Tuesday, October 31, 6:08 P.M.
I’m tempted to start this update with the kind of warning they issue on the news about graphic images. And then that seems nonsensical, or self-evident. These are, after all, updates from the front line of a war. The best I can think of is as follows: “Events may reflect the realities of our existence since October 7.”
We are still collecting bodies.
Tomorrow is November and there are still pure souls — fathers, mothers, aging grandparents, and innocent children — decomposing in the heat of the day. There are still families waiting in limbo, having received neither confirmation that their relatives were kidnapped by Hamas nor the painful but certain news of their death.
There have been three phases to this operation. Initially we focused on towns, on the music festival, on places where bodies were found in large numbers. There was an overwhelming amount of work, a deluge of sights, sounds, and smells that bred unfathomable horror on a daily basis.
The second phase was more complicated: small groups, sometimes pairs of bodies, dotting the hills around these same towns. Often it was clear which were our brothers and sisters, and which were terrorists. Sometimes it was not, and we would collect the bodies for forensic identification.
There is a final phase: the last few. Those that must have fled from the horrors of October 7 bleeding, injured, blindly stumbling in random directions until they succumbed to their wounds in a fold of the land, unseen by our initial patrols and drone scans. Or maybe they were dragged, kicking and screaming, by their attackers. Maybe they refused to be led like lambs to the slaughter, refused to let the Holocaust repeat itself, refused to put their country into the position of bargaining for their freedom, until their Hamas captors gave up on the struggle and ended their lives.
We don’t know — maybe we will never