from the heart of jerusalem

Soldiers for Israel, doing their jobs


I noticed the jeep in the distance almost immediately; it was impossible to miss. We were on maneuvers deep in tfhe Negev desert, and there was nothing around but us. Sure enough, 20 minutes later the jeep pulled up alongside our tank and a man with a colonel’s oak leaves on his shoulders got out. Our commander jumped down for a hurried conference.

We were only too happy for the brief respite; I was in the middle of tank commander’s course, one of the most depressing experiences I have ever had. A moment later, our commander ordered the gunner off the tank and told us that the colonel would be joining us. We did not need to know why, but for the purposes of our training, we should “treat him like one of the guys.”

Yeah, right. A full-bird colonel, one of the guys? We were not even sergeants yet. Our commander, a first sergeant, was the final word, and his commander, a lieutenant, was like the prince whose word is law. The lieutenant’s commander, a captain, was like the king. And the captain’s commander, the battalion commander, a major, was like G-d. So what did that make a colonel?

We did our best to stay out of the colonel’s way, though when you share a tank it is not easy. He was not a big talker, and didn’t mix much or sleep in the tank with us enlisted men. This went on for the better part of three weeks.

One day, however, it all finally came to a head. We were on a maneuver and I was acting as tank commander. There are four crewmembers in a tank: driver, gunner, loader, and commander. To become tank commanders, we had to become accomplished in each position, so we would switch off. This was my turn.

One of the serious rules of tanks is called gevulot gizrah, or the limited field of the firing range. You can only fire in certain directions, with markers to denote the field of fire. Not only was it forbidden to fire outside the permitted field, it was even prohibited to point your tank gun out of it. This is an issue the army takes very seriously. A shell fired in the wrong direction could easily land in a local town, so the punishment for allowing the tank gun to stray outside the field of fire was the loss of the entire crew’s weekend pass.

This becomes challenging. Your job as a commander is to seek out the enemy and bring the main cannon to bear on the target, at which point the gunner lines up his sights and fires. And while you can see the entire horizon from the commander’s turret, the gunner looking through his magnified sights inside the tank can only see the limited field of vision in his scope. So if you haven’t managed to place the gun exactly on target, he will begin to sweep sideways in search of it. And if he is moving the gun in the wrong direction, he may continue searching, not realizing that he is turning the wrong way. In fact, when he uses his controls to turn the gun sideways, the entire turret of the gun turns with him.

I was acting as tank commander, and the colonel was practicing his gunnery. Sure enough, he began to rotate the tank gun in search of the target, and I could see the gun heading outside the field of fire.

Years later, the prospect of commanding one tank crew is relatively simple. But when you are first learning to command a tank, it seems as though there is a tremendous amount to do. The tank is moving very fast, and you have to make sure the driver is headed in the right direction, keep the loader’s machine gun as well as your own facing the right direction, ensure the proper ammo is in the main gun, and communicate with your platoon on the tank radio. In fact, you don’t even have a hand free — one hand holds the radio switch, and the other fires the machine gun. So the armored corps has developed a simple system to tell the gunner to stop rotating: as his seat is in front of your legs, in the belly of the tank, you kick him in the helmet, and he gets the message.

But what do you do when the gunner is a full bird colonel? I shouted into the intercom to no avail; with all the noise of heavy gunfire and the tank engine, he couldn’t hear me. In desperation, I decided there was no way I was giving up my weekend pass, so I kicked him in the back of his helmet. I heard a grunt — “ugh!” — over the intercom, and he released the controls.

Later, when we all got out of the tank, I discovered he had a huge welt in the middle of his forehead. I had kicked him so hard that his head slammed into the gunner’s console. I was terrified that I would pay a price for this overreaction, but never heard another word about it.

Months later, I discovered who this fellow really was: Shaul Mofaz. He had been Yoni Netanyahu’s second-in-command on the famous Entebbe rescue mission, and he would eventually become the Israeli defense minister.

That single moment remains with me as a model of leadership. Here was a full colonel, kicked in the head by a private, who offered no more than a grunt. No curse, no formal reprimand or stockade time, not even so much as a dressing-down. In that moment, we were just two soldiers doing their jobs.

This week, we read the portion of Tzav, which includes the anointing of Aharon and his sons as priests for the first time. To anoint them, G-d tells Moshe to “take the blood from the slaughtered animal and place some of it in the middle part of Aharon’s right ear, upon the thumb of his right hand, and upon the big toe of his right foot” (Vayikra 8:23).

Some take this to mean that a leader must learn how to listen, know what to do, and be able to choose a clear path on which to walk.

Interestingly, this very same procedure is applied to the purification of the metzorah, the leper who, according to tradition, is punished with a spiritual malady due to his sins, which can include slander and evil speech.

How can the same process apply to the High Priest and the metzorah? Can two people with such disparate levels of holiness undergo the same procedure?

There is an interesting discussion in the tractate of Berachot which may shed light on this anomaly. The rabbis (Berachot 2b) discuss the exact point at which day becomes night. Clearlym until the sun has set it is still day. Once the stars have come out it is night. The question is the status of twilight.

Rabbi Yossi is of the opinion that “bein hashmashot keheref ayin,” the transition from day to night is the blink of an eye. There is no middle ground; it is either day, or it is night.

Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, in his Ein Ayah commentary, explains the implications of this idea.  Imagine a 300-pound person is trying to lose weight. He decides he will start eating healthier and exercising. After three days of daily walks and lots of fruit and vegetables, he weighs himself and discovers he has lost one pound.

To everyone else, suggests Rav Kook, nothing has changed yet. No one can tell the difference between a 300-pound fellow and one who weighs 299 pounds. But he knows the entire world has changed, because he is heading in a new direction.

Obviously, the High Priest and the metzorah are in two completely different spaces, but they share in common the fact that both are trying to grow, to elevate themselves spiritually, and in that moment they are viewed equally.

Perhaps the Torah is teaching us that when two people are trying to grow, Hashem does not see them as different. Just like that moment in the tank: a high-ranking officer  kicked in the head by a simple private might have been expected to curse, or at least glare. But in that moment, we were both just soldiers doing our job.

It was a valuable lesson on what a leader is really meant to be.

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.