The IDF Paratroopers are known for their daring, courage and heroism in all of Israel’s wars. They’re also known for the difficult training they must undergo to become combat-ready, and to stay in shape. The intense navigational drills. The jump training with five static line jumps from a C-130 Hercules aircraft. The comprehensive weapons training. The grueling hikes in all terrain and weather.
So imagine how excited I was to meet two of the IDF’s legendary paratroopers in person when they came to Baltimore to speak. Both men had risen through the ranks to become generals and were known for their heroism under fire.
Lieutenant General Moshe Yaalon started at the bottom only to become the IDF’s highest officer, the Ramatkal (Chief of Staff). Holding command positions at literally every level, he took part in legendary operations behind enemy lines and is now involved in the political arena.
Brigadier General Yechiel Gozal had a stellar career in the army which included acts of bravery that won him the Tzalash HaRamatkal, the chief of staff’s medal.
Gozal had grenades thrown or fired at him multiple times over his career. The first time, in 1978, a Fatah terrorist in Lebanon fired a rocket-propelled grenade at him. It thankfully only nicked Gozal, who promptly killed the terrorist.
The other time it didn’t turn out quite so well. It happened during the First Lebanon War in 1982, and a Syrian commando threw a grenade at him. The shrapnel tore into his eyes and shoulders, with some of it bouncing off his bulletproof vest. He kept fighting and ultimately needed emergency evacuation from the battlefield. He survived and became the IDF Military Attache to France, Spain and Portugal. After 27 years in Tzahal, he became one of the heads of a charitable organization devoted to the welfare of Israeli soldiers.
The two generals came to Baltimore a number of years ago to speak about the situation in Israel, and I met them both and thanked them for their service to the people of Israel. The organizer of the event, Jay Bernstein, asked if I could give General Gozal a ride to his hotel after the speeches. I was delighted to oblige.
General Gozal is an affable gentleman, and he was happy to slip back into Hebrew for the ride to his hotel. I eagerly asked him about his experiences, and what his thoughts were regarding the security situation in Israel. He responded thoughtfully and honestly, and seemed to enjoy talking about his impressions.
Before we knew it, we had arrived at his hotel near the Baltimore airport, and it was time for him to go. He thanked me profusely, and I told him that the pleasure was mine. He opened the car door, and said “Ani rotzeh latet lecha metana ketana – I’d like to give you a small gift.”
I looked at him with surprise and said “Bishveel mah? Lo tzarich! – What for? It’s not necessary!”
But he insisted. He reached into his pocket and pulled out several IDF Paratrooper wings, gave me one, and returned the others to his pocket. “Zeh rak mazkeret – it’s just a souvenir,” he said with a smile, before turning to enter the hotel. “Shalom lecha!”
“Shalom!” I replied, turning the pin over and over in my hand. It was solid and authentic, and I felt its heft and feel. I noticed the wings spreading outward from the centerpiece, which was a parachute filled with ‘air.’ It was a meaningful gift for me.
I looked up to thank him again but he was already gone.
I took home the pin and put it into a felt box I had from an old watch, and thought that would be a nice safe place for it. A few days later I brought it to my office to show some friends.
“Wow, that’s so cool!” said Rich Labonski. Now it was his turn to hold the pin and feel its weight. I had told Rich how it came into my possession.
“This is awesome, man.”
He handed it back to me. “Dude, you should wear this pin. I’m serious.”
“Because it is a powerful symbol! It means a lot!”
I shook my head. “Nope. I can never wear this, Rich.”
“Rich, to get this pin, you know how much a paratroop trainee needs to go through?”
I started to enumerate the exhaustive training a tzanchan (paratrooper) must endure to final achieve the vaunted wings.
“Ok, I’m impressed,” said Rich. “But why can’t you wear it?”
I looked at him.
“Rich. All I did was give a general a ride to his hotel. I can never wear this pin in good conscience. I did nothing to earn it.”
And suddenly, something clicked into place in my own mind.
I remembered studying the works of the kabbalist, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto of Italy, in which he states that God is the ultimate goodness, and that He wishes to give his creations the ultimate good. He therefore set things up so that this world is filled with difficulties and challenges which we must overcome and handle successfully by exercising our free will to do the right thing.
The Next World is the place we experience eternity, and where we receive the rewards for our actions during our lifetime in the current world. The rewards are payable as an intimate closeness to God that is unimaginable.
But the question is obvious. If God wants to give us reward and goodness, why not skip this world and only give us a world of rewards and gifts?
Rabbi Luzzatto answers that if we would only receive gifts without earning them, the rewards would be relatively meaningless. It would be downright embarrassing, like getting a handout. God therefore created a situation where we could legitimately earn our keep by facing the daunting challenges we have in this world. Challenges of health. Of livelihood. Of parenting. Of conflict.
If we could undergo these challenges and come out having done the right thing, we could then lay claim to the rich rewards of the Next World. Because we would have earned it.
“So, Rich,” I continued, “only someone who truly went through all the hardships and suffering associated with IDF Paratrooper training has the right to wear that pin. And when he does, he has the true satisfaction of having earned it.”
“I get it now,” said Rich.
“So do I,” I replied. “So do I.”
Shlomo Horwitz is the founding director of Jewish Crossroads, an educational theater project that has provided creative Torah programming across the US, Canada, England and Israel. He studied at Yeshivat Shaalvim and Yeshivat Ner Yisrael in Baltimore, where he received ordination from Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg. Shlomo is a CPA and a director of a consulting firm near Washington, DC. He can be reached through his site, www.jewishcrossroads.com.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.