[Rabbi Dovid Landesman is a veteran mechanech and the mechaber of a sefer on Netziv.]
Today – Yom ha-Zikaron L’chayalei Tzahal – is one of the most difficult days for me in the calendar year. Every year the day accentuates the fact that I am really not sure who I am – a chareidi, a chardalnik, a dati leumi. Truthfully, my lifestyle and more certainly that of my children, would cast me in the first group. However, while I served in the IDF and did miluim for almost twenty-five years, I am in many ways a proponent of the Eidah ha-Chareidis, for I respect their uncompromising fealty to halachah and their intense efforts to achieve kirvat Hashem.
But, today, when a significant portion of am yisrael mourns the chayalim who gave their lives enabling a Jewish community to be built and thrive in Eretz Yisrael, I find myself angry – nay, overwhelmingly perturbed – by the fact that the overwhelming majority of chareidi Jews ignore this day. It is not my intention to debate whether or not a non-halachic state has any standing. Rather, I simply wonder what happened to elementary hakarat ha-tov. I can accept that standing at attention while a siren blares might not be an appropriate form of public mourning, but how many b’nai Torah are learning mishnayot today?
Let me tell you a little about my friend Yankel zt”l and perhaps you’ll understand my frustrations. Yankel Friedman was a chavrusa of mine in Yeshivat Beit HaTalmud in Yerushalayim. As a ben yeshiva who fit the criteria of Torato um’nato, Yankel was officially qualified to receive a deferment from service in the IDF. But Yankel was uncomfortable with the idea of someone serving in his place and he was never quite sure that his hasmada was adequate enough to really free him from service. Make no mistake, Yankel was a true ben Torah, but he had a conscience that gave him no rest.
Yankel often spoke of his dilemma with the rosh yeshiva, Rav Dov Schwartzman shlita, and together they came up with a plan. Yankel enrolled at Yeshivat ha-Kotel and was officially made part of the hesder unit there. He continued to learn in Beis ha-Talmud and only joined the ha-Kotel boys when they went onto active duty. These types of quiet arrangements were not unusual in the late 60s and early 70s – quite a few boys from Chevron made similar arrangements with the knowledge and co-operation of Rav Yechezkel Sarna zt”l. Yankel finished his hesder service in June 1973 and returned to learn full time in Beis ha-Talmud. In the summer of that year he became a chasan and his wedding was scheduled to take place on Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan.
Yankel was extremely active in Peylim and in Elul of 1973, I accompanied him on a trip to Tzfat to encourage teenagers to register in dati schools. We spent the day visiting families throughout the city, and at about 11:30 we were ready to leave and travel back to Yerushalayim. As we got into my car, Yankel told me that he wanted to detour through Akko as he needed to visit a family there. I told him that we would only get there at about 12:30 and it wasn’t right to visit someone at that time. Yankel smiled and said, “you’re right but I need to pick up my watch.” I looked at him like he was crazy but he simply said: “You’ll understand when we get there.” I suggested that we call ahead from a pay phone, but Yankel told me that the family had no telephone.
We drove to Akko, arriving close to 1:00. As we pulled up in front of the house, I noticed that all the lights were on and the entire family was waiting outside. The mother and father grabbed Yankel and smothered him with kisses, and led us inside where they had set a lavish meal for us. There was no way that we could refuse to eat, so I found myself enjoying a true seudat melachim in the middle of the night. When we finished, one of the daughters – about 16 or 17 by my estimate – approached Yankel and gave him a box with a magnificent gold watch. Yankel thanked her and put the watch on his wrist, got up from the table and motioned to me that we could leave. He said not a word to the parents about the watch, simply said goodnight and that he would stay in touch.
When we got back into the car, I asked Yankel to explain. He told me that the watch was a present from his kallah. I asked him how the girl got it and he explained that two weeks earlier, he had visited the family in Akko and had spent hours trying to convince the 16 year old daughter to transfer into a religious high school. The girl had told him that while she was open to the idea of learning about religion, she did not feel that she was capable of keeping Shabbat as would be demanded by the school. Yankel told her that he was convinced that she could and offered her a deal; if she could not make it through a Shabbos, he would give her his watch as a gift. The young girl agreed and had left him a message that week in the Peylim office that he should come to Akko and take back the watch because she had managed not to be m’chalel Shabbat as he had predicted.
I asked Yankel if his kallah knew about the story and he admitted that he had not told her, adding that if I opened up my mouth, he would break every bone in my body.
On Yom Kippur 1973, Yankel’s hesder unit was called up. He was davening in the yeshiva but when he heard the sirens, he realized that war had broken out. He left after Minchah and went to the Old City to meet up with his group from Yehivat ha-Kotel. On erev Simchas Torah, Yankel’s tank was hit as they crossed the Suez Canal under the command of Arik Sharon. Yankel’s tank was the second to cross and as it drove onto the pontoon bridge, an Egyptian shell hit the tread, disabling the tank. Another shell hit the closed turret, jamming it so that it could not be opened.
The stalled tank held up the tanks behind which were now sitting ducks for the intense Egyptian artillery fire. Standard IDF operating procedueres in these circumstances is for the tank behind to push the disabled tank out of the way. Yankel’s tank was pushed off the bridge into the Suez Canal where he and three fellow soldiers drowned.
I think of Yankel often, although not as often as I should. I wonder where he got the kochot ha-nefesh to be the person that he was. I think of other soldiers who fell – some with stories of extraordinary heroism and mesirat nefesh and some anonymous to me. I am not here to give mussar, I am here only to ask that you think about Yankel and thereby bring an aliyah to his neshama.
Chaval al d’avdin v’lo mishtachnin.