As a new immigrant to Israel, I volunteered for a two-year stint in Nahal Haredi. During the course of my service I discovered just how different a truly Jewish unit is from the army you see in the movies.
After only being in Israel for two months, I joined the Nahal. I did not yet speak any Hebrew and barely understood what was being said around me. Before I knew what was happening, I had been issued an assault rifle, been rated as proficient in its use (having fired five–count ’em, five, bullets) and was sent home for my first leave.
As I wandered the streets of Jerusalem in a daze, unsure of what to do with the instrument of death on my back, I realized just how special the IDF is. I cannot imagine any other country in the world where there is such a basic level of trust in the average citizen that he would be allowed to wander the streets armed to the teeth as I was.
Returning to the base, I got used to the Nahal Haredi routine. Every morning we would go for early runs by platoons and then pray together as a company. One morning, soon after I joined the Nahal, after the final Kaddish was recited, one of the company NCOs barked, “Zeman limud esrim dakot!” “Learning time, in ten minutes!” Sergeants patrolled the synagogue, giving a tongue-lashing to anyone not learning Torah.
Such occurrences were frequent, with instructors yelling for divrei Torah from their soldiers during evening muster, at meals and after davening.
One evening, after a scathing and vituperative rebuke of my platoon’s performance, our Ma”k (drill instructor) left us in disgust, claiming that we were not worth teaching and that we would never make proper soldiers.
Five minutes later his head popped into view inside the door flap of our tent and he called, “Sokol outside!” I was terrified. What had I done? What trouble was I in for? “Sokol, have I got a girl for you . . . ” It was a shidduch offer. Only in a Jewish army will your drill instructor offer you a shidduch five minutes after chewing you out.
However, there is one incident that stands out in my mind as an example of what it truly means to be a frum soldier.
I was on kitchen duty with the assistant to the battalion rabbi. As we manhandled a massive metal contrivance called an agalat chimum, used for keeping food warm in an industrial kitchen, my companion’s fingers were crushed between the agalah and a doorjamb. Bleeding profusely–we later found out that his bone had been ground to powder–he ran, with me trailing behind, desperately trying to find a medic. He was in intense pain, and there was more blood than I care to remember. But the moment that the medic began to treat him and he was no longer required to take an active role in the matter, he immediately began to learn Torah. He removed a small volume of the Zohar from his pocket with his uninjured hand, and started swaying back and forth in intense concentration.
Unable to restrain myself, I yelled, “How can you learn at such a time?” He calmly put down his book and looking me in the eye said, “Gam zu letovah,” “This too is for the best,” and immediately returned to his sefer. Since then, I have come to realize that no matter how much mesirut nefesh a regular soldier may exhibit, nothing can come close to the level attained by a simple yeshivah bachur who decides to defend his country.
Samuel Sokol is a reporter with the Israel Resource News Agency.