Here is an English translation of YAR’s beautiful letter. As I noted previously, he and his brother are our relatives, and I thank him for allowing me to post his letter here on Our Shiputzim.
(Sunday, January 4, 2009) This evening, my brother, who serves as a career military rabbi, told me the following story, which took place this past Shabbat, when the IDF entered Gaza.
He was one of three rabbis who spent Shabbat on a base not too far away from the border, together with a few hundred soldiers who were preparing for the ground incursion. After spending the day delivering shiurim and motivational speeches, the rabbis wondered if they should perhaps travel with the soldiers from the base to the staging location, in order to boost the soldiers’ morale.
They deliberated and finally decided – with some hesitation – to go along with the soldiers.
Hoping to arrange a minchah prayer service, the rabbis took a Sefer Torah with them. When it was time to get off the bus, my brother asked someone to pass the Torah to him (in order to mitigate the halachic issue of bringing something into a karmelit). However, when he got off the bus, the Torah stayed behind. He looked back into the bus and saw that the soldiers were passing the Torah from hand to hand. Each soldier took the opportunity to embrace it tightly.
Afterwards, a group of soldiers approached two of the rabbis. (The bearded rabbis stood out; one was holding the Sefer Torah, and the other was wearing his talit.) The soldiers asked the rabbis for a blessing. Since giving blessings isn’t included in a military rabbi’s standard job description, my brother told the soldiers that he would recite the blessing he uses for his sons on Leil Shabbat. To his amazement, more and more soldiers began approaching him. (According to him, most of them were traditional – i.e. not outwardly observant. The bnei yeshivot seemed less interested in receiving a blessing from the rabbis.) Soon, so many soldiers had amassed that the rabbis could no longer give personal blessings.
Instead, they spread out a talit over the crowd’s heads – as is customary on Simchat Torah – and blessed everyone in unison.
With great emotion, several soldiers exclaimed that the rabbis’ presence gave them strength and boosted their spirits. One soldier even added that the rabbis’ blessing was more significant and meaningful for him than all the training sessions he had heard in the period leading up to the operation.
As the sun began to set, the long infantry columns set out towards the Strip. Meanwhile, the rabbis stood near the crossing with the Sefer Torah in their hands and called out words of encouragement and blessing to the soldiers. (“May Hashem be with you,” “may Hashem bless you,” and other phrases inspired by the Rambam’s writings on fear during a battle.) The soldiers, in turn, kissed the Sefer Torah as they marched along.
Ashreichem Yisrael! (How fortunate are you, O Israel!)
My brother wanted to hear what I thought about the story, in terms of the Shabbat laws. He and his colleagues had been reprimanded by the brigade rabbi for permitting themselves to take the Sefer Torah with them. In fact, he claimed that the entire trip was problematic. (For instance, he rejected their argument that they were in a similar position to a husband who travels with his wife to the hospital on Shabbat when she is about to give birth, in order to give her emotional support.)
The commanding rabbi’s words caused my brother to second guess himself. Although he was confident that he had acted in accordance with the worldview of IDF Chief Rabbi Rav Ronsky, he wasn’t sure if he had acted properly.
I immediately assured him that in my opinion, his behavior constitutes an incredible Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of Hashem’s Name).
How could anyone disagree?