The phone call that I had been dreading came on a late Saturday night. As the phone rang, I looked at my wife; no words had to be spoken between us. The source of the unidentified call was clear.
I had received a Tzav 8, an emergency call up to the army. As the war started and events spiraled out of control with hundreds of rockets falling daily on residents of northern Israel, it was clear to me that my reserve unit would be activated to fight in Lebanon.
A feeling of fear gripped me. When will I see my wife and daughter again?
Preparing my bags late that night, a feeling of fear gripped me, the fear of the unknown. When will I see my wife and daughter again? What will become of them if God forbid I do not make it home? Will my unit really be used in combat?
That night I discussed my fears with a close confidant who helped allay my fears.
We were attacked by our neighbors out of the blue. In the north of Israel, innocent lives were being lost for one simple reason: because they lived in the Jewish State. In this war, the enemy could not cite to the traditional excuses of ‘Israeli occupation' or ‘frustration' to justify its barbaric assault. I realized that night that this was the exact reason I had joined the Israeli army, to defend the Jewish nation against our ruthless enemies. Throughout its history, the Jewish nation has been persecuted and attacked simply for being Jewish.
My fear dissipated and in its place was a feeling of gratitude that I had the merit to defend the Jewish people.
As I headed off to the North I learned that our tour of duty in Lebanon would not begin for another three weeks. My unit, 9263 reserves Paratroopers (tzanchanim), was being sent to the Syrian border. Syria had moved its attack readiness from 96 hours to 48 hours and our mission was to show a formidable presence on the Syrian border in order to deter Syria from attacking. As the war in Lebanon intensified, it became increasingly evident that reserve ground units would have to be employed to push Hezbollah back from Southern Lebanon and eliminate its capability to attack Northern Israel.
Three and a half weeks after the start of the war my unit was called into Lebanon. We had ten hours to organize ourselves for battle. There was no time to muse over the situation because we were too busy re-suiting our equipment and loading up on our ammunition. Three hours before our departure we were given our only briefing and finally learned of our mission: to conquer the town of Magrebah. Magrebah is located about nine kilometers from the Northern Israeli border town of Metulla. Our mission was to enter on foot, clean the area of Hezbollah and destroy a central command center located in a forest at the end of the town. The command center was heavily fortified and built with Iranian expertise. Army intelligence had informed us that we should expect to encounter between 40 and 50 Hezbollah terrorists who were fully prepared to die in battle.
At the end of the briefing faces were stern and grim at the prospect of battle. I had pushed off informing my family to the last minute and with only an hour left, I called my wife and mother. The difficult moment was passed with messages of encouragement, promises of prayers, and a final tearful goodbye. Those next few hours were some of the most difficult moments of the war. Not knowing when next I would speak to my family was agonizing. In the midst of our final preparation I was reminded of a particular statement in the Torah: "For the Lord, your God, walks in the midst of your camp to rescue you." My unit would yet see this statement visibly come to fruition.
As we embarked on our mission just before daybreak, we stopped briefly outside the security fence separating Israel and Lebanon. I was able to quickly put on my teffilin and say a short version of the morning prayers. As I was finishing, one of my comrades stood up and quoted the liturgy that the anointed Kohen would say before battle: "Shema Yisrael, Hear O Israel, you are coming near to the battle against your enemies; let your heart not be faint, do not be afraid, do not panic, and do not be broken before them....."
We crossed the security fence into Lebanon at dawn. The path towards Magrebeh was made of a rough, bouldered terrain. Magrebeh is situated on top of a large valley, which made the journey up to the town, with many of us carrying more than 70 pounds on our backs, extremely difficult. As we approached the town's outskirts we were greeted by two large posters. The first was a large billboard of Hassan Nassrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, in the clouds with an M-16 machine gun floating into his hand. The second was of Ayatollah Khumeini, the deceased leader of the Iranian Revolution who was infamous for radicalizing Iran, and for the taking of hostages in the American embassy in 1979.
Army intelligence had informed us that all civilians had evacuated the town, and only Hezbollah terrorists remained concentrated in the center of town.
When we arrived in the town, our division split into three units, one unit to take the left side of the town, one to take the right, and the last to remain behind as back up and close the town off from the flank. The approach we would employ was a slow methodical movement called the ‘worm'. We split up into small groups of four. Each unit of four would slowly move in unison and, as one group of four moved forward the previous group would replace it in its previous position. This method provided the maximum amount of cover and, most importantly, created a smaller, more nimble difficult target to strike, diminishing the threat of a shoulder missile attack -- our greatest fear. Army intelligence had informed us that all civilians had evacuated the town, and only Hezbollah terrorists remained concentrated in the center of town. Our orders therefore were to seize every building with heavy fire, including grenade and missile fire.
As we moved on Magrebeh, an eerie, ghost-town feeling permeated the scene. No individual was to be found in sight. Stores with broken down windows and food still left on the shelves dotted the streets. All around us we could see houses with bullet-stained walls, punched with holes from artillery, and roads turned to rubble from the passing of tanks. As we cautiously approached the center of the town, my heart started racing. You could read the tension and anxiousness on the faces of my comrades. I reassured myself that I must commit not to be afraid; we are defending the Jewish nation and God "walks in our midst" during battle.
As we neared the first house we were informed that a Hezbollah scout was overlooking our forces. The order came: "Quickly take the first house with a grenade and take cover." A grenade flew and exploded inside the house. "Go! Go! Go!" we yelled out. Two groups quickly finished the job of clearing the house with hand grenades and entered to ensure that the house was empty of Hezbollah. I was given the order to immediately go up to the roof and fire on the rest of the town. The three-story house was ornately decorated and left in perfect condition as if the family had just left a few minutes earlier.
