Years ago, after a very difficult month in Lebanon, someone higher up decided our unit needed a break. Every unit maintains a daily events log (yoman iruim). Every patrol, ambush, search and seize, and oversight mission gets logged, and when a unit accrues too many stressful events, they are, if circumstances allow, pulled off the line for a little rest.
After transferring the line to a reserve company, we found ourselves in Netanya, in a heavenly place called Beit Goldmintz, along the Netanya coast. Our mouths fell open when we walked into the room we had been assigned: carpeted, four to a room, each with its own bathroom and shower and a balcony with a view of the sea; we were in heaven!
With the exception of morning runs (madasim) along the beach, for an entire week we were meant to relax and catch our breaths. We were not given leave to go home, which for many of us would have meant a quick bus ride to Tel Aviv or Haifa, perhaps because they wanted us to bond and come together as a unit.
At nights we were free to roam Netanya, go to the movies and chill; during the day we were broken up into our platoons and attended sessions with army psychologists and social workers and reviewed many of the events of the previous month.
A number of years ago (perhaps because of this story) my wife took me to see a movie with Tom Hanks, “Saving Private Ryan,” which depicts an WWII unit’s mission to find a young GI named Ryan. Hanks plays the officer and team leader who has obviously been through a lot of combat-induced trauma, and he begins to notice his hand is trembling, and in one scene we see him looking at his hand and then hiding it from his men.
This is a real phenomenon that I actually experienced. After a particularly challenging day in Lebanon, I noticed my hand seemed to have developed a tremor and would involuntarily begin to shake. It came and went, and I wasn’t sure what it was, but chalked it up to stress, or maybe firing the gun too much, or something of the like. I was careful to hide it both because I did not want to get pulled out of my unit and sent for some sort of evaluation and also, to be honest, I was a little embarrassed in front of my men.
Which was why, a couple of weeks later, I did not bring it up in any of the sessions we had at Beit Goldmintz. The social worker asked if anyone had any difficulties or feelings they wanted to share about the mission, and of course no one responded. And at one point she looked directly at me and asked me if I had anything to add, so I just shrugged my shoulders, but she would not let it go.
“Are you sure? Perhaps you want to share any struggles you might still be having from that day?”
But the last thing in the world I was going to do, especially in front of my men was to start sharing feelings which I knew I would never live down. So I just kept shrugging my shoulders and shaking my head, at which point she leaned forward and pointedly asked, in a low voice: “So why are you sitting on your hands?”
Sometimes, to move forward, you first need to take a step back.
This week we begin to read the book of Bamidbar, which literally means “in the desert.” Indeed, the first parsha, which we read this week, is also named Bamidbar. This parsha is always read the Shabbat before Shavuot, which among other things, commemorates the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai 3,000 years ago.
Why do we receive the Torah in the desert? In fact, why do the Jewish people need to travel through the desert for what amounts to 40 years? Why could G-d not simply transplant us from Egypt directly to the land of Israel which was and has always been our destination?
Truth be told, the desert is not really a place. Even the peoples that wandered the desert and lived there were known as nomadic tribes precisely because they had no one place they could call home. Perhaps the Jewish people, after 200 years of slavery and suffering in ancient Egypt, needed some time before they could re-enter the world as a healthy people.
Imagine the collective psyche of a people who for generations had watched their baby boys thrown into the Nile, or used as bricks for the pyramids. How much anger and hate must they have had in their hearts for their former masters? So first they needed some time in the desert, because before you can build a world of love you have to let go of hate; before you can spread tolerance, you need to let go of the rage.
In this same parsha of Bamidbar, in a place that represents vast open spaces and expanses, the Jewish people are taught how to encamp separately, as tribes, each according to his flag, surrounding the ohel moed (the tent of meeting), because while the Torah needs to be received in unity, that does not mean uniformity; we had to learn to become one, while nonetheless respecting others’ differences and seeing the value of the “other.” Indeed this perhaps is what prepared us to be a light unto the Nations as the prophet Isaiah suggests: You can be a model for others if your respect their “other-ness.”
It is worth noting that this transition process is not only a national phenomenon but an individual one as well. When Maimonides (Rambam Hilchot Deot 2:3) describes anger as “an extremely bad character trait worthy of distancing oneself from,” he follows it in the very next halacha with a description of the value of silence — “a person should always practice much silence and listening” — perhaps because the smartest thing to do when a person is angry is to experience silence, to take a step back, to pause.
No one ever regretted waiting to speak or act until after they were no longer angry. Looking back on words spoken or actions taken in anger, one will always realize they could have done so much better if they had simply waited, in silence, till the anger dissipated.
One need look no further than the newspapers to understand how true this is. Just across the border in Gaza, thousands of Arabs full of anger and hatred are burning tires, throwing projectiles, sending burning kite-fire-bombs into Israel and attempting to storm the borders, while Israelis celebrate their accomplishments in joy in Jerusalem. Could we have really built this state as an angry people? Who would have blamed us for being full of rage after the ovens of Auschwitz and Treblinka, Chelmno and Maidjanek?
But G-d saw fit to allow us a pause, even a transition, as we wallowed for three more years in the DP camps all over Europe, and so when the State of Israel was declared no Jew went looting or shooting, we danced in the streets.
Perhaps one day soon, all the enemies of peace too will take a pause, reflect on how much better the word could be, and seek a transition to build a better world, together.
This week in Jerusalem, one nation, to whom the Jewish people owes a great debt of gratitude, chose to do just that by relocating its embassy to Jerusalem. Because to build a world of truth and light, you have to fist let go of the darkness.
Previously published in 2018.