student activism, pro-Israel advocacy, free trips to Israel...all are themes I know well from my years in high school and university. And yet I stood there in my dirty green uniform, unwashed after four days in the woods, watching the slickly dressed students pour back onto their bus. Was I really living in a world so foreign to the one they know? Or does my own biography not imply that the path from their bus to my own is far less distant than our dress and concerns may suggest?

Camping with the Reserves

When the cry rang out at midnight to wake-up and make ready to leave our make-shift campsite, I had every reason to think that the week-long division size army exercise involving my company was going to be pretty demanding. Chill and serene ended up being the more apt metaphors for what will likely remain the most relaxing week of my service. Much of my time was spent with soldiers on reserve duty sitting around a campfire in the wooded hills of the Galilee. They taught me to roast canned tuna and luf, told me about their past and present homelands and left me with a persuasive profile of the reserve duty that Israeli civilians (in theory, at any rate) are called upon to fulfill in the years following their service as conscripts.

Reserve duty has long served as the backbone of the Israeli army. While day-to-day tasks are often carried out by the other two legs of the military, the small professional force and young conscripts like myself, the reserves are the troops called upon when larger threats emerge. In an increasingly post-ideological society, it is hardly surprising that reserve numbers are suffering, with many Israeli men shrugging off what in practice is essentially a volunteer service. Those who do serve come despite the costs to their academic, professional and family lives. A lesson for my fellow conscripts, one I perhaps know all too well.

The reserves I was with had plenty other lessons to teach me while I waited around to "ambush" other soldiers participating in the exercise. Having driven World War II vintage jeeps to our assigned position in the woods, the three reservists by my campfire had nothing to do but tend to the fire, roast our field rations and tell me stories about their varied ethnic backgrounds. Considering that one was Bedouin, another Russian and the last Ethiopian, the stories ranged from ice escapades in Moscow to Passovers in the hills of Abyssinia. When the three called home to their various sweethearts, they liberally mixed Arabic, Russian and Amharic into their conversation. Not only did it make for a colorful blur of contemporary Israeli demography but since the reservists were unarmed and instructed not to participate in my ambushes, we laughingly all agreed that their role in the simulated drama was playing the unarmed United Nation observer forces stationed along Israel's northern border!

Swords into Plowshares, Musings on Base

What if my base was turned over to an organization like Seeds of Peace, with the shooting ranges converted into greenhouses where nineteen year olds from both sides of the conflict could learn to understand, rather than kill, each other. Call me quixotic, out in the desert too long and in need of a refresher course on current political realities (anyone up for another trip to Damascus?).

Or listen as I tell you what crosses my mind as I stand around base and watch another generation of nineteen year old Israelis learn the finer points of civilized homicide. We train as we must and if I did not believe in the necessity of the IDF, I would not be jumping out of bed before dawn and throwing on my faded green uniform. And yet the mind muses evermore.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Upholding the LAW

Ethiopians get the grenade launcher, smart, responsible kids the radio, silent types are made sharpshooters and the aggressive grunts—or as they see themselves, the soldiers’ soldier—are awarded the light machine gun. Those weapons (and stereotypes!) are just a sampling of the weapons and tasks divvied up near the end of basic training among the members of an Israeli army platoon. In the weeks leading up to the announcement of who gets what weapon, guys speculate to no end. Most guys covet the sharpshooter position, both for the training involved and what it says about past performance on the shooting range. Yet there are more guys than spots, lending a competitive, even anxious, edge between otherwise affable bunkmates.

I was not overjoyed when my commanders selected me to train with the anti-tank weapon. Having seen so many other lone soldiers named sharpshooters, I had been hoping for the same position. My commander obviously disagreed. I did not help my case when in a private discussion, I informed him that the anti-tank weapon was my least preferred choice. My words were probably all he needed to hand me the weapon with the implicit challenge that I succeed with even the task I least desired. A good life lesson, if nothing else.

Further consolation came when I discovered that the weapon is used by most armies around the world. While it may be good to know thy (potential) enemy, it also means I could very well find employment in the Finnish or Chinese armed forces if things take an unexpected nosedive in the IDF. I also took strength from the idea that I was being asked to take down a tank with only the flimsy weapon I was training with. While it sure beats David’s sling, the comparative armor and firepower of modern tanks means I will not be on much better terms than when my ancestor faced off against Goliath on a grassy plain thirty miles north of my base.

