Parashat Beha’alotecha (Numbers 8:1-12:16)

There are powerful moments when life’s experiences bring deeper meaning to the Torah and her classic commentators.

It was Shabbat, June 5, 1982. I was nearing the end of my first year abroad in Israel, and I spent that Shabbat in Haifa with my family. A few days earlier, on June 3, Israeli Ambassador to England Shlomo Argov was seriously wounded in an attack by three PLO terrorists. Reactions in Israel ranged from shock to outrage, and the winds of war were brewing.

I had a surreal experience at synagogue Shabbat morning. The Torah portion was Beha’alotecha (this week’s portion), which contains one of the most famous verses in the Torah: “Vayehi binsoa ha’aron vayomer Moshe, kuma Hashem, v’yafutsu oyvecha, v’yanusu m’san’echa mipanechaWhen the ark was set forth, Moses would say, Advance, O Lord, may Your enemies be scattered, and may Your foes flee before You.” As we read this call to war by Moses, the synagogue’s building continuously shook to the rumbling of helicopters and F-15 fighter jets. When I peeked outside, I saw miles of IDF jeeps, tank transporters and armored personnel carriers, all heading north. I had a front row view of the IDF’s massive call up of troops on their way to the region’s first real “war on terror.”

The Netziv commentary to the Torah says that the word “oyvecha” (Your enemies) means “one who hates you deeply in his heart, and wishes nothing but to inflict harm upon you.” Rashi says that the word “m’san’echa” (Your foes) means “those who pursue you with the intent to kill you.” These words from our Torah portion were what I both heard and felt that Shabbat, as the IDF entered Lebanon, where the PLO had built a terrorist “state within a state.” Moses’ call to war rang clearly as the IDF was on its way to confront an enemy whose long record of hatred, harm and pursuit with the intent to kill included hijackings, launching rockets into northern Israel, massacring school children, and staining the Olympic Games with bloodshed.

What does it mean to actually go to war and confront an evil enemy? You never really understand that until it gets up close and personal. I learned that part of the parasha the next morning, June 6 – the first formal day of the Lebanon War.

Through heavy traffic, I made my way back to my yeshiva. I attended Kerem B’Yavneh, a Hesder yeshiva where Israeli young men enroll in a five-year program that combines Torah study with service in IDF combat units. I studied there during the second semester of my senior year of high school, and I was scheduled to return to Los Angeles that week for my graduation from YULA High School.

Running from the bus stop, I went straight to the Beit Midrash, where my chavruta (study partner) waited for me. “Let’s begin studying, we don’t have much time,” he said. I didn’t understand what he meant, but I soon found out. I once again heard jeeps screeching outside, along with buses. Into the Beit Midrash — which was filled with hundreds of young men studying Talmud — there came two IDF officers. They approached the front of the room, and a sudden silence fell over us as they began to read names and numbers.

I sat there watching the entire Beit Midrash clear out. When my chavrutah’s name was called, he looked at me with a smile and said, “I have to go now, please promise me that you won’t leave, and I promise you that I will return here to continue our studies.” He hugged me and ran out, and I followed him, only to now see all of the boys, and some rabbis, boarding the buses with their IDF duffle bags. Along with my chavrutah were Chovav Landau, who always opened his home to us students from abroad, and Yehuda Katz, who was one of the yeshiva’s top Talmud students. There were also some of my rabbis, Talmud scholars who also commanded tanks. These were all combat soldiers in the tank corps, on their way to war.

As the buses rolled away, I witnessed something incredible. With full awareness that they were on their way to war, these boys broke out in song. They sang songs of faith in God. The buses rolled away in the dust, and the voices of young men faithfully singing continued to echo in my heart. I went back into the Beit Midrash, where about 25 of us remained.

I never went back to my YULA graduation. My summer turned out quite different. It included Chovav’s funeral, studying intensely in the Beit Midrash, and reciting psalms for the return of Yehuda Katz (who is missing in action until this day).

My chavruta did return, which made me very happy. When he walked into the Beit Midrash, I did not recognize him, as he had grown a beard. I sat in the same seat where we always sat while studying, and he came over to me, fresh out of battle, and his first words were, “So, where were we, in Rashi’s commentary?” I was overjoyed to see him, knowing that he survived fighting against our “foes and enemies.”

34 years later, I look back at that period with mixed feelings. On one hand, I was inspired by the boys on the bus, and thrilled that my chavruta came home. At the same time, I was saddened by the death of Chovav, I occasionally still recite Psalms for the return of Yehuda Katz, and find it terribly sad and upsetting that “our foes and enemies” continue their ugly war against us.

May a redeemer come to Zion speedily in our days, bringing peace in Israel and around the world, Amen.