Israel

The Long Way Home

September 24, 2009

28 Elul 5769

It is always hard to sit down and write since writing doesn’t come naturally to me and the words don’t necessarily flow easily, but as the events of the year have played out so unexpectedly I felt compelled to follow up on a story that many of you read back in January of this year.  The story reminds us as we stand before our Creator that life and death are in G-d’s hands and that nothing can be taken for granted as we begin the new year.

This past year, during the early days of the Gaza War, I traveled down South with Yad Eliezer and had the opportunity to visit with our wounded soldiers in Soroka Hospital.  At the time, I wrote about a number of my trips and my experiences with the soldiers, but I stopped reporting about my visits after I felt that the incremental news and feelings would only serve to make the original stories seem mundane.  Now standing before Rosh Hashanah 8 months later, enough has transpired to relay to you what in my eyes is an incredible if not miraculous story.

The most heart wrenching story of my visit down South was a visit we had with the father and family of a young man (Li’el Hoshea ben Miriam) who had been wounded on the first day of the war and now lay unconscious in the hospital:

Next I met a father of one of the injured soldiers.  We shook hands and I explained that we had come to express our gratitude to his son and the other soldiers who were on the front lines protecting our country.  He began to cry and asked me to give a bracha (blessing) for his son.  In a choked voice, I wished him a refuah shleima me’et Hashem (God should send him a complete recovery).  The father would not let go of my hand and asked me again to give a bracha to his son by name that he should regain consciousness.  It took some time for me to get his son’s exact name through his tears and broken voice, but he would not let go of my hand until I got it right.  By the time I had gotten his son’s name, Li’el Hoshea Hacohen ben Miriam, and was able to give him a bracha, we were both crying.  He then insisted that b’ezrat Hashem the next time we would meet it would be to celebrate a simcha and the package would be a present, “Mi k’amcha Yisrael Hashem…”

Later on, I had the opportunity to speak to this soldier’s father once again where he explained to me that his son had just come out of surgery for a tracheostomy and was unconscious (I had earlier seen someone being wheeled post surgery into the ward which turned out to be his son).  He then began to explain to me his son’s incredible story.

His son was a member of Sayeret Golani, the elite commando unit of Golani.  The unit was one of the first to enter the Gaza Strip on motzei Shabbat (Saturday night) at the beginning of the ground war.  The soldiers had fought for eleven hours straight in very difficult house to house warfare.  They made slow and difficult progress managing to kill two or three terrorists here and there.  The commandos had to back off numerous times because many of the Hamas terrorists were wearing explosive belts which made the soldiers scared to shoot in close proximity for fear of detonating the explosives.  As they entered the twelfth hour of fighting, the soldiers had gained the upper hand killing numerous terrorists and sending the remaining terrorists fleeing.  While retreating, one of the Hamas terrorists fired a rocket high in the air from about 500 meters away and the explosive landed 3 meters away from his son.

The impact of the explosion sent his son flying in the air.   His son was wearing a flak jacket, helmet and radio and was carrying a gun, bullets, grenade launcher and grenades.  Despite all the protection, the explosion tore a cut through his son’s head and left him unconscious.  He said that miraculously none of his son’s equipment detonated and that his son had landed eight meters from a doctor.  The doctor was able to intubate him on the spot which likely saved his life, but he never regained consciousness.  His son had just undergone surgery to drain the blood away from his brain and to reduce the pressure on his skull.  Doctors had also given him a tracheal oxygen apparatus to ease his breathing.  At this point, the only thing this father wanted to see was his son regaining consciousness to give them hope that he could recover despite the oxygen deprivation at the time of the injury.  Before I left, he implored me again to pray for his son’s recovery and insisted I meet the rest of his son’s family.  He then introduced me to his son’s wife (they were married only 15 months ago), in-laws, mother and brother.  Holding back tears, I wished each one of them B’ezrat Hashem good news and a refuah shleima me’et Hashem for their beloved son, husband and brother.

Despite many visits to the South, I did not have a chance to return to Soroka Hospital until the day after the unilateral cease-fire had been declarerd.  When we entered the hospital, we were told the good news that all the wounded soldiers had been discharged except for one that still remained in the ICU.  We went up to visit the soldier and had an opportunity to meet with his mother who had been sitting vigil by her son’s side since his being wounded in Gaza.  His mother told us the incredible story of her son who had received shrapnel wounds to his legs.  Due to the severity of his wounds, he was evacuated under fire from the front lines by a Medivac helicopter.  On his way to the hospital, he managed to call his parents to tell them he had been wounded in Gaza, but everything would be just fine.   When his parents arrived at the hospital, they found their son unconscious.  He had managed to call his parents with the last of his energy and then he had fallen into a coma.  The emotional toll was apparent on his mother’s face.  She had spoken to her son and thought him to be fine only to find him in a coma which was now stretching on a month’s time.  During that time, she had seen other wounded soldiers and their families come and go and now she was left alone to cope with what seemed to be a very bleak future.  After a couple of minutes with us, she was unable to continue and asked us to please daven for her son (Dvir ben Leah).

