By Lilly Cohen
Late afternoon, just as the last bit of sun paints the white walls of Jerusalem a dusky pink, I make my way to the Kotel (Western Wall). Swaddled in fat layers of winter-wool, tonight I’m one of the few brave enough to face the storm clouds looming in the distance. Winter storms in Jerusalem are something epic. The air turns a silent dark in anticipation: even light and sound hold its breath. Then comes the howling screech of wind, driving sheets of rain around corners and into alleyways. Ah yes, winter storms in Jerusalem are fearsome, loud and majestically beautiful.
But tonight I ignore the threat of gale-force winds and driving rains. It’s worth it. Because often, Thursday evenings hold the promise of something exceptional at the Kotel: a swearing-in ceremony for the new soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Tonight is no different. After a month of basic training, approximately 1 000 soldiers will officially join the IDF’s Nachal brigade. Family and friends have come to watch and celebrate. It’s a proud, joyous crowd that awaits the ceremony. Yet something bitter-sweet hovers close by. Nostalgia perhaps… The knowledge that tonight marks the certain end of childhood for the new soldiers. Or perhaps it is those nagging “what if” questions. What if the rumours of war surrounding Israel spark into flame like it did so many times in the past? Like it did just recently. What would that mean for these boys becoming soldiers tonight? Abba, I pray for the peace of Jerusalem…
The crowd jostles, restless in its anticipation. The movement carries me forward and I nestle into the front row next to a large Moroccan Jewish family. Tonight, everybody is welcomed like a long lost friend. Even an obvious foreigner speaking broken Hebrew. The two grandparents are unable to contain their pride and chatter away in rapid Hebrew. Singing the praises of their grandson I presume, who, judging from their gestures, must be amongst the would-be soldiers. Age have shrunk and doubled the two over and they would fit under my arms comfortably. May they always find refuge under Your wings, Abba.
On my right, an anxious mother watches the line of would-be soldiers streaming from the busses. She catches my eye and smiles shyly. She introduces herself as Hannah. Her son, Ehud, becomes a soldier tonight. She gives a little gasp as another lanky figure in kaki steps from the bus. Her son I presume. As Ehud sees his mother his demeanor changes. For a moment at least, the almost grown-up young man becomes a little boy running for his mother’s arms.
Tears stream down Hannah’s cheeks as she traces the lines of his face. The typical mother questions follow: is he getting enough sleep, his weight – are they feeding him enough, his hands – why are his hands so dry and chapped? Ehud gives a hurried description of the highlights in his new army life – rapid, rapid Hebrew so all I can understand is that they run a lot. Hannah still hasn’t stopped crying; soundless tears fall as she nods, smiles and listens. Her son wipes them away with the rough, dry hands of a man. It’s time for the ceremony to start and Ehud gives her a final hug. As he jogs away she murmurs, “So handsome, so handsome my boy.”
Hannah and I watch the ceremony together. Each soldier is called forward from his unit. From his commanding officer he receives his service weapon in his right hand and the Torah in his left. May you know your gun as well as you know every Word of God. When it is Ehud’s turn I put my arm around Hannah. Her husband died when Ehud was still a baby, she tells me. He was in the same brigade that Ehud joins tonight. “I pray that he can see his son tonight and that he is proud,” she says. I pray that too. I cry with Hannah as Ehud is called forward from his unit, marches smartly to the front and receives his gun and the Bible from his commanding officer. Yes, I know his father would be proud.
1 000 boys stand on attention – gun in the right hand, Bible in the left. “Do you swear to stand guard over Israel and give your life to protect her?” “I swear, I swear, I swear.” As 1 000 voices echo through the ancient walls of my beloved Jerusalem, I pray that they would never be called on to fulfil that oath…
The ceremony concludes with the HaTikvah – The Hope, Israel’s national anthem. I’ve heard it often – I know the words. But tonight it’s Isaiah 44:5 that fills my heart, “Yet another will write that he belongs to the Lord and adopt the surname Israel.”
With all the formalities over it’s celebration time! Jubilant families flock to their new hero, their brave warrior. For the first time tonight, he wears his service weapon slung oh-so-casually over his shoulder. As if on cue the frosty air turns a silent dark: the city braces itself for one of its fearsome winter storms. The wind picks up a notch and starts is sorrowful howl through the alleyways of Jerusalem. Icy raindrops sting my cheeks.
You are the One who steadies my heart. Thank You Abba, that the responsibility for keeping Israel safe will never rest on these boys’ shoulders. “Behold, He who keeps Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalm 121:4).Share this page with your friends
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