In Awe of My Warrior Son
Our son Mendy was a summa cum laude undergraduate at New York University when he abruptly informed us that he was suspending his degree to join the IDF. He was already an Israel fighter on campus and friends told him that the battle against Israel-haters at Western universities was equally, if not more important. But he would not be deterred. Israel was facing genocidal enemies and he refused to remain in the safety of Washington Square Park.
We already had one child who had served in the IDF and we were very proud of Mendy’s decision to follow, but not as sure of his insistence on getting into an elite combat unit at the age of 22 — practically ancient compared to the 18-year-old conscripts against whom he would be competing. I still remember my wife screaming with delight on the phone more than a year ago when Mendy called to say that he had gotten in.
When you’re the parent of a lone soldier serving in Israel, your life changes substantially. In the first year of training, you struggle just to stay in touch. The army takes away a soldier’s phone for up to two weeks at a time. Phone calls are limited to 10-minute intervals. And if you want to see your child for Jewish holidays, you’re taking the whole family to Israel (no complaints, but it can be expensive). Just listening to your son describing the grueling demands of training is itself mystifying, and you can feel pretty useless offering platitudes across a vast sea.
This morning, on a cold mountain in the Golan Heights amid an annoying drizzle, Mendy’s unit celebrated the completion of their army training in a moving and memorable ceremony. What made it bittersweet was the injury Mendy sustained two weeks ago that forced him to undergo surgery.
As I watched this young man pull himself up the mountain with crutches, it struck me that, three days before my 50th birthday, I had raised a son who had already exceeded my sacrifice for the Jewish people.
When Mendy’s name was skipped in the alphabetical reading of soldiers during the Warrior pin ceremony, I was puzzled. Then, all the gathered parents and notables understood that his unit had prepared a special honor for him. Mendy’s name was kept for the last, at which point, his entire unit joined him in walking to his commander to have his warrior pin affixed to his uniform while literally surrounded by all his comrades-in-arms. It was a special privilege rarely accorded, and I’m guessing that it was a token recognition by his friends of the fact that he is the only lone soldier in his unit, and that, having sustained a serious leg injury, he still completed the training in one of Israel’s premiere and storied units.
And what did it feel like watching it as a parent?
Like I was watching someone I did not recognize.
My wife and I raised this boy. We taught him to love freedom and to be immensely proud of his Jewish identity, all of which might account for the values which led him to the IDF. But how to explain his reserves of perseverance and courage?
I could never have endured the rigors of the IDF training that was demanded of him. Truth be told, I used to get exhausted just listening to what they put Mendy through: sleeping in the mud and rain, marching tens of kilometers through the searing heat with heavy packs, going days with only tuna and crackers for sustenance, being left in scorching deserts to navigate their way out. And worst of all, being briefed by their commanders that they were being readied to battle the monsters of Hamas and the battle-hardened murderers of Hezbollah.
How did he survive it? How did he complete it? How did he flourish?
I honestly don’t know.
But as I watched him rejoin the line formation of his unit with the decoration that officially labeled him an IDF warrior, I was rendered silent as I watched a familiar face that was no longer familiar.
As parents, we go through three stages of raising our children.
The first is to sculpt and mold them in our image.
The second is to begin to let go as we allow their natural personalities to unfold.
And the third is to simply stand back in awe.
Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom the Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” has just published “The Israel Warrior: Standing Up for the Jewish State from Campus to Street Corner.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.