Wednesday, October 28, 2020 -
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Not your typical war story

White hair.
Very long white sidelocks, payos.
A perfect stereotype.
A chasidic Jew.
Very spiritual looking.
Very other worldly.
Beautiful visage.
Somebody living in another world.
Then he opens his mouth.

This is his story.
“Did you hear about the soldiers during the war?”
Alas, Israel has had so many wars, I need to ask, “which war”?
OK. I’m on board — the “Second Lebanon War,” summer of 2006. What, precisely, does this angelic chasid have to tell me about the war?
His eyes glimmer.

He begins.
“I got a call frrom Jerusalem. ‘Do you have an eitzah, a piece of advice?’”
On the line is a father. He sounds desperate.

His son is in an army staging area, a big hangar, near Petach Tikvah. He and his whole brigade are paratroopers. But everything is mixed up, messed up, disorganized. The soldiers were supposed to ship out to Lebanon, but they’ve been there days and days. It is hot. There are no showers. Not even enough food.

The father pours out his heart to the rabbi: “It’s the day before Tisha b’Av, and they don’t have enough food before the fast — and they’re supposed to be going to war! They’re not prepared. They’re demoralized, hot, sticky, depressed. Is this how you go off to war?

“Do you have an eitzah — an idea?” he asks the rabbi.

The rabbi: “I said: Yes! Sure. Bring the whole brigade — 700 soldiers — up to me. I’ll take care of them.”

And so the story begins.
The white-haired, other worldly rabbi has built a slew of institutions out of nothing in an otherwise neglected town in the lower Galilee.
It’s war — the rabbi’s students have had to be relocated, for their own protection. Some missiles could fall as far at this town.
The dormitories are empty.
So is the swimming pool.
And the dining hall.
The rabbi has room for hundreds of soliders.

The commanding officer, not knowing what to expect, orders his soldiers onto buses and heads for the lower Galilee. A couple of hours later they pull into the rabbi’s campus.

The rabbi stands aloft to greet them. The soldiers, kibbutzniks and secularists, are baffled, half expecting the white-haired apparition to tell him, “OK, young men, into shul. Time for mincha, time to pray the afternoon service!”

Instead, these young men, who haven’t showered in 10 days, hear this:
“Into the pool! Cool off.”
Meanwhile, the beat.
The rabbi knows his customers and, on sudden notice, has rounded up live music.
Then comes a scrumptious meal in the campus dining hall for all the soldiers.
First decent meal in nearly two weeks.
Not to mention, clean beds, showers and — get this — a request from the rabbi: “Which equipment are you missing?”
We know now that Israel was unprepared for the Second Lebanon War. You name it, there weren’t enough supplies.
Not enough bulletproof vests.
Not enough canteens.
Or knee pads.
The list goes on.
By the time the next day came around, the rabbi had rounded up $70,000 of military appurtenances, each soldier receiving what he was missing.

But I am skipping ahead of the story.

The night before, when the music is blasting, one of the soldiers receives a cell phone call from a relative in France. The relative is calling to find out about the war, the fighting conditions. Apparently, he had heard about the major organizational problems.

He is very anxious. Worried.
But he hears music.
What is this? he thinks to himself. This is a war? It sounds like a party!
He inquires and is told the whole story: the sweat pit in Petach Tikvah, the amazing reception by an unusual rabbi in the Galilee, the swimming pool, the food, the music . . .

He hears all this and adds another incredible element to the tale. He says: “I have just had a Torah scroll written for my community here in France. It’s done. Ready for delivery. Now that I’m hearing everything this rabbi has done for the soldiers of Israel, I’m changing my mind. I’m giving the Torah scroll to his community!”

The next morning, the Torah scroll arrives in the lower Galilee from Jerusalem.
The rabbi addresses the soldiers, and gives them an opportunity: “Who wants to write a letter in a Torah scroll?”

He explains that the final words of a new Torah scroll are typically left unwritten, to be filled in by those who are not professional scribes, but want to fulfill the mitzvah of writing a Torah.

Every one of the soldiers accepts the rabbi’s offer.
Together, they complete the Torah scroll.
Then the soldiers receive their orders — finally, some two weeks later than expected — to proceed to fight in Lebanon.

The rabbi explains the concept of “sheluchei mitzvah einan nizokin,” a person who is on a mission to do a mitzvah is protected from harm. The rabbi gives each soldier one Israeli shekel, with instructions to carry it with him the entire time in Lebanon, and then, upon return, to give it to tzedakah. This will transform their military trek in Lebanon into a mitzvah mission. (This is the idea behind giving people a dollar or two for tzedakah before they make a long trip.)

Now the rabbi tells the entire brigade (later saying he has no idea how he ever could say such a thing, attributing it in retrospect to a “hashra’ah,” a Divinely guided utterance): “I promise each and every one of you that, with your tzedakah mission and completion of a Torah scroll, you will return alive, unharmed. Each and every one of you!

“If my blessing comes true, I want you to make this your very first stop — before family, before home — when you come back from Lebanon. Each and every one of you will recite birkas ha-gomel, the blessing upon rescue from danger — only afterwards, onward to your homes.”

The soldiers ship out.
Days pass. War. Soldiers killed. Bombs dropping all over the north of Israel.
The Second Lebanon War, as it was later named.
At midnight, two weeks later, suddenly, a phone call to the rabbi from the commander of the brigade.

“Your blessing came true. Each and every one of us is alive and safe. We’re at the Israeli-Lebanese border in our buses. We’re coming to you, just like you said, before we go home. Expect us at 2:30 a.m.”

The rabbi, well, just say that his friends and neighbors think he’s crazy. He’s calling all around to get a band together — live music, to be ready by 2:30 in the morning. He’s calling his kitchen staff. A meal must be ready!

Comes 2:30 a.m. and the buses pull in.
Each and every soldier who gets off the bus wants to hug and embrace this amazing rabbi who took them in and promised them success.
They’re waiting in line to hug the rabbi.
It takes two hours for the whole group just to complete the disembarkation.
They’re singing.
They’re dancing.
They’re eating.
The whole night long.
They each recite birkas ha-gomel.

They’re telling stories of miracles. In Lebanon, a soldier had mistakenly lit a cigarette. The light catches the attention of Hezbollah, who launch an anti-tank missile, heads straight for them. Suddenly, two horses gallop by, the missile hits them and is deflected. The soldiers are saved.

Two weeks later, each of the soldiers receives a gift from the rabbi: He has researched and gathered the name, phone, address and email of each soldier, and published it in a booklet.

They have become family.

Postscript: Almost two years later, on this most recent Passover, the rabbi distributed 17,000 packages of matzo and other Passover food for poor families in Israel.

Where did he find a space big enough to house the tons of food to be packaged?
It was the original hangar, the staging area of the 700 soldiers, near Petach Tikvah.
Where did he find enough volunteers to sort and package the Passover foods?
Many were the soldiers he hosted.

The rabbi, by the way, is Yitzhak David Grossman of Migdal Ha-Emek, lower Galilee, Israel.

Hillel Goldberg

IJN Executive Editor |

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