Saturday, April 3, 2010

Getting Off for Pesach

In the Passover story, the Children of Israel do not embrace freedom until they have demonstrated their faith in G-d by dabbing sheep's blood upon the doors of their homes and set out on a perilous journey against the chariots of Pharaoh's army. My exodus from the army, to the tune of the week long break I received for the duration of the Passover holiday, came with a similar background. The day before the holiday, several hours before our officer informed of us our long anticipated vacation, I was stretched out on the ground, bleeding profusely with my arms stretched out to the heavens. The bleeding came in the course of a drill allowing our unit's medics to practice on the rest of the guys. While my history with needles is not pretty, I figured 'tis better to grin and bear it now than go out to battle someday in the future with medics lacking basic vein poking skills.

Following the blood came the perilous journey. And while the details are classified, it was a masa that put our values on our back not unlike the sun-baked matza the Children of Israel carried out of Egypt.

The masa ended near midnight. Minutes later our commander informed us that our regilah, a once every four months week long vacation, would commence on the morrow and last through the end of Pesach. Freedom had arrived.

My entire immediate family--parents, siblings, significant others--arrived in Jerusalem for the holiday so the holiday, and my week long vacation, had a very traditional vibe. Except for the family yoga sessions, led by my younger brother, far fitter and in tune with the Asian practice than yours truly. Another less than traditional practice found me in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, shopping for a crucifix. Clad in my kippa, I fended off the shopkeepers offers of a star of David and insisted, in my all but forgotten Arabic, that I was looking for the cross of Jesus, preferably in silver and Roman Catholic! After a long search I was all but ready to purchase a crown of thorns instead when a suitable cross caught my eye and my search was finished. Further adventures would follow with this cross, obtained on behalf of an overseas friend, providing me with a necessary distraction from the training that awaits after this blessed week long break.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Seder Message: Passover Greetings!

With regards to each and everyone for a meaningful Pesach, let me draw attention to one verse without which no knowledge of the Exodus story can do without.

And Moshe said to G-d, Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should take the Children of Israel out of Egypt?
For I shall be with you, G-d replied, and this will be the sign that I have sent you: when you take the people out of Egypt, you will serve G-d on this very mountain.

Exodus 3:11-12.

Moshe and G-d have a conversation that Esther and Mordechai echo thousands of years later. Hopefully it is a conversation, a message, that still echoes in our own consciousness. For decisive action comes when man acts in partnership with G-d, within the fabric of divine service outlined in the Torah we received at Sinai centuries ago.

With all the details in the Exodus story, it is critical to remember the macro lessons, the basic ideas with which the Seder has the potential to empower and inspire our faith and people for the year ahead.

The Bubble Draws Ever Closer

Nothing save for my own idleness was to blame for any failures to update this blog or keep in touch with friends during three months of basic training. The Nachal Brigade's limited funds, so the rumors say, meant I was out of the army every other shabbat since keeping soldiers on base for the weekend comes with a cost. Every day closed with sha'pash (an acronym known everywhere except Nachal as sha'tash), the hour of free time Israeli soldiers receive before lights out. And the thirty-five minutes allocated for our meals was ample, if illicit, time for sneaking a phone call in the relative privacy of the bathroom.

My current environment is a very different story. Daily grace periods have disappeared with a dozen minutes to eat and five minutes to change and get to asleep having replaced the luxuries of basic. And cellphone use is simply prohibited. The one exception is Friday afternoons, when ten or so minutes are provided before shabbat to place a quick call to home. The first time I was informed about this pre-Shabbat amnesty, it came with a crazy twist: Cellphone time would be preceded by ten minutes of shower time. Considering that since basic training we do not shower during the week and that there are only six shower stalls on our small base, I will leave you to imagine what took place as some seventy young guys tried to wash themselves in the allotted time. Thank G-d there were no cameras around as the most uncensored of spring break videos would have a hard time competing with what took place!

Even my weekends away from the military, infrequent as they now are thanks to a more intensive schedule and the deep purse strings of the IAF, are another story. During basic training seven hours of sleep were provided the night before a shabbat at home. Thursday nights now tend to be all-nighters (Lilah Yavan), though the more intensive weekly schedule means I am worn out either way come the weekend. In Nachal a shabbat at home came with a Sunday morning return time and a rule that soldiers had to arrive home by noon on Friday. Now the deadline to be back on base is Saturday night, cutting into the late night hours I had once reserved for writing to this here blog. And noon on Friday tends to be when we leave our current base, meaning my free weekends mostly consist of a shabbat of rest. Observing shabbat, it hardly need be said, makes plugging away online or by cellphone impossible.

