I still remember, when I was a boy of just seven, walking with my father, early on the morning of 6th October, 1973, to synagogue. He had promised me that I could break my fast shortly after arriving. Now, he stopped me en route and told me a war had just broke out in Israel and the small Jewish nation was fighting for its very life. The situation was dire. I should show God added devotion by fasting longer in deference to the life mortal struggle of my fellow Jews. I was upset, I was starving, but I did as he asked and broke my fast after mid-day.
That Yom Kippur was my first memory of an Israeli war. We feverishly watched the news over the next few days until Israel finally began to turn the tide and push its enemies back.
There were moments of elation as well. I remember being in Chabad sleep away camp in Homestead, Florida on 4 July, 1976, American’s Bicentennial, when an excited head counselor started screaming over the loudspeaker that Israel had pulled off a daring rescue of Jewish hostages in some far-off place called Entebbe in Africa.
Fast forward to November, 1982, when I was a student at Chabad High School in Los Angeles. I traveled on a Friday, at the height of Israel’s war in Lebanon, to witness the arrival of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to the Century Plaza hotel before the Sabbath to show my solidarity with the beleaguered leader. I still remember Begin arriving in his dark limousine looking ashen-faced, having just heard the terrible news that tens of soldiers had died in an explosion when a building had collapsed in Lebanon. Still, he nodded his head in his car to me as he passed. Tragically, even more bad news would await him as his wife Aliza would pass away while he was in Los Angeles a few days later.
There were other pressing moments in Israeli history that I remember well. But none comes near the current action against the terrorists of Hamas which has touched deeper than any previous occurrence. This time, we have a daughter in the Israeli army and her base in just a few kilometers outside of Gaza.
She was standing at a ceremony on Thursday morning when Hamas’ murderous rockets began to rain down near her base. The sirens went off and everyone was ordered to a bunker. They watched as Israel’s ingenious Iron Dome went to work. Tragically, it was not enough to stop a rocket from hitting Kiryat Malachi and murdering three Chabad Chassidim, including a pregnant woman. My daughter heard the explosion. She can still see the hole in the roof of the apartment building easily from her base.
The base was evacuated and my daughter moved to the relative safety of Jerusalem on Thursday night. My wife and I breathed a sigh of relief. But then, before the Sabbath came in, we were informed that she and a skeletal crew were ordered back to the base on Saturday night for guard duty. She would have to remain for a few days thereafter. That Sabbath, I was a scholar-in-residence in Palm Beach, Florida and, during one of my speeches, I asked the Synagogue to pray with me for her safety and the safety of all Israel’s soldiers. Never before had the prayer for Israel’s Defense Forces meant so much to me or been felt so deeply.
Over the next few days when I called my daughter on the base the phone conversations were interrupted many times as the alarm sounded and she had to rush to safety in a nearby bunker. I was amazed at her courage and sense of normalcy. This was her new life and she would get used to it without panic.
Beginning in 1988 at the University of Oxford I made defending the State of Israel against its enemies a central calling in my life. I have given countless lectures on Israel’s safety, security, and right to defend itself and written even more columns on the subject. But it’s different now. It’s gone from the abstract to the very tangible and real.
I have always heard about parents who have children in the military during a war. You try not to think about it. You tell yourself the chances of God forbid anything happening are negligible as to not be worth worrying about. But you are forever aware that you and your child are in God’s hands. You turn to Him for comfort and safety. Your daughter is an adult. She has made their decision to serve. You honor and respect it even as it engenders serious discomfort and leaves a pit in your stomach at all times.
When my daughter first made aliyah she was a student at Hebrew University. After a year she called me and told me she was enlisting. “I can’t be a student when I have not served. Everyone here has. I have a responsibility to protect the country just like they did.” I argued with her. “OK, but don’t interrupt your degree. It doesn’t make sense. You should first finish and then serve.” But she was adamant. Studying could wait. Protecting Israel could not. It was her responsibility as a Jew to defend her people.
Now, I wonder what demon came over me that would ever have suggested she wait. I have spent my life fighting Israel’s battles on TV, newspapers, live debates, and recently in politics. My first reaction should have been, “I can’t be more proud of you for wanting to defend the Jewish people,” which is how I feel now and what I constantly tell her. So why didn’t those words come out of my mouth? Perhaps it was because in the back of my mind I feared moments like these where my baby girl would be on a base with rockets falling nearby and I would be thousands of miles away unable to protect her.
But she is not a girl any more. She is a grown woman. And, unlike me, she has donned the uniform of the Jewish people, ensuring that a nation that has suffered eternal oppression is granted a birth of freedom and protection through the courage of its fighting men and women.
The father is just a man. But the daughter? She is a hero.
Shmuley Boteach, whom The Washington Post calls ‘the most famous Rabbi in America’, is the international best-selling author of 29 books, and will next week publish “The Fed-up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.