The officer charged with running us ragged for the week of “advanced weapons training” may have had similar doubts about the effectiveness of my anti-tank weapon. Every drill session wrapped up with a command to get to our weapons, placed twenty yards away, by rolling on the ground some thirty times. The dizziness by the end is nauseating and makes standing, let alone assuming the correct firing position, nigh impossible. I wondered if perhaps he was having us simulate the vertigo we may experience if we are ever asked to go mano-a-mano against a modern fighting vehicle.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Dry and Wet Runs

No live fire training exercise in the IDF ever takes place before the same routine has been drilled dozens of time minus the ammunition. In other words, soldiers know to expect many dry run drills before loading up for the one or two wets [live-fire] that take place under their officer's close supervision. And so the week I learned how to advance and attack an enemy position saw me drilling the same commands and maneuvers hundreds of times, yelling "aish, aish" [Hebrew for "fire," or in this case "bam, bam"] before I ever got the chance to shoot real bullets.

While dry and wet runs have nothing to do with drilling in the rain, army slang has a way of smashing through metaphor to arrive at a Zen-like realm of self-realization. Or at least that was the case this past week when my platoon slogged through the same masa [ruck march] twice under very different weather conditions.

The original masa was designed to bring us back to base after spending a week in the wild learning to advance on enemy hill positions. Rain had made our final morning drills a soggy mess. Faulty logistics had failed to provide lunch. Wet and hungry, my platoon responded by raiding the camp's supplies, devouring some twenty loaves of white-bread as we set off for our nineteen km masa. The mana-like bread
foreshadowed the true gift of heaven that came down from above moments into the march. The rain came hurtling down, bringing with it a fierce wind and an all consuming darkness. Soon our feet was dredging up parapets in the sludge as icy fingers clung desperately to rifles made slick in the downpour. Amid the deluge, I would never have guessed that this trek was just the dry run before an even more challenging "wet masa."

The wet masa came the next week, a redo of the rain soaked trek that had been suspended halfway through after two Nachal soldiers had collapsed with heat stroke. Instead of setting out at night, standard procedure for a masa, this redo masa was scheduled for late morning on a very hot and sunny day. Heat stroke, the very reason we were redoing the masa, was now a clear and present danger. Other dangers were diminished by laying on the sunscreen. Not only did it protect our skin, but the lotion did wonders for the general odor. Before the sweat of hiking through the midday sun under a heavy load set in, the lotion left my guys with a sweet smelling beach aroma. Of course, the sweat had the final word. We returned from the masa soaked in our own perspiration, wetter than the fiercest rainstorm, putting an ironic stamp on the past week's dry and wet runs.

A Helmet Nearly Stole my Shabbat

Shabbat was almost ruined by a helmet. Or a wall. Take your pick, as the ability of either to ruin my day of rest is a cheerless tale. My troubles started Wednesday morning when my company was tested, for the first time, on the bochan maslul, the IDF obstacle course that has been the bane of combat soldiers for decades. The course has soldiers run three circular loops in full gear, with the middle loop passing through a variety of obstacles that run the gamut from jungle gym to rope climb and even a wooden pyramid. The rope and balance beams had given me trouble in the past. Yet today, with timer set and everyone roaring to go, I was stonewalled by the most prosaic of obstacles. Yes, I was stopped in my tracks by the wall.

The wall, next to the rope climb, is considered the toughest obstacle. Having never had a problem with the seven foot high wall in the past, I did not understand how one failed to throw themselves over the wall after a quick sprint, jump and kickoff. So when I failed to get over the wall on Wednesday morning, failed again and again some twenty times, I was no less befuddled. And frustrated. And when I finally finished the course in a ghastly time of 12:30, I was downright ashamed.

Ashamed and exhausted beyond measure—soldiers run most of the course at neo-rabak, i.e. edge of collapse—I failed to realize my combat helmet had stayed behind at the course on my return to base. At the firing range hours later (after having failed to check my gear as required before leaving the base), I was convinced someone had misappropriated my helmet when it was nowhere to be found. One of my commanders was kind enough to suggest otherwise. When he would not tell me anything else, I spent a good hour sprinting around the base before tracking it down.

