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Pierced but unwavering

They ran out of room. The cemetery in Gush Etzion doesn’t have enough space for more graves for soldiers. They need to expand, to dig a new block.

Hutru l’pirsum. Cleared for publication.” On Jan. 22, last Tuesday, 21 new fresh fallen heroes of the IDF, the precious lives lost that in New York I eventually fell asleep to and in Israel they awoke to. Another day slashes you with the understanding how merciless this war is.

Even before the day began, you, in New York, knew that life in Israel was going to be dominated by funerals, shivas, heartbreak, grief and by sorrow, of so many up till now happy and close families of parents, of children, of brothers, of sisters, of grandparents, of aunts and of uncles, now crushed to bits. They will need to find the strength to breathe and somehow pick up the shards.

There’s collective national grieving, too. Am Yisraels pain, Am Yisrael’s loss. So many facets of the tragedy sting you in a way that highlights the losses and the grief of this watershed moment of the war, the deadliest day in the IDF’s ground operation in Gaza.

Twenty-one soldiers gone, from one attack. Twenty-one lives, 21 worlds, 21 futures, erased. Just like that.

Never has Oct. 7 felt like the longest day as it did on Jan. 22, when the news of the tragedy began trickling in, creating ripples of anxiety, before the trickle became a proper news stream of confirmed terrible news.

How incredibly and indelibly painful. All of the funerals and burials with children standing over fresh earth, their primitive pain etched on their visages; all of these waves of profound pain, stem from that devastating day.

Back in that twilight zone in October, when the soldiers were at the border before the ground invasion began, I remember watching inspirational videos the soldiers sent from their army bases. They were singing “Ve-ha’ikar lo lefached klal,” throbbing with such intensity. “The essence is not to be afraid.” With a pit in your stomach, a slash to the heart, and tears in the eye, you knew as you watched these holy warriors that some of them would not be returning. You just didn’t know then who they would be. Now, we know.

Now, they have names and faces and families and loves and characteristics and hobbies and precious moments and memories of their life stories and dreams — and also gravestones.

A pair of identical twin brothers who, like thousands who hail from this special tribe of twins, played their jokes, pranks and hijinks on friends in yeshiva, leveraging peoples inability to tell them apart. Now, this pair from birth has been forever torn apart, one twin a fallen hero, the other twin haunted, left to cope the rest of his life living with his phantom twinship, his lifelong soul-mate of sorts, gone.

Another soldier, the child of Filipino immigrants, embodies an inspirational story of transformation. As a teen he made poor choices and was not headed in a good direction, One evening, the police came to his home to arrest him. Upon seeing the anguish it caused his mother, he swore to himself that he would turn his life around. That terrible night of his arrest, no one could have dreamed that he would be disciplined or motivated enough to meet the criteria necessary for joining the IDF, let alone to become a commander and recognized for his outstanding service, as he was just a few weeks ago. Now he is a fallen hero whom we shall never forget, whose valor we will speak of for generations.

Another soldier was a legend in his community of origin that raised him, for as a young guy himself he once rescucitated and saved the life of a little girl in the community who had drowned.

Yet another, was a Bedouin who just recently he wrote a beautiful and meaningful reflection about Oct. 7 and his military service. Who knows what leader or bridge builder he could have one day grown into, improving and deepening the connections between the various sectors in the State of Israel?

When you see the list of all the different cities these fallen soldiers, it’s like a distillation of the story of Israel, a tangible mosaic of the State of Israel today. You see the names of more bourgeois towns, poorer areas, right wing towns, settlements, Arab villages, left wing bastions, kibbutzim, Ethiopian communities and faithful religious neighborhoods. You see it all. This is the real Israel. In this group of soldiers each one represented a whole sector in Israel.

They fought shoulder to shoulder. In respect. In camaraderie. United in purpose.

There is that cognitive dissonance between the tension experienced among Israeli civilians of differing worldviews, and between the magnificent connectedness among IDF soldiers of differing worldviews.

The IDF soldiers knew how to live together in a tank in the war zone.

We must learn from them and live together in day to day civilian life with that same camaraderie and respect they modeled for us.

Those videos of the soldiers that I still have on my phone, and that now seem so haunted as though from a different era: I realize now how much those soldiers knew. They knew what they were going in for, and knew they were facing possible death. Still, they sang. Still, they decided to lift our meager spirits. They had clarity of purpose. Bravery. For us. And now we have their melodies of mission for posterity. We can sing with them. Or are they the ones singing with us?

When you read the astounding will-like notes they have left behind, that understanding truly deepens. These were no ordinary folk. These were noble, heroic people functioning at way higher frequencies of greatness, who walked among us, who make up Am Yisrael, who make up the IDF. In life, they fly under the radar. They might be humble; they might wear their acts of righteousness or talent lightly, play down the extra yoke of responsibility they might have elected to undertake. While I will never understand how G-d runs this world, somehow it seems that these soldiers are souls destined for a higher purpose whose mission in this world might be brief, yet defined by a searingly profound beauty of purpose, whose footprint they leave for Jewish eternity.

This is an unbearably painful week of funerals for young heroes. Yet along with the burden and the pain, somehow an energy equal is unleashed too. Perhaps the hearts of Am Israel that right now pour out with love, empathy and support for the fallen soldiers’ families, are pierced with pain, but not for a moment has it wavered.

Endless home cooked meals, strangers braving terrible weather, going across the country to shiva houses to comfort the bereaved, and just generally that sense of connectedness, of being a part of family of Am Israel Family, can be felt even here, across the ocean.

It’s been raining all day. Both in Israel as well as here in New York. Somehow it feels as if the world’s weather is in sync with our collective national tears that have been streaming.

As we reflect on the legacy of these heroic soldiers, we must find a way to be that mosaic of unity, respect and camaraderie, as we continue to fight for, live and build Israel.


Copyright © 2024 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Tehilla Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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