It should have been one of the most powerful and exciting days of my life. After eight grueling months, I was three days away from receiving my officer’s bars. A month-long test (navigation, desert survival, weapons proficiency) to enter infantry officer training, followed by nearly four months of infantry officer’s training in the desert — best described as hell on earth — and then tank officer’s course, the most difficult four months I have ever experienced, under intense pressure while averaging three hours sleep a day for 18 weeks.
But three days before, I was told by the battalion commander, there wasn’t going to be a ceremony for me, that I wasn’t ready.
Normally, once a person fails out of Officer’s course there is no second chance, but in my case, because there was no disciplinary measure involved (mostly it was about my struggle with Hebrew), I was told I could repeat the entire Tank officer’s course again, but I only had one week to think about it, as the next course was beginning in five days.
The depression, of watching all your buddies practicing for the final ceremony, as you head out into the desert to catch a ride back to civilization, is beyond description.
How does one make such a decision? Should I head back to yeshiva and begin my studies to become a rabbi? Could I accept having practically wasted a year of my life? I had given it my best shot. If I went back, was it really about serving my people, and the State of Israel, or was it just a big ego trip?
The Torah does not always give us the answers. If I want to decide whether to eat a piece of meat, or listen in on a conversation, Jewish tradition has very clear parameters as to what the acceptable norms of behavior are. But what if I can’t decide whether to be a doctor or a lawyer? Judaism does not tell me what to do.
So how does one decide? What if I am making the wrong decision?
Perhaps this question lies at the root of a strange exchange in this week’s portion, Vayigash. Yaakov, after 22 years of believing his beloved son Joseph dead, discovers he is alive, and has become the second in command of Egypt, the mightiest empire on earth. No words could possibly do justice to what Yaakov must have felt at that moment.
Vatechi Ruach Yaakov (And the spirit of Yaakov lived”. (Genesis 45:27)
A long lost son and his beloved father will reunite, and rediscover the love they thought lost forever. And then, G-d steps in (46:2-4).
And G-d appeared to Yisrael (Yaakov) in the night saying “Yaakov, Yaakov.” And he (Yaakov) responded: “Hineni (here I am).” And He [G-d] said: “I am the G-d of your father; do not fear going down to Egypt, for I will make of you there a great nation.”
Why does G-d interject with this reassurance? It seemed obvious that Yaakov was quite ready to head down to Egypt.
And what is the meaning of G-d’s promise to make his offspring into a great nation in that place? Yaakov just wants to see his beloved long-lost son! And why does Yaakov offer sacrifices of thanksgiving “to the G-d of Yitzchak his father”? What of Abraham his father? And for that matter, why not just offer up to G-d? The key may lie in Yaakov’s expression, “Hineni.”
What does “here I am” mean? G-d always knows where I am. The question is, do I know where I am?
Hineni is one of the most powerful words in the Torah, full of enormous potential. It is a word that does not refer to physical arrival, but to acceptance of a spiritual journey.
It is the word Abraham used in response to G-d’s request at the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22: 1) and the word Moshe responds with at the Burning Bush. Here I am; I am ready. Not only where I am, but why I am really here, and what it is all about. I am finally ready to be what I was meant to be.
It is a word Yaakov may well have learned from his father Yitzchak, who responds “Hineni” to Yaakov when, disguised as Esau, he is ready to be blessed. Yitzchak there (Genesis 27:18) understands that this is not just a blessing, it is the continuation of a journey. In many ways, Yitzchak’s entire purpose was to create Yaakov, because it will be Yaakov who will ultimately have the 12 sons who will form the Jewish people.
It is worth noting that after Yitzchak blesses Yaakov, he disappears from the scene and the Biblical narrative shifts to the story of Yaakov. Perhaps in offering sacrifices to the G-d of Yitzchak, Yaakov is struggling to find his place in the continuation of the dream that will one day become the Jewish people.
Perhaps this was really the struggles of Yaakov, who desperately wants to go down to Egypt to once again see his son Yosef. But he stops in Be’er Sheva, perhaps wondering if this what he is meant to be doing.
Sometimes you stop and ask yourself: why am I really here? Often, the answer is not so simple. You can’t look it up or “ask the rabbi,” you have to ask yourself.
Perhaps this is why Yaakov is praying to the G-d of Yitzchak. Yitzchak, in the grip of famine, thinks to follow in the path of his father Abraham, and go down to Egypt. But G-d tells Yitzchak not to go. (Genesis 26:2). Yitzchak never leaves the land of Israel.
So is Yaakov ready to go back into exile? It seems as if everything he has been building is now about to be undone. How will living in Egypt, the center of paganism in the ancient world, affect the children of Israel?
The Vilna Gaon suggests (in his Even Sheleimah) that the struggle is trying to be sure that whatever we end up doing, is done for the right reasons. Ultimately, we make the wrong decision, but do it for the right reasons, it will end up being all right. But if we make the right decision, objectively, but for the wrong reasons, it will always end up wrong.
Four months later, having decided to go back and do tank officer’s school all over again, the right day finally came. And there is one moment that will stand out forever in my mind. It wasn’t the berets thrown in the air, nor the impressive tank parade, or even the special salute from the Chief of Staff of the Israeli Army.
It was a moment with Yuval Azulai. Yuval was a legend in the Officer’s corps. He was brilliant, and knew everything there was to know about tanks and armored warfare. Laser technology, thermal imagery, shell trajectories, enemy weaponry — he knew it all. Which was why he was one of the Officers responsible for training Officers in the Armored Corps.
A week into my repeat course he found me, late at night, working on my tank. He had heard I had come back, and wanted to know what had made me do it all over again. I thought Israel needed motivated officers, and I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life wondering if I should have tried. From that day, he took me under his wing.
When everyone else was finally getting their two or three hours sleep, he would pull me aside and quiz me brutally on everything we were learning. He demanded excellence, and told me he would make sure I didn’t fail again. He took it as his personal mission to ensure that I became what an Officer was meant to be. He absolutely terrorized me, and I dreaded his surprise arrivals. One day he took over our platoon’s maneuvers so he could personally oversee mine and rip it to shreds. By the time our final exams arrived at the end of the course, they were a breeze.
And on the day of the ceremony, fresh bars on my shoulders, before the traditional slam on the back, he asked me:
“So, how does it feel now that you’ve become an Officer?”
I smiled: “It feels pretty darned good.”
And he looked at me and said: “You don’t get it at all. You aren’t even close to becoming an Officer. Being an officer isn’t about the training. That’s just the introduction. The real question is, can you become the man whose men will follow him anywhere, even up a hill under fire?”
And he walked away. And I finally got it.
Yaakov wanted to be sure that it wasn’t about Yaakov.
Our greatest challenge is this: To be sure that in all that we do, it isn’t about me but about everyone else. That’s really why we are all here to begin with.
May Hashem bless us all, as individuals and as a people, to experience the joy of discovering what we are really meant to do in this world, and to find the strength to go and do it, for all the right reasons.
Originally published in 2012.