Ari Fuld wasn't surprised when he got his draft call last summer during the Lebanon war. "For me, serving in the Israeli Defense Forces is another puzzle piece in a Jewish person's life." He says. "I literally smile when I get my draft in the mail." He had 12 hours to say good-bye to his wife and four children, including his newborn son. Within eight hours after that he was at the Lebanese border. After one day of intensive training, his unit was going into Lebanon to dismantle a faceless terrorist infrastructure.
"The night before we went in, I wrote out the Torah portions about going out to war. I needed to instill myself with confidence. I couldn't even tell my wife where I was going as the calls were being intercepted by Hizbullah. I told her I was going to France."
On his first day in Lebanon, he walked seven kilometers over craggy mountains into Lebanon carrying all of his gear, as well as a hundred pound guided missile on his back. There he encountered his first fire-fight. "Terrifying is the only word I can use to describe it," he says "Everywhere we walked there were eyes on our backs. We were the underdogs. We didn't know the terrain."
Secular, religious, it didn't matter. They were all Jews standing raw and exposed before God.
Every day before setting out to battle, Ari and his platoon would recite the Vidui prayer, a prayer of confession usually reserved for Yom Kippur or before one dies. Secular, religious, it didn't matter. They were all Jews standing raw and exposed before God; they literally felt their lives were in the balance.
The Hizbulla guerilla fighters were lying in wait. The next day the Israeli soldiers were moving in deeper.
"We walked 28 kilometers deep into Lebanon," Ari says. "We finally got to the Litani river. It was absolutely beautiful."
Low on food and water, Ari's elite paratrooper unit hid out in an apple orchard for cover and sustenance. It was then that they received warnings that there was a terrorist hotbed of activity around them. They were ordered to go in and clean up the area.
"Our highest commanding officer led off with five soldiers," said Ari. "He said – 'Acharai', you come after me." This legendary characteristic of the Israeli army is no myth. The highest ranking officers stake things out for the underlings, jeopardizing their own safety. "I think the Israeli army is the only army in the world that operates this way," says Ari.
70 yards from where Ari was waiting, his commanding officer was hit in the neck by sniper fire, and missiles were falling all around him and his men.
"We can't let this turn into a kidnapping," said the next-in-command. They sent out a group of evacuation soldiers to try and help the first group, and they were hit by a missile as well. The highest ranking officer who remained turned to Ari.
"Grab four men," he ordered him. "We have to go collect as many bodies as we can. We're not leaving them out there alone."
Ari grabbed four of his comrades. They dropped their gear on the floor and grabbed stretchers. He knew what he was doing. He had made a choice. In moving forward into the inferno of injury and death that lay ahead, he may as well have been walking his own plank. But he wouldn't abandon his comrades.
"We left most of our protection behind, and all of our gear. All I had on me were my Tefillin, a book of Psalms, and some other holy writings. Oh -- and bullets. A whole lot of bullets."
They took only ten steps out of the orchard when they heard the whistle.
Three missiles had landed exactly where the five soldiers had been sitting only moments earlier.
"You hear a whistle and then three seconds later the missile hits," says Ari. "The scary thing is that it gives you no hint as to where it's going to land." Looking behind them, they saw where the missiles had fallen. Three missiles had landed exactly where the five soldiers had been sitting only moments earlier. The gear that they had hastily dropped was decimated.
Missiles were falling behind and in front of the group. It seemed like God was clearing a space for Ari.
They started dragging back wounded officers. Ari called a medic who tried unsuccessfully to stop the bleeding on his commanding officer. That's when Ari felt something trickling down his back. Blood and water were coming out of him.
"I knew that I had been hit by a piece of shrapnel. I also knew that if shrapnel had entered my bloodstream, I would die in a few minutes. My legs buckled."
The medic came and took off Ari's vest. The piece of shrapnel had penetrated his vest, but had gone no further. All he needed was bandaging.
"There was no reason for that piece of shrapnel to stop," Ari says. "It was a piece of Iranian mortar shell." Those things don't stop. But Ari knew that there was someone higher than him calling the shots.
Ari and the remaining members of his unit plodded on in Lebanon a few more days. While he had passed through the real thickets, he still had to deal with gathering food and water in hostile territory that was booby trapped in every corner.
Finally, his beleaguered brigade was ordered home.
When his unit crossed the threshold into Israel, all of the soldiers spontaneously knelt and kissed the holy ground of Israel with palpable emotion. It was more than good to be home.
Ari felt that the man who had entered Lebanon was not the same man who was exiting.
But Ari felt that the man who had entered Lebanon was not the same man who was exiting.
"It was like birth," he said. "It was more powerful than anything I had ever done. Like your wedding day and the birth of your child and more -- all wrapped up into one."
He made a feast of thanksgiving to God. But that was not enough. Ari had encountered miracles. He had been given immeasurable gifts. And now it was payback time.
"I sat with myself first and then I sat with my wife, and I said, ‘Something has got to change. I don't want to go through life as a cycle. If (my life) would have ended right there, there would have been something missing.'"
He took an accounting of his hours each day and realized that only a small minority of his day was involved in pursuit of the spiritual. His religious study had been on a "low flame." He wanted to turn it up to high. And he did, taking a year off from his professional pursuits in order to strengthen himself in his service of God.
"It was financially hard, but I had to do it. I'm happy that I did. In the end, it (being in Lebanon) was nothing less than a blessing for me."
Sometimes the impressions made upon us by inspiration can be fleeting. That's how the term "New Year's resolution" came to be coined. Every year we try to clean the slate and begin again. It is part of the human condition. But Ari will never forget his pledge to repay his gifts. He had said the Vidui confession prayer of Yom Kippur, and he had been granted life. His appreciation is unbridled. And that is where Ari's experience differs from most people. His experience in Lebanon continues to mold his life today.
When his year of study was up he turned down hefty financial incentives and instead joined the staff at Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh, where he could continuously immerse himself in cultivating his spiritual side.
And what about us? During this High Holiday season, we can also file through the list of gifts that God has bestowed upon us and make our own New Year's resolutions to give back for what we have received. Maybe this year we can devote just a little bit more time to the spiritual? Open up a prayer book even after the high holidays have passed? Commit to taking that next step that we think about every year?
In Ari's breakfront, he proudly exhibits the piece of Iranian mortar shrapnel that nearly cost him his life, its serial number still intact. Some people find it strange, seeing it displayed so prominently next to his Kiddush cup and his silver Menorah.
He doesn't find it odd at all. "That warped piece of iron that you're looking at... it looks like a piece of garbage – but that's my miracle."