March 29 began quite normally in the Kohn household. After shopping in our local supermarket, I received at lunchtime a phone call. "Is Kohn Elliott at home?" Knowing that I remain only "Elliott" to the IDF, I know it's the army calling!
"You have an emergency call-up. I'm in your neighborhood. Sign the paper and be in the Ramla school in one hour with your clothes."
"How long will I be out? Where will I be sent?"
"It's a war," I'm told. No one knows anything yet.
And so I make my way to join that Friday afternoon 2,000 other reserve paratroopers in our home base in Petach Tikva. How many fellow soldiers answered the emergency call? I speak to the officer in charge -- so far 95 percent of the unit have come -- all within three hours. Incredible!
The spirit of our prayer is hard to describe. It was the prayer of those about to go to war.
But we have a problem, he tells me. A whole groups of volunteers who left the unit years ago -- some in their fifties -- won't go home! There's not enough room in the armored personnel carriers for them!
As Shabbat begins, groups of soldiers gather in the huge square which is to be home for the next three days. Without a word being said, we gravitate to the middle of the square -- some 300 soldiers who instinctively feel the need to daven together. The spirit of that "Lecha Dodi" (welcoming the Sabbath prayer) is hard to describe. It was the prayer of those about to go to war.
SAVING JEWISH LIVES
The next day, Shabbat, we still don't know where we are going. We spend the day in the shooting range, the first time in my life that I'm breaking Shabbat. It was a very strange feeling, but it's a matter of pikuach nefesh -- saving lives. This is a war and we have to be ready and prepared.
Saving fellow Jews from the enemy is an obligatory war.
In the afternoon, we have an hour free. I take out a copy of Maimonides to study the laws of Jewish warfare. Some soldiers join me, a few non-religious soldiers, too. We learn that we are about to take part in a milchemet mitzvah -- obligatory war -- as saving fellow Jews from the enemy is in this category.
Can there be a mitzvah greater than this -- after the bombings in Netanya, Jerusalem, Haifa and Tel Aviv?
I think of Maimonides who wrote this almost 1,000 years ago, with no Jewish state and no Jewish army. I think of the Holocaust 60 years ago, with no Jewish state and no Jewish army. These laws were meaningless then. I am privileged to be in a Jewish state with a Jewish army about to defend its citizens.
Sheh-heche-yanu vi-kee-yimanu vi-hee-gee-yanu laz-man ha-zeh -- "Blessed are You God, Who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season."
Shabbat is ending and we are told that our battalion commander will speak to us all at 11 p.m. Tension in the group rises. I look at the 500 paratroopers in our hanger. Most are in the prime of their life, between 25-40 years old, and most are married with children. All are reservists. They all know that wherever they go they will be in danger. Yet they are all there -- religious and non-religious, Ashkenazim and Sephardim. All part of the Jewish nation, motivated to defend their fellow Jews.
How wrong are the soothsayers who describe the decline of our people. Am Yisrael Chai Vekayam - "the Jewish people live and thrive."
We must safeguard our respect for innocent human life.
At 11 p.m. our battalion commander announces that we are to conquer the Arab village of Tulkarem. Our mission is to destroy the terrorist framework that has been set up there. He is very clear about the targets -- those who have arms and who try to kill us. We must not injure anyone who is not involved in the terror. We must safeguard our Tzelem Enosh -- our respect for innocent human life.
A tear runs down my cheek. What an army, what a wonderful people I belong too! Imagine if the roles were reversed -- would the Arabs have such sympathy for our own civilians, or would they kill them first? I leave the question unanswered.
On Sunday night our unit leaves for Tulkarem. As I wrote this, many of them are still there searching from house-to-house to find terrorists and weapons. Thank God, I have returned home safely.
As I think of the last week, the people I met, the experiences I had, I leave with a great sense of optimism for the future. Despite all the tragedies we have suffered over the last months, we are a strong, proud people who will survive whatever our enemies throw at us.
We pray that the Almighty will look after His holy soldiers and bring them back safely home, soon.