The restrictions of the past few weeks have not come without benefits. With fewer distractions my unit has grown closer. On the personal front, the desires I had throughout basic to remain in touch with friends and the world at large have been dulled. While losing such desires comes with a cost, the current reality makes it far easier to focus on the task at hand. In basic I found it nearly impossible to go to sleep without checking my email via my cellphone. Life is simpler now, the benefit, I suppose, of living life on the edge.

When I was in university, a glorious day arrived every spring when one bright morning every co-ed on campus replaced the frumpy sweatshirt/sweatpants she had worn during the winter months for barely-there warm weather fashion. Girls dressed in tank-tops and short skirts was the sign spring had arrived, not to mention that I was no longer in the all-male school environment of my youth!

To my surprise, the IDF has an equivalent moment. It does not involve members of the fairer sex since my past has returned with a vengeance and there is nary a female for miles on my current base. Instead groundhog day in the army came with an intense heat wave that saw everyone replace warm bedtime outfits with birthday suits. While seemingly everyone now sleeps nude to stave off the intense heat, the other big benefit is the reduced turnover time necessary to throw on uniforms during middle of the night emergency wake-ups!.

An unfortunate aside is that after an early March heat wave, the desert nights suddenly got cold again. I had made the mistake of leaving my warm weather clothes at home, an error I now know never to make even in the supposed hottest days of the coming summer.

Advice from the Boss: Mishmat & Aggressiviut

Mishmat and aggressiviut [discipline and aggressiveness], my commander informed me, are my two flaws, two characteristics upon which I must improve. The advice came at the close of a one-on-one meeting with my commanding officer, the twenty-three year old young man most responsible for my wellbeing over the next three years. While keeping his respect is reason enough to take his advice to heart, I also do so because his perception and judgment are wise beyond his years.

Blame Minnesota Nice for my lack of aggression. In my childhood home, politeness is valued over belligerence, with car accidents at times resulting from overly defensive driving! Combat, my commanders never tire of preaching, is no place for politeness. Be an arse, they insist, asking us to adopt the arrogant assertiveness of the Israeli archetype rarely utilized as a role model.

My lack of mishmat, of discipline, is another issue entirely. An undisciplined soldier is like an ugly model, lacking the most basic tools of the trade. My problem is not that I do not appreciate the importance of discipline issues, like ensuring all my buttons are fastened or that my clothes are just right when reporting for a pre-dawn guard duty shift. The problem is that, despite four months of basic, I still do not quite feel like I am a soldier. My day to day perception of where I am remains 'surreal Zionist summer camp' rather than 'top secret commando training facility.' Perhaps my inability to adopt the soldier mentality lies in my preconceived notion of what a military man is like, a mold I subconsciously resist adopting. Instead I keep a foot outside the box, maintaining an observer mentality that filters soldier life through a bifurcated cynical/idealist lens. I suppose the grind that awaits will leave me no choice but to jump in with both feet, and I reckon when that happens the change that friends have told me to expect as a soldier will really begin to take place. Until it does though, I intend to button down on my loose pockets and missing aggression. No reason not to channel my inner arse until the soldier of tomorrow arrives to take his place.

Twas All About the Ma'agal

My first week in my new, pretty much classified, environment was designed around the concept of a strange army acronym known as KaDaR, klitah derech regilah [absorption through the feet]. I think its a roundabout way of saying "endless crawling and related physical punishment in the desert hillsides.' But my Hebrew is shaky so don't quote me.

While I am not allowed to divulge our less than exciting drills, I can share the odder moments. The best two came when two songs were introduced into our training regimen. When the first, the theme song from Rocky, came over our officer's loudspeaker, everyone had to sprint to the top of the nearest hill and, atop the summit, cry out "ADRIAN!" The second song is a Passover classic, Echad Mi Yodea 'Who Knows One.' Each number would send us off on another mad dash, sometimes a sprint, other times crawling, rolling or the like. The holiday--and a rumored week long vacation--could not have seemed any farther away!