The nurses on the ICU floor told us that while there were no more soldiers in their ward, they thought there might be one soldier who remained in the neurological ward.  The nurses didn’t know his status or his name.  My heart dropped when I heard this news because I knew it had to be Li’el Ha’Cohen.  My brother-in-law, Michael Charish, had visited Li’el about two weeks after my first visit and at the time Li’el remained in a coma.  It was so disheartening because after all those prayers and surgeries, I was hoping that we might have gotten better news.  As we made our way over to the neurological ward, the uneasy feeling in my stomach turned to knots not knowing what I could say to this family that was suffering so greatly.  When we reached the ward, the nurses told us that Li’el was recuperating from his thirteenth surgery to his head, something that only served to confirm my initial assessment of the bleakness of the situation.

As we entered the recovery ward, my mind was racing about how to handle seeing Li’el’s wife and mother who were not even able to look up or speak with me the last time I had visited.  When we reached them and asked how Li’el was faring, my heart began to race as I sensed something was profoundly different this time.  They were looking right at us and telling us that Li’el had just undergone surgery to place a second shunt in his head to help him drain the fluid that was causing pressure on his brain.  And then the news that we had all been praying for came out- Li’el had regained consciousness just that week.

The last week had been touch and go life-wise for Li’el and an emotional rollercoaster ride for his family.  After regaining consciousness, Li’el had suddenly blacked out and through the week he had been fading in and out of consciousness.  The doctors felt the cause of the problem was the pressure building on his brain and that the only hope was for him to undergo a thirteenth surgery.  He was now heavily sedated to recover from the surgery, but his family felt optimistic with the prognosis given the glimmers of hope they had experienced over the past week.  The news and the optimism were exhilarating, a mixture of joy and disbelief, akin to the feeling that Yaakov Avinu must have had when he received the news that his son Yosef was still alive.  We spoke with the family for a while and found out that Li’el was one of eight children (with his siblings living in diverse places, from the Galil to Bnei Barak to Yerucham) and that one of his brothers was reporting to active duty the next day.  To top it all off, we found out that Li’el’s wife was expecting and due in July.  It was just too incredible to believe.

We then went out of Li’el’s room and rejoined the rest of our group where Li’el’s father met us.  Amazingly, he still remembered our visit from when his son had first been admitted to the hospital.  He reiterated to us that he believed that his son’s fate was in G-d’s hands and that he sincerely felt that the prayers from around the world were responsible for his son’s recovery to date.  Li’el’s father repeated the story of his son’s injury to those who had joined us for the visit and added the following incredible detail.

He said this will never make the news, but it is something that the world should know.  When the medics were evacuating his son, they had to do it under fire.  The Hamas terrorists who claimed to be fighting in G-d’s name were firing at clearly marked medical vehicles and personnel in clear violation of the Geneva Convention.  Just a short while later, at the very moment that he was accompanying his wounded son into the hospital, a wounded Hamas terrorist was being wheeled in (with his father at his side) by the army.  His son and the Hamas terrorist were being given identical treatment and the two fathers were simultaneously sitting in the waiting room anxiously awaiting word from their children’s respective surgeons.  He said that this is the way the true people of G-d act.  We left the hospital with our spirits lifted, but well aware that Li’el still faced a long way to recovery.

As the weeks turned to months, I stayed in touch with Li’el’s father calling to get periodic updates as to his well being.  It was amazing that in each call, Li’el’s father always displayed an unwavering belief in G-d and a resolute conviction that the prayers of Jews around the world were helping in his son’s recovery.  The initial reports continued to be very positive.  Then there was an update about 6 weeks later which left me in complete shock.  Li’el’s father informed me that his son had just been discharged from Soroka hospital and was now in the Tel Hashomer Rehabilitation Hospital.  I was no Pollyanna, but the news seemed to be a huge positive turning point in his recovery.  The initial rehab was very successful, but as time went on his progression curve flattened out and the updates became more mixed with Li’el becoming frustrated or despondent over the lack of progress.

