Its Sunday. It feels strange even writing that. I guess we’ve been here for nine days although it feels somewhere between a second and lifetime. The intensity of this experience continues to astound me.
We begin the day with a talk by Avraham Infeld, then continue on to Mount Hertzel, the national military cemetery. Our trip leaders and former soldiers, Yael and Raz shared their personal stories and Raz reminded us that these soldiers most of whom were near our age when they we killed, aren’t just soldiers, they were someone’s son or daughter, someone’s grandchild, someone’s sibling, someone’s best friend; an entire world, an entire life cut short.
We hear the story of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who was captured and eventually ransomed back for the release of a 1000 terrorists. We are reminded of the differences between United States policy of never negotiating with terrorists and Israel’s policy of always bringing their soldiers home, we are reminded again that here, service is not optional. Israel’s commitment to their principles, to sending the message internally that they will always bring their soldiers home, to refusing to use the death penalty, makes us think, makes us ponder how you balance a commitment to principles in a world where people will take advantage of your humanity.
I ask one of the soldiers about Gilad Shalit’s, what she thinks of the situation and what happened and she’s torn. What about the families of the soldiers who died to put those terrorists into jail, what about their memories? What about the risk to other soldiers, who may be taken, since the enemy knows Israel will give anything to bring their soldiers home? And I ask her, what would you do, what would you want done, not if you were a leader, but what if you were that soldier who was taken?
And she looks at me, this girl, who is vibrant and fun and smart, with a smile that can light up a room, this girl who isn’t so very different and she says, “I think about that every day. I think about if I was taken, if they captured me, if I could take my gun and kill myself.”
And I am crying and I ask her, “How do you do it? How do you even have one moment that’s normal? How do you laugh? How can you ponder that (not ponder it in the abstract way that we might, but know that it may be your reality) and ever have a moment of normality, a moment of happiness?”
And she’s crying too and she responds, “I don’t know. My brother will begin his service in three months and he will be in a combat unit and I wonder sometimes how I could ever bring a child into this. But I know what a struggle my grandparents went through to get here. What this place meant to them and I think how can I not?”
She talks of how here, in Israel, they must choose to look in. How they can not look out. They can not choose to let others actions or wishes dictate even one minute of theirs. They can only choose to behave as they believe is right. They can not choose a death penalty for convicted terrorists because they believe killing is wrong. And so they choose to live with their values, to work to not allow what is outside them to change them. And in this moment, I know that I can never look at the world in the same way. I know that I will remember her and this moment forever.
After Mount Hertzel, we headed to the Old City of Jerusalem for lunch and a walk through the Jewish Quarter and then a guided visit to the Kotel (Western Wall), the Herodian Mansions and the Southern Wall excavations. One of our soldiers pointed out the fun fact that this is the only place in the world where Muslim sellers sell Christian religious objects, paid for with money with Rabbis on it, a perfect example of the blending of cultures here. Scott had warned us before we got to the wall that being there would either be very powerful for us or we would just see it as a pile of bricks. Being there touching the wall, saying a prayer and placing a note in this place, this place that we’ve learned about in books for so long and it was powerful.
Then it was time for our soldiers to depart; these eight people, these eight kids like us who have been with us for the past five days, these people who it seems impossible to remember what the trip was like before, our eight new friends, left us. But they didn’t leave to return home to their families, they didn’t leave to go back to their college dormitories, they were headed back to their units, to their bases. One of them will parachute tomorrow (Monday), he’ll go from laughing with us, talking about the personality of his pet, telling us stories about his life here, being a seemless part of our group, indistinguishable from the rest of us, to fighting for his country.
That’s the thing here, everything is sharper. The distance between laughter and tears is short, here the saddest day of the year, the Israeli National Memorial Day, is separated from the happiest day of the year here, the Israeli Independence Day by only 60 seconds.
So our eight friends have left us. Our eight new friends, these eight people who really aren’t so different than us, have gone back to finish out their service. They have gone back to defend this dream. And this isn’t just a reality for these eight, these eight aren’t the exception, they aren’t just the few who choose to serve, they are the rule. And we’re confronted by the fact that as much as we may try, as much as we may be moved by these people’s stories, we can’t appreciate their strength as much as we try.
As we say our goodbyes, I turn to the girl I had asked about Gilad Shalit and as I hug her I tell her, “You aren’t just fighting for this land, you don’t just defend the citizens here, you defend this dream. You are defending a dream for thousands of Jewish children around the world. You are proving that virtues and principles are worth defending.”
And just wish there was more I could say to her. I wish I could somehow in words express my gratitude, not just to her, not just to our eight, but to all of them, but it’s impossible, I’m too overwhelmed by it. I’m so overwhelmed by what they live with every day that I can’t even finish a sentence. I’m sobbing and I can’t control it. I turn and am engulfed in a hug by another soldier. When he notices I am crying he starts to a little as well and yet still, even though I feel guilty for being so weak, I can’t stop crying. And as I hug him, this other soldier, this other friend goodbye, he says “It’s a shitty world.”
And attempting to comfort him, attempting to try to keep him positive, feeling guilty for my tears, I say, “It isn’t that bad.”
And he says, “It is, it’s a shitty place, but you wouldn’t appreciate how good it can be, without it.”
And it sums it up. In America, we try to keep our rose colored glasses on to remain happy because it’s easier to just not believe that there’s so much unimaginable evil out there, but here they have no chance to have rose colored glasses on, they see the reality, the harsh reality of the world they live in and they smile through. They appreciate more because of it. They find the silver lining in everything, they laugh through their tears or better yet they make jokes about thing that make us uncomfortable even talking about. Everything is sharper here and I pray that as I go home I can find even a tenth of the strength that each of these eight possess.