It was one of the darkest moments of my life, although in retrospect it seems almost trivial.
After completing two months of basic infantry training, two months of tank school training followed by the armored corps’ grueling 12 week field training course, and then successfully completing tank commander’s course, I was invited to IDF Officer training. This is a course by invitation only; no matter how much you want it, the army has to decide you are worth the spot.
I recall struggling with the decision as it meant signing up for a lot more army time, with no guarantee I would finish. As it turned out, I did not know the half of it.
Two hundred and fifty of us were invited to try our hand at getting into Officer’s course — only 80 would be selected — and we were assembled for a month-long “mechin,” or prep course. After an intense month of tests, exhausting runs, navigations, and a variety of training exercises designed to see how we would fare under pressure, we were assembled on the misdar (parade ground) as the 80 names were called out in what is known as a misdar de’maot (parade of tears), tears for the 170 cadets who would not be going on to officer’s course.
Four months later, after an even more painfully difficult IDF officer’s course at the infamous Bahd Echad (IDF training base One), we received our IDF Officer oak leaf-and-sword pin. After that, there was only one course left — four months of one of the most grueling courses in the IDF was all that stood between me and receiving my second lieutenant’s bars: the IDF Tank platoon commander’s course.
And after three months and 27 days, averaging three hours sleep a night, having slept in an actual bed for no more than seven or eight of those days, with just three days left to the course, a tribunal consisting of my company commander, battalion commander and the base commander, explained that they did not feel in good conscience they could send me out into the field to command men under fire.
I had been given notice throughout the course that my scores were borderline, but we had actually completed the course and were in the process of preparing for the final ceremony, practicing on the parade ground, giving back the gear we had signed off on, cleaning the tanks, and I could already taste it. I had allowed myself to think I was done, when they had sent word I was to appear that evening in dress uniform for a tribunal reviewing my course status. They told me I was good, I just wasn’t good enough. And ten minutes later I was done, told I was free to leave the base and report to a new unit as a tank commander.
The thought of spending the night on base watching all my buddies joking around and preparing for the ceremony was too much bear. Which was why I found myself at 10 o’clock at night on a lonely stretch of road outside the base in the middle of the Negev desert, desperately waiting to hitch a ride, any ride, to get as far away as I could from what I was now desperate to put behind me.
For six hours I stood on the lonely road beneath the night sky full of stars with my kitbag and gear trying to figure it all out. If I was not meant to be an officer then what was the point of all the hell I had just been through? It was one of the darkest nights of my life.
This week’s parsha of Miketz offers a glimpse into just such a moment in the life of Yosef, beloved and favored son of Yaakov.
After being sold as a slave and eventually plucked out of the pit of Egypt’s Royal prison system, Joseph, literally overnight, finds himself standing in front of no less than Pharaoh himself being asked to interpret his dreams. The seven fat healthy cows consumed by the seven sickly cows along the Nile, and the second dream of seven healthy wheat stalks consumed by seven moldy stalks, meant there would be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine.
We all know how the story plays out: Pharaoh, impressed by Joseph’s wisdom and humility (“it is G-d who provides the interpretations of dreams”) appoints him to be the viceroy over the entire Egyptian empire, and in a moment, the lowly slave becomes the second most powerful person in the world.
But there is a fascinating and seemingly insignificant detail in the story that begs a question: Pharaoh has two dreams, and they both seem to be identical. So why the need for both dreams? Joseph actually explains this puzzling detail: “That Pharaoh has dreamed this twice means that G-d is firmly resolved regarding this plan and is speedily setting it in motion.” (Bereishis 41:32)
How did Joseph know this? It may be that G-d shared with Joseph a prophecy to that effect, but the Torah usually reveals such information as prophecy; here, there is no “and G-d spoke to Joseph.”
Like Pharaoh, Joseph himself had two dreams, many years earlier, which seemed to be the prelude for everything that happened subsequently — dreaming of wheat bushels and the sun moon and stars bowing down to him. It is hard to imagine Joseph, standing before Pharaoh, not recalling his own dreams and one wonders if Joseph began to realize he was finally getting a glimpse of the bigger picture.
It must have been devastating for Joseph; one minute he was the favored son of Yaakov, gifted with a beautiful technicolor coat as a symbol of his father’s love and dreaming of great things ; even the sun moon and stars would bow down to him!
He must have felt G-d was guiding his path: he was destined for greatness.
And in a whirlwind of events he found himself in a pit if despair. First the pit his brothers threw him in, and later the pit of Egyptian servitude. Gone were his delusions of grandeur as the years snuck by and no salvation seemed imminent.
His beloved father Yaakov was not coming to save him and no one seemed to care as he languished in the pit of despair; even the butler whose life he had saved had long forgotten him.
But the Talmud tells us that “yeshuat Hashem ke’heref ayin” (“the salvation of Hashem can come like the blink of an eye”). As Joseph stands before Pharaoh, perhaps he finally realizes this was all part of a bigger picture. It was not the brothers who had thrown him in that pit all those years ago — Hashem had placed him in that pit and had been guiding his journey. Joseph had dreamed of wheat bushels bowing down, and Pharaoh dreamed of wheat stalks being consumed, and it was through the storing of wheat and its later barter that Joseph becomes the instrument for G-d’s plan that caused the brothers to eventually come down to Egypt.
The brothers’ descent to Egypt leads to the eventual servitude of the Jews in Egypt which itself leads to the Exodus which leads to the giving of the Torah and the Ten Commandments and the Jews’ eventual return to the land of Israel — because it’s all part of Hashem’s plan.
Perhaps Joseph realizes: that pit was not a setback at all, it was all part of the journey. That pit was what allowed Joseph not just to stand before Pharaoh, but to stand before him with humility, which was probably why he was appointed viceroy.
Sometimes we find ourselves in the pit of life, and things seem to be headed in the wrong direction. But there is always a bigger picture, we just don’t usually get to see it. And though it may seem the wrong direction to us, Hashem is a pretty good navigator, and if we wait long enough, sometimes we get a glimpse of where that journey is really taking us.
They had told me, just before dismissing me, that although normally when a cadet is dismissed from Officer’s course he is never allowed to return (having been found unworthy), in my case, I would be allowed to repeat the entire course form the beginning, but I had only until Sunday morning to decide.
In that moment I could not imagine doing it all over again. But after a tortuous weekend, I decided I had to try if only to not spend the rest of my life thinking “I should have.”
Which was why, four months later, I found myself, nearly two years after first donning an IDF uniform, on the parade ground on that same base in the Negev desert, this time under a bright sun, squinting up at Moshe Levy, the IDF Chief of staff, as I received my lieutenant’s bars at last.
It would take a while longer, on a lonely stretch of road in Lebanon, before I finally started to glimpse why I needed those extra months in Officer’s training and why sometimes “good” is not good enough. But then, that’s another story.
Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.