October 12, 2000 - More than any other incident, the lynching of two Israeli reserve soldiers in Ramallah transformed the nation's consciousness. The mask had been torn off. If Palestinian mobs could resort to such barbarism, then we were clearly far from the dream of "peaceful coexistence."
I'm a quiet, well-mannered Englishman. One month each year, I drive army jeeps as an IDF reserve soldier. In September 2000, on the holiday of Rosh Hashana, my unit was positioned at Ayosh Junction on the edge of Ramallah. The army's aim was to keep the situation under control and not allow the riots to overflow into endangering the lives of Jewish residents nearby.
At about 9 a.m., about a dozen Palestinians began placing tires on the road, and set them on fire, laying a screen of thick black smoke. This was the way every day was to begin.
I sat in the jeep, tightly gripping the steering wheel, waiting to see what would happen next. Within 10 minutes, hundreds upon hundreds of Palestinians streamed toward the junction, placing me on the front line, as a target for stones, rocks, iron bars, glass bottles, Molotov cocktails, and later, live bullets.
Under bombardment, thoughts of panic raced through my mind: Am I going to die? Who's going to tell my wife? What will be with my kids? I felt utterly hopeless -- a speck in the universe, totally exposed and vulnerable.
On the other hand, I felt a strange power of responsibility. It was my challenge from Above to do what I had to do: help my fellow soldiers, obey orders from the commanding officer, engage in serious soul-searching, and pray like I've never prayed before.
Our Bible is filled with stories of how military strength is a secondary factor in winning the war. Our wars are won in our hearts and in our spirits, and nowhere else. That Rosh Hashana morning, I had a shofar with me, and I fantasized about taking it out, standing on top of the jeep and blowing the shofar to disperse the stone throwers. (I thought better of it, however.)
Out there in the jeep, I felt that my actions could make the difference between life and death. Not just for me, but for the whole of Israel.
With that realization, everything takes on a new dimension. One is more careful with every word of speech. The mind becomes totally alert, aware of the consequences of every move. The senses are fully charged; you see and hear things you never noticed before. You can exist on two hours sleep and minimal food -- and yet remain totally alert. Because your life is at stake.
If only we could maintain this high level of alertness in everyday life.
* * *
The last day of my reserve duty started "normally." I sat in my jeep, waiting for the hundreds of Arabs to throw boulders.
At about 10 a.m. a call came over the army radio. Some soldiers had disappeared into Ramallah. My first response was a downcast shudder of "Oh, no," and I immediately called my colleagues at Aish HaTorah to tell them to drop everything and start praying.
There was ominous silence in our jeep as we awaited news. Our orders were to cordon off Ramallah, not allowing any Arab vehicle in or out, while the army, through air reconnaissance and communication with the PA, attempted to locate the men.
But it all happened too quickly. "We need a doctor... Get a helicopter here now... We have one body and one seriously wounded... Where's the doctor?!"
And then silence. A long, painful silence.
There was a lot more silence, and painful sobbing, as I sat in that jeep for the next 12 hours. Details of the brutal lynchings trickled in. Two Israelis were bludgeoned, thrown from the window, burned, disemboweled, and then dragged through the street.
I sat in the jeep, numb. I saw the tank reinforcements come in. I heard the Apache helicopters whirring in the sky. But it was not until late afternoon that the IDF bombed. And even then, we gave a warning of exactly when and where we were going to bomb, in order to prevent unnecessary loss of life. No other army would do such a thing. But we are a Jewish army, and we place the value of life on the highest pedestal. There were no injuries or deaths as a result of those bombings.
And then, ironically, amidst the horrors, my final image of that day was a stunning sunset -- a deep blue sky, traced with streaks of red, as another Israeli night drew mercifully closer.
Maybe that is the message we should extract from this day of anger, blood and tears. Every day there is a sunset, and every morning there is a sunrise. Sometimes we're not aware of it, but it's there, always, with the Almighty's quiet, guiding hand: "And it was evening and it was morning..." (Genesis 1)
Our Supreme Commander created the world, and sustains it on a daily basis. He knows the complete picture. He is not influenced by anger or repugnance; neither is He swayed by the world media or the UN.
We are God's soldiers, entrusted with 613 commands. We may not always understand them. Some may not be particularly convenient, and others may get us frustrated or embarrassed.
But on a day like this, a soldier must obey orders. Whether he agrees or not; whether it's convenient or not; whether he understands or not. His life, and that of others, is at stake, and he must accept the word of those who see the big picture. Though we seem to lack political and military solutions, we do have a Supreme Commander.
* * *
The timing of these events was no coincidence. On Rosh Hashana, the Books of Life and Death are open in the heavenly court. It was obvious to me why these disturbances began at this crucial time of the year. The Almighty is trying to tell us something.
I left the army a few days before Sukkot, the festival when Jews all over the world leave their comfortable permanent homes and move into flimsy, temporary huts, with only branches as a roof. It's a symbol of trust in God, of total reliance on His protection.
The main theme of Sukkot is simcha, joy. How is it possible to have joy in such perilous times?
Sometimes in the darkest of hours, the brightest light is seen. The entire 18 days, our battalion had only three minor injuries. Should we explain this through the law of averages? Or rather that God performs miracles for us, morning, noon and night?
The Almighty brought us out of Egypt "on eagle's wings," and He has not let us down since. In spite of everything the world has thrown at us -- Crusades, Inquisition, pogroms, Holocaust -- we've survived it all. And I believe we'll pull through this, too. Because the Supreme Commander has promised that we will.
Those 18 days of reserve duty were the most harrowing of my life. And in a strange sense they were among the most satisfying. True "happiness" is knowing you're doing the best you can do, in the circumstances designed precisely for you.
In such situations, God is telling us to figure out what we're here for. We're given tests of extreme stress, to prove to ourselves that we can do it. How many of us know why we are here in this world? When faced with death, life becomes real. You get priorities straight. If you ever get thrown into a war, make good use of the opportunity. Figure out what you're living for.