from the heart of jerusalem

A Sukkot reminder: Everything in life is fragile


His steely eyes should have given him away, but over 30 years ago, I was a new immigrant, only four months into my Israeli army service, and I had no idea who this Lieutenant General really was. We were finishing our second stage of tank training at the Israeli Armored Corps school, and, graduating as a tank driver, I was being awarded my first rank: Turai’-Rishon (“chief private first class”) by someone I would later learn was and still is an Israeli legend. This particular rank, of almost no value, was awarded a few of us who represented the battalion as outstanding cadets at the final ceremonies of the course.

Looking back, the true value of that award ceremony was the opportunity to meet this living legend first hand, though it was not something I appreciated at the time. I remember what he said to me: “You are part of a special family (the tank crews of the armored corps), whose task it is to defend the people of Israel. Aleh’ Ve’Hatzleach (arise and succeed).”

• • •

The man who presented my award, Yossi Ben-Chanan, was in Katmandu, Nepal, on honeymoon. It was six years after the Six-day war; Yossi was a lieutenant colonel, commander of an armored battalion, and he had finally gotten away with his new bride, Nati.

They were a couple that represented all that was Israel in the early fall of 1973: young, brimming with enthusiasm and adventure, with the whole world before them and no mountain that could not be conquered. They were traveling the mountain passes of the Himalayas by motorcycle, and had ended up in Katmandu in time for Yom Kippur.

Two days later, having heard the horrible news of the surprise attack on Yom Kippur afternoon, minus their backpacks, which had been thrown off in a mad rush to make a plane from Delhi to Bombay, they boarded an El Al plane headed home to Israel, and to an uncertain future.

On Oct. 9, instead of climbing mountain trails with his new wife, he was climbing into the turret of a Centurion tank to command what was left of the 188th Brigade. 

• • •

When Yossi finally arrived at the front lines, the seventh brigade, commanded by Yanosh Ben-Gal, one of Yossi’s closest friends, was fighting a desperate last stand at the Northern tip of the Golan Heights, fighting to hold off the seemingly endless onslaught of hundreds of Syrian tanks which filled the valley, from breaking through to the Galil and the unprotected belly of Israel behind them.

The 75 tanks of Yossi’s 188th Brigade had been completely obliterated in the first days of the war, and its entire senior staff, including Brigade commander Yitzchak Ben Shoham, another close friend of Yossi’s, lay dead on the field of battle. Seven tanks were all that remained to stop four Syrian Divisions, now re-enforced with Rifat Assad’s elite Syrian Presidential Guard, from breaking through and raising Syrian flags over Tel Aviv and Haifa, when Yossi finally arrived at Brigade Headquarters in Nafach on the Golan.

Shmuel Askarov, Yossi’s deputy, working through the night, managed to salvage enough parts and crews to ready 11 tanks for the field, and on that fateful afternoon, as the war was about to be lost, the 188th was reborn.

Wounded in his first few hours of combat, Yossi and Shmuel Askarov, coming to the aid of their beleaguered comrades, stemmed and eventually turned the tide of battle. General Raful Eitan, commander of the Northern Front, said over the radio: “You have saved the people of Israel.”

A few days later, as the IDF finally turned the tide and began to push the Syrians back, the IDF was jeopardized by murderous fire that poured down from Syrian guns entrenched high above.

At that point Yossi found what amounted to a goat path and brought his few tanks up behind the Syrians. In the protracted battle Yossi’s tank was hit and he and one of his crew lay wounded behind enemy lines. 

• • •

With the radio they had managed to salvage from their burning tank they let command know where they were, which was how Yoni Netanyahu managed to rescue them in a daring mission behind enemy lines. 

As part of a commemoration on an anniversary of the 1976 Entebbe hostage rescue in which Yoni Netanyahu was tragically killed, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, Yoni’s brother, met with Yossi Ben-Chanan. Yossi told Bibi:

“There was a moment I recall that wasn’t recorded. It was the moment that Yoni and his men arrived, and I told them, ‘Careful, there’s shooting here.’ And Yoni said to me, ‘Yossi, relax, I’m in charge now’.”

Ben-Chanan now 71, who named his daughter Yoni, said he owes his life to Yoni Netanyahu. “I think about that event almost every day,” he said

This week we begin the festival of Sukkot, when Jews all over the world will leave the comfort of their homes to sit in booths. What exactly is the historical event we are commemorating by sitting in these booths? 

On Pesach we recall the miracles G-d did for us when we left Egypt, and on Shavuot we recall the miraculous revelation at Sinai. But what is Sukkot all about? 

The Torah (Vayikra 23:43) tells us we are meant to sit in booths because G-d caused us to dwell in such booths (Sukkot) when we left Egypt. But what is so miraculous about that? After all, we were in the desert for 40 years; it makes sense to build temporary shelters.

On Rosh Hashanah, as part of the Mustafa zichronot liturgy, the Prophet Jeremiah has G-d saying:

I remember your devotion in youthful days, the love of the days of your betrothal, when you followed me in the wilderness, into a land unsown and unknown.”

Perhaps the miracle of the booths was precisely that we were willing to trust in G-d for 40 years in the desert even when we knew we would not necessarily merit to reach the Promised Land. The second generation after the sins of the golden calf and the spies were told they would not enter the land but were nonetheless willing to endure 40 years in the desert.

The Sukkah booth reminds us on the one hand just how precarious life is, how temporary and without guarantees. And yet it also allows us to recall a time of betrothal, of love, when we as a people were willing to bear any sacrifice and endure any hardship for something we loved so much we would follow anywhere.

Yossi Ben Chanan represents for me that quintessential Israeli who on the one hand planed his honeymoon to be in Katmandu for Yom Kippur, and yet was willing to give up everything for the people he loves.

This year as we enter the Sukkah and recall how fragile and temporary life is, especially in the wake of the terrible natural disasters that seem to have nearly overtaken the globe, let us focus on the many blessings: less our physical homes and more the loved ones with whom we share the Sukkah of life.

Wishing all a meaningful and wonderful Sukkot. Chag sameach from Jerusalem.