As I reached the roof, armed with my heavy machine gun, I was joined by sharp shooters, and we unleashed heavy fire on the five houses in front of us to clear them of fighters. We then advanced to the second and third houses, moving through the backyards and clinging to the large walls which separated the houses, staying out of the main street where we would be exposed. As we seized the third house without resistance, our operation began to resemble a live fire drill more than an actual mission, and a false sense of security took hold of us.
While in the third house, our commander decided we would have a short rest in order to evaluate how to proceed in the most problematic stage of our mission: the next three houses. Seizing them presented a strategic nightmare. They were situated on a higher plane permitting potential snipers with positions for a clear shot. In addition, the houses were encompassed by a steep wall that would force us to use the main road and expose our forces.
Our commander called for tank support to fire into the fourth house. As the tank finished firing, the first group of four soldiers -- which included our two commanding officers -- moved out of the third house and into the street towards the fourth house. Thirty seconds later, we heard the distinct popping sound of Russian-made Kalashnikovs firing on the street outside, quickly followed by a screeching whistling sound and a thunderous explosion.
Chaos and confusion broke out as we scrambled to figure out where the fire was coming from and how to respond. Over the radio we heard the word "Perach," the code for injuries. Our two commanding officers had been seriously wounded. One of them received multiple gunshots to his legs and had a bullet ricochet underneath his helmet. He lost consciousness immediately. The other commanding officer was struck by a bullet in his upper chest that penetrated his back. He lost a substantial amount of blood and soon lost consciousness. With tremendous courage and valor under fire, a few medics ran out to the road, under heavy enemy fire, to treat the injured officers. It was a miracle that while being shot at by snipers the medics where able to recover the injured without sustaining injuries. Due to their heroic actions and the grace of God, they rescued the two injured officers and saved their lives.
Hezbollah had planned to force us back into the house and launch the RPG directly through the front door, killing all of us inside.
We ascertained that snipers were positioned on top of houses four and five and had fired a shoulder missile. Our tank support moved forward and began firing as we re-entered the third house to take cover. The force of the tank's fire caused large pieces of debris to fall from the ceiling onto our heads. Suddenly, without the usual warning of ‘fire' over the radio, the tank fired its large turret. A fellow soldier, who was standing in close proximity to the tank, was thrown onto the ground by the tremendous force of the blast. He began crouching and coughing up blood. We quickly carried him into one of the tanks and he was immediately evacuated.
It was later revealed to us that a Hezbollah guerilla had fired the first missile to force us to retreat for cover into the third house. Unbeknownst to us, he had pointed a Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) directly into to the entrance of the third house and we fell into the perfect ambush. Hezbollah had planned to force us back into the house and launch the RPG directly through the front door, killing all of us inside. At the last moment, the tank identified the Hezbollah fighter preparing to launch the RPG. Without time to issue a warning, the tank fired on the fighter and eliminated him, miraculously saving all our lives. Had the tank hesitated, the results would have been devastating.
The battle raged on for another six hours until we were given orders to fall back.
Amidst the various reactions of my fellow comrades -- shock, fear, courage, and bravery, I gained a new understanding of the verse "The Lord, your God, walks in the midst of your camp to rescue you."
Early Friday morning, we were taken out of Lebanon to a hotel located near the Kinneret to rest and recuperate from the intensive battle. A deep sense of gloom was felt throughout the unit. As Shabbat approached, I went to the hotel synagogue for prayers, only to find that I was the only one present. I felt so alone. Within moments, nine others appeared and we were able to proceed with the afternoon prayers. By the time we began the Shabbat prayers 55 soldiers had joined us. I grabbed one of the guys to start dancing and within seconds, everyone in the room was dancing and singing together. This continued for 30 minutes, raising everyone's spirits as we welcomed the Shabbat. That night we were called back into Lebanon, but the energy of Shabbat remained with us.
Now, as I reflect on all the events of the past month and particularly during the last week of the war, I cannot help but think of the upcoming holidays. On Rosh Hashana, the entire world is judged and the Books of Life and Death are opened. It is a time to clarify and set our priorities as individuals and as a nation. This year, these concepts have taken on a whole new meaning for me. I know that after my recent experience, I cannot live my life in the same fashion as I had previously.
The Jewish people are facing an imminent danger both physically and spiritually.
While in Lebanon, food, water, and sleep were all in short supply. Even these necessities lost their value when compared with the significance of life itself. The little nuisances in life that drain us emotionally and physically are all meant as challenges. The invitation we did not receive from the neighbor, a person cuts in front of us in line at the supermarket, or the baby screaming all night when we have an important meeting in the morning are all challenges that need to be put in the proper perspective. These obstacles are all set before us in order for us to be able to grow by overcoming them. We must not let these barriers impede us from becoming bigger people and hindering our appreciation of life itself. When weighed against the important aspects of our lives these matters become trivial and we have the capability to rise above these challenges. Learning how to confront these obstacles and committing our lives to becoming bigger people is one of the central themes of Rosh Hashana.
The Jewish people are facing an imminent danger both physically and spiritually. The prospect of Iran as a nuclear power is a grave threat to the existence of the state of Israel. Hezbollah is already being rearmed by Iran and Syria, and the Palestinians are already trying to duplicate the successful techniques that Hezbollah used in battle. On the spiritual side, the intermarriage rate outside of Israel is hovering at an alarming 70% rate, reflecting a lack of understanding of the uniqueness and greatness of Judaism and being a Jew. We are under siege on all fronts. It is time to stand up and get involved by becoming more connected in your local community, learning more about Judaism or helping to teach someone less knowledgeable in Judaism.
The Books of Life and Death are open once again, and the Jewish nation is facing critical challenges. Let us do everything in our power to rise above them, and choose life.