When I was a teenager in high school and living in Israel, I dated an Israeli guy. Back in those days, “dated” was a rather innocuous term, because we were rarely alone together. When you went out on a “date” it meant that you were with a gang of friends, coupled and single, or with one’s own family. So many of my “dates” were with my boyfriend’s parents, and just as often with his big brother Shaul and his girlfriend. So that’s how I got to know Shaul.
Shaul was a Captain in the IDF, and for any kid in high school at that time, that in itself was a reason to look up to him. Shaul was in Intelligence, and mostly he couldn’t tell us specifically what he did, which added to the mystique and awe. But what I did know was this: Shaul was extremely kind, super bright, always with a smile; he showed extreme consideration to all those who crossed his path, honored his parents, and loved his girlfriend. He was tall and strong and handsome, and he had dreamy blue eyes. He had another few months to serve in the IDF, and then he planned on making his engagement to Tami official. He was the ben b’chor, the firstborn son, the big brother that everyone looked up to. He was the long-awaited gift of redemption for his mother, a Holocaust survivor who had suffered so much loss.
But then came the Yom Kippur War, and days later Shaul was dead along with several other fellow soldiers, shot down from the sky in a plane crash over Sinai. Miraculously two young men survived the crash, but Shaul, 23, was not one of them.
In the chaos of war and mass casualties, and in accordance with Jewish Law where burial is immediate, there was no time to bring his body to Haifa where his parents lived, so he was buried in a temporary military cemetery in the Negev. His family attended that funeral, and then, a year later, his remains were moved to their permanent resting place in the military cemetery in Haifa.
The family would have to experience the trauma of burying their son, twice. This time his almost-fiancee did not attend his second funeral. She was so devastated that she left Israel entirely, and settled in Canada. She would not marry for many years. She was too afraid to let herself love again, and she was determined it would not be to an Israeli who would need to go to war.
Shaul’s mom was completely embittered. She railed against God. “After what I went through? It wasn’t enough that I had to see my family murdered? Why did God give me a child, only to take him away so cruelly? How can there even be a God? Is this why I came to Israel after the War?”
Shaul’s father, utterly broken, retreated into silence. His response was the opposite of his wife’s: he started attending a daily minyan so that he would not miss the opportunity of saying kaddish for his son.
“I don’t understand how he can go to shul,” Shaul’s mom would rage. “There sits the rabbi’s son, who didn’t even go into the army! How can he look my husband in the eye? It’s easy for the rabbi to say “amen” to the kaddish – – he will never have to worry about the possibility of losing a son in battle.”
My boyfriend’s life would also take a very different turn. He hated the tension in his home, he missed the love and laughter of his brother. So he mostly wasn’t home at all. He kept his grief inside. He shut everyone out. (We broke up shortly thereafter.) And when he got notice that he had been accepted for the most prestigious division in the entire military – – the pilot’s training course – – he was torn between resentment and understanding when his mother refused to sign her permission to allow him to do combat duty, thereby crushing his long-held dream of being a pilot in the IDF. He developed debilitating ulcers at the age of 19.
Shaul’s father continued to go to work, but he moved like an automaton, retreating to silence and rarely expressing any emotion other than sadness.
Perhaps the deprivation from the war years finally caught up with his mother, but the impact of her son’s death was profound. Despite the fact that her two remaining sons would eventually marry and give her grandchildren, she could no longer relax and just enjoy them. No one could measure up to her Shaul. She died a few years later of a broken heart.
Last night I attended a Memorial Day service commemorating the service and lives lost of Israeli soldiers fallen in battle and terrorist attacks. The scroll of the dead is long, and fittingly at the service they spoke movingly about the lives of only a few specific soldiers, so that this huge list of heroes wouldn’t be simply numbers, which is incomprehensible, but real people who were sons, fathers, husbands, brothers, uncles, cousins, friends and classmates. While every fallen soldier is unique, their story is not: we keep burying our best, generation after generation. That is the price we pay for living in Israel, and the price we pay as Jews. Mostly, the stories are positive. Israelis, despite their countless tragedies, always are moving forward, looking to a brighter future, building and growing and celebrating life. We continue having children and naming those children in remembrance of those who sacrificed their lives, so that the dead live on and that the living choose a life with senses of purpose and responsibility to those who preceded them.
And we continue to hope for a peaceful future!
Most Israelis are able to hide their pain, and go on to live lives filled with love and strength of spirit and even joy. Israelis so appreciate life and their families; they cherish Jewish holidays, whether they observe them religiously or not. They recognize miracles, and grasp every opportunity for adventure, humor, innovation, devotion, and meaning with incredible intensity.
Perhaps my former boyfriend’s family was less successful at reconstructing their lives than most. But there is a toll, a very deep toll, and knowing that it continues is truly unfathomable.
May Shaul ben Yitzchak’s sacrifice not be in vain.
May God watch over our soldiers and all of klal Yisrael.
May our children be safe.
And may the Final Redemption come speedily, in our day.