In a call in late July, Li’el’s father told me of the wonderful news that Li’el’s wife had just given birth to a baby boy and he would love if I could attend the Brit Milah.  Unfortunately, I was flying abroad a day before the Brit, but I insisted that I wanted to visit with Li’el and his new baby before I left.  His father told me that I would have to speak to Li’el in order to arrange such a visit and that I should make sure to reconfirm with Li’el a number of times since he still had a tendency to forget things and lose a sense of time and scheduling.  When I first spoke to Li’el, it was a little awkward explaining who I was and why I wanted to visit with him and his family.  Nevertheless, he cheerfully acquiesced to our coming to visit him and his new baby in Masuot Yitzchak (by his in-laws) where he was currently residing.

A couple of hours before my flight abroad, Yossi Kaufman (of Yad Eliezer) and I traveled down South to visit Li’el, his wife and their new baby.  It is hard to describe in words going to visit a person who on the one hand you feel so close to-almost like family yet on the other hand you have no idea who they really are.  The last time I had seen him he was post-surgery vacillating between life and death and despite all the updates from his father, it was hard to assess or picture exactly how Li’el’s condition would manifest itself in his appearance.   On our way into his house, we saw a young man assisted by crutches approaching us.  Despite our uncertainty, we surmised that this was Li’el.  It is a vision that I think will stay with me for the rest of my life, a surreal experience of seeing someone you thought to be dead, an individual that doctors had given little chance of recovery walking towards you.  It was akin to techiyat ha’metim and at that moment I made the bracha, Baruch Mechaye Ha’Metim (Blessed be the One who resurrects the dead).  When we finally met and hugged, I felt like I was holding onto life itself.

Li’el has no recollection of anything from the moment before his injury until the time he awoke from his coma.  His parents did not take any pictures of him while he was in a coma and in some senses he doesn’t really believe that he was ever in such a precarious state.  He said that his parents had told him that people from all over the world had visited him while he was still in the hospital and prayed for his well-being.   Meeting us he felt was a glimpse into a world and time that had passed him by without his actually being there.   We spoke about his last Shabbat off with his family before entering the war that night where the excitement of the news of his wife’s pregnancy had been tangible and they had begun to contemplate their lives after his upcoming discharge from the army.

Not even a day later, a small delay in his unit’s mission had left the soldiers exposed to fighting after dawn and in the blink of an eye a fateful rocket had shattered their lives and dreams.  He laughed as he told us that the first thing he saw upon awakening from his coma was his letter of discharge from the army.  His optimism shone through his fatigue as he described to us the ups and downs of his ongoing rehabilitation.  The initial optimism he had felt at his amazing progress moving from bed to wheelchair to walking as well as the realities of the long and slow path that he now struggles with in order to reach as complete a recovery as possible.  Over the months, he had the opportunity to meet with the doctor who had saved his life in the field and others who had been instrumental in his recovery.  During his rehab, he had heard of other young men struggling through their recoveries including a soldier named Dvir ben Leah (mentioned earlier in the article).  We reiterated our profound thanks to him and his family for all that they had endured to ensure that we could continue to enjoy living safely and securely in the Land of our Forefathers.

After speaking to Li’el for nearly an hour (the headaches make it hard for him to endure much more), I told him that before we left I had to complete a promise I made to his father at the beginning of the war.  At the time, his father had only accepted the package that we had brought from Yad Eliezer on condition that I agreed that it would serve as a present for a future simchah we would share together.  As we were speaking, we moved to the adjacent room where Li’el’s wife and baby were sitting.  Looking at the three of them, I was overcome by emotion, feeling choked up as I explained to him that I had brought a baby gift from my family to celebrate their new baby and to fulfill his father’s request.  Only a couple of months back, not believing that I would ever have to live up to this seemingly bizarre commitment, I had shaken my head in consent to help placate his inconsolable father.

Now incredibly here I was holding back tears of joy replacing what only a short while ago were tears of anguish and despair.  Realizing that over the last year, our calm and precious lives that we take for granted were in an instant shattered and replaced by hopelessness then only to be shocked backed to our senses by a miracle of G-d.  It was a feeling of utter insignificance in front of our Creator and his will and an important reminder that our G-d is benevolent in judgment and hears our prayers.  May we merit having our prayers heard as we beseech G-d to look down favorably upon his children and grant us a Gemar Chatimah Tovah.

Simon

Postscript:  The baby was later named Yonatan Dvir after one of Li’el’s friends who had fallen in combat.