As I ran through the midday heat, I knew full well that I likely had earned myself an extra Shabbat on base as punishment for abandoning my gear. My unit has high standards and guys have lost a free Shabbat for less egregious transgressions. And so when my commander announced, in the regular end of the week discussion, that my only punishment was ga’gash, I was overjoyed. Ga’gash, army acronymed slang for taking the last bus on Friday that will get you home before Shabbat, felt like my commander was granting me a free Shabbat I had thought was already lost. And what better gift could one ask for then the gift of Shabbat?

V'al Titosh Torat Imecha: Shabbat Torah on Base

Shema b’ni mussar avicha v’al titosh Torat imecha – Listen my son to the rebuke of your father and do not forsake the Torah (teachings) of your mother (Mishlei/Proverbs, 1:8)

Moments before the start of my second Shabbat in the army, my mother closed our phone conversation with the request that I share some Torah with the guys over the following day. Don’t count on it, I told her. Soldiers take the Torah at its word for the Sabbath to be a day of rest, leaving little time for other activities, be they Greek philosophy or Talmud Torah. Having landed four hours of guard duty, split evenly between Friday night and early Saturday morning, my squad was all the more eager to sleep away whatever free time was available.

I first realized something special may be in the works when a lottery determined I would be one of the four soldiers exempted from guard duty (two soldiers get a pass on each shift since our squad has more guys than necessary to man all the positions around base). As the rest of my squad trudged off for two hours of dreary sentry duty, I skipped off with another soldier to Kabbalat Shabbat, the Friday night prayers I find so necessary to appreciate the arrival of Shabbat. Despite a small minyan, the familiar Carlebach tunes had the desired effect. By the end of the prayers, it hardly mattered that I was in the army. Shabbat had arrived!

Avoiding guard duty also meant that I would not miss the company-wide Shabbat dinner. Had I been out in the cold, I would not have been present when my fellow soldier approached me, minutes before the start of dinner, and asked if I could take his place and give a d’var Torah speech to the crowd. Having previously helped him brainstorm the d’var Torah that our officer had requested he prepare, I was not caught off guard and gingerly told him I would be happy to speak instead. Moments later our company commander asked for quiet, informing the crowd of some two hundred plus soldiers that one of their own would shortly share some words on the weekly Torah portion. And then I popped up from my seat, my commander smiled in surprise, and for five minutes some of the clearest Hebrew ever to escape my lips shared the following message.

The weekly Torah portion is above all famous for the Jewish People’s reception of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Thunder and lighting, the Ten Commandments, pretty thrilling and history making stuff, to say the least. And yet this week’s Torah portion is named Parshat Yitro, after the fairly forgettable father-in-law of Moshe. Yitro finds his way into the parsha through a seemingly incongruous story that takes place before the big showdown at Mt. Sinai, when Moshe meets his father-in-law and gets schooled in a more efficient method to organize his judging of communal complaints. Why this story is placed right before the Jews receive the Torah is a question that surely must catch the attention of even the most jaded reader.

The answer I shared with my fellow soldiers last Shabbat was simple: The Torah was given to the Jewish People in order for them to follow its precepts and build a model community, to become a light unto the nations that could perfect the world. Putting those precepts into practice, building that model community, is a task that demands people to work together, orderly and as a team. It is not a job man can accomplish on his own. Even if that man is Moshe. Forgettable Yitro taught Moshe, and by extension all of us through history, that lesson, the necessity of order and teamwork in order to achieve our most cherished objectives. The army, and basic training in particular, works on the same principle. No one, no matter how strong or intelligent, can go it alone. Teamwork is everything.

Before I began speaking, I noted that this was the first time I had ever addressed such a large crowd in Hebrew. If I speak incorrectly or am not clear, I added, please find me over the course of Shabbat to correct me and give me a chance to clarify my words. Dozens of soldiers indeed approached me over Shabbat to comment on the d’var Torah. But all they wanted to share was congratulations, telling me how much they admired my speaking before everyone.

The night ended on one final high when my squad arrived at the dining hall shortly after dinner had ended. We had saved them heaps of food. Before digging in, however, religious and secular guys alike took a few minutes to welcome Shabbat by singing Shalom Aleichem and Eishet Chayil and Kiddush. The meal that followed may have lacked my five minutes of d’var Torah giving fame, yet the presence of just my core group of guys, back from two hours in the evening cold, added an intimacy that made the Shabbat night complete.