Friday, January 16, 2009

Pondering The Painful:Praying For Israel's Soldier


Rabbi Avi Shafran

I’ll leave the abusive words to your imagination. They were delivered through clenched teeth, the anger seeming to drip from the telephone into a rancid puddle on my desk. The long, acrimonious voicemail message played on and on, laden with insults and threats.

Even more striking than the nasty tone, though, was the subject of the call: a statement issued by the Council of Torah Sages calling for prayers and good deeds on behalf of Jews in danger in Israel. No, the caller was no anti-Semite; he was a self-described “Centrist Orthodox” Jew. But yes, what had so exercised him was a summoning of Jews to pray for fellow Jews. Or, to be more specific, the broad nature of the summons: it had not specified soldiers.
The statement, of course, had made no explicit mention either of the Jewish cites and towns that have come under Arab fire, nor of Jews in countries around the world where they or their institutions have been attacked. There was no doubt in my mind that the distinguished rabbis who issued the call considered Jewish soldiers to be prime among the threatened Jews whose safety they asked Jews to prominently include in their prayers. Had the rabbis overestimated some readers, not realized that some might take the lack of specificity as evidence somehow of a lack of concern?

Perhaps. And if so, perhaps any future such summons – may it never be necessary – will make particular mention of the young men fighting on front lines. Certainly, concern for Israeli troops has been voiced by the head of the Council at large Agudath Israel-sponsored public gatherings.

The caller, though, had assumed that the statement implied an unconcern (or worse) about soldiers. After all, he may have reasoned, Agudath Israel does not fly a Jewish nationalistic flag. It must therefore consider the Jewish State’s soldiers to be unworthy. Needless to say, though – or not so needless, apparently – Agudath Israel is deeply invested in the wellbeing of all Jews in the Holy Land – and has special concern for those who, in a war, are most endangered.

But the caller hadn’t called to ask if what he saw as an omission had been intentional. He had assumed it so, and only wanted to share his strong feelings about his (mistaken) conclusion.

I had been here before, I reflected sadly,. Over the almost 15 years I have been privileged to serve Agudath Israel, there have been a number of times when I have witnessed the harshest of judgments passed on the movement by people who made ungenerous assumptions. And who considered us derelict, or worse, for not heartily and automatically endorsing whatever petition, rally or political stance they or others had unilaterally decided the times required.

The caller didn’t leave a name but he did give his telephone number. I dialed it.

He seemed surprised that I had actually called back, and I took advantage of his initial discombobulation to deliver my little speech about how he had assumed wrongly and how therefore his umbrage was ill-conceived. He wasn’t impressed. Finding his voice, he insisted he knew better, that he was absolutely sure the Council of Torah Sages didn’t care about Jews in the Israeli army. Then he launched into a somewhat more muted (though not much) litany of complaints against haredim – how dare we not recite a special prayer composed by the Israeli Rabbinate, how come a haredi rabbi he knows showed lack of concern (he claimed) for a woman whose son was an Israeli soldier, why do haredim (ditto) have such contempt for other Jews…

I tried to get a word or two in edgewise but he clearly considered his questions unanswerable. So I waited until he tired himself out.

Then, in the lull, I thanked him for sharing his perspective and asked him to please consider one final thought. He could accept it, I told him, or reject it, as he saw fit; but please, I implored, at least consider it.

Maybe, I suggested, a great merit for the safety of Jewish soldiers – and Jewish civilians and Jews everywhere, exposed as we are to so many who hate us – lies in our judging one another favorably and not harshly, in our good will toward those with whom we may disagree, even strongly, over some things, even important things.

I was taken aback by the silence that followed. I had read my caller wrong: His mind wasn’t closed shut. He was actually thinking about what I had said. Suddenly I felt embarrassed and, after a few more seconds of no response, thanked my caller for having cared to leave his message. He thanked me for calling back. I told him not to hesitate to call again. And that was that.

It was only when I had hung up that I realized something, and it dawned with a shiver: The majority of the Israeli army fatalities at that point (may there be no more) were the result of “friendly fire” – accidental shooting by their own comrades.

Painful as it is to ponder, sometimes the gravest harm is what we unwittingly visit on ourselves.
Read more articles at Am Echad Resources


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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