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The highlight of the trip

This week, our much awaited Belev Echad program-- which saw ten severely wounded Israeli soldiers enjoy an unforgettable American vacation-- drew to a close. Thank G-d, the trip exceeded our wildest expectations. During an emotional moment on the last day, I asked the soldiers to share with me what they considered the highlight of the trip. I expected them to name any one of the great sites we had toured-- the Empire State Building, Washington’s Holocaust Museum or maybe the White House. I was shocked when Ofer Spitzer stated the highlight of his trip was his visit to the Rebbe’s Ohel in Queens, NY. Ofer, you see, donned tefillin for the first time in his life that day. It all happened after he witnessed his son, Ben-- considered the most severely wounded soldier in Operation Cast-Lead-- put on tefillin for the first time since he had been injured. Ben was convinced that his life had been spared in the merit of the mitzvah that he had performed right before his unit entered Gaza.

On that day I experienced first hand the unshakable faith that defines a Jew. Here was a soldier who had been ravaged by war, a young man standing on the brink of his entire future with nightmarish memories and the loss of both his hands. Instead of blaming G-d for his torment, for his crippled body, or for his dismally changed life, he decided to thank Him for sparing him! And when his dad, who had never before donned tefillin followed suit… I almost cried.

For me, this story alone made the trip worthwhile, because in that instant I felt that I had had the great honour of assisting to ignite another Jew’s flame. And if for one minute over the months of planning and fundraising I had doubted the success of this trip, that moment undid it for me. 

The whole story left me thinking. Even if it was such an emotionally and spiritually defined moment, why would it stand out in Ofer’s mind? Why would he choose that moment over all the other spectacular things we did? Couldn’t he have chosen the unforgettable Maid of the Mist boat ride in Niagara Falls, or maybe Havdala in Times Square in an extravagant limousine? Perhaps the beach house in the Hamptons or the Israeli embassy? What was it about that day that touched Ofer so deeply? I mean, Ofer is far from religious. He doesn’t keep Shabbat or kosher. He doesn’t pray, yet he couldn’t let go of the tefillin experience…

And then it all came to me when I recalled this week’s Parsha’s opening verse. “Zot chukat HaTorah,”—“This is the decree of the Torah…” The word “decree” literally translates as engrave. Once engraved, the finished product is irreversible as the letters are now “etched in stone.” Whether he realizes it or not, each Jew is manufactured with an inherent desire to cleave to his Maker. When he dons tefillin or performs any mitzvah, he stamps his soul with an intense and powerful bond to G-d. (Indeed, the word mitzvah translates as both commandment and connection). The performance of a mitzvah is the engraving on his soul. Ofer was so moved by the deed because it was most likely the first time he experienced the connection. And in the face of such a colossal event, who would remember something as trivial as New York’s skyline?

The real hero's of the Gaza Flotilla Raid

The events transpiring in the Middle East this week kept many people riveted. Viewing the footage of the violence that greeted Israeli soldiers boarding the Turkish flotilla, I found myself wondering about the soldiers. What thoughts crossed their minds as they slid down the ropes onto the ship? What they originally anticipated would be a peaceful inspection turned into a hailstorm of stones and knives and a very real pre-meditated lynch. I guess if that were me, besides for feeling sheer panic, one thought would be very clear to me— what did I just get myself into here?

Regardless of your political mindset, one fact is indisputable—these soldiers boast a tremendous amount of self sacrifice. They are ordinary people with ordinary lives, and yet somehow, they are larger than life. At just 18 years old, these kids are barely out the classroom and have a family, friends and a life waiting for them back home. Yet despite this, you’ll find them boarding hostile ships, weathering blows in the name of a country and a people they desperately wish to protect. Funny how if you zip across the globe to the Great West, you’ll find kids the same age doing nothing more useful than falling out of bars at 3am and toying with their lives while they experiment with dangerous drugs. Each IDF soldier, in contrast, is a tower of perseverance, conviction and commitment. These men ought to be our role models, for their deeds are testaments to what really counts in life and what it means to fight for something you love. This week they made us proud, for each blow they took to their physical persons was endured on behalf of all of us in our comfortable homes, for all of Am Yisrael.

We are privileged to be greeting ten of these very same heroes this Sunday, G-d willing, as they join us for a vacation in the U.S. Our guests were all severely wounded in battle. They have lost limbs on our behalf. We invite everyone to come and meet these ordinary guys, who have become extraordinary after having chosen to put their lives on the line for the sake of the entire Jewish nation.

This week’s Torah portion describes how the Jewish people sent spies to scout the land of Israel to determine how best to conquer it. Ten of the twelve spies returned with a very unfavourable report about the land. “Eretz ochelet yoshveha,” they claimed. “It is a land that consumes its inhabitants. Giants dwell there. There is no way we will be able to conquer it – we will surely be killed. They are far stronger than us.” Only two of the spies, Yehoshua and Kalev, were convinced the Jews could conquer the land- “aloh naaleh yerashnu otah.

Would it be difficult? Yes. Would there be obstacles to overcome? Undoubtedly. But Yehoshua and Kalev firmly believed that if G-d stood behind the nation’s decisions, they could completely rely on Him to lead them to victory. Their commitment and faith illuminated their way and eventually led them to triumph. We cannot hope to win our modern day war for our land and our people if we do not stand together, ready to carry out G-d’s plan for the Jewish people. Certainly if we adopt similar tactics, we too will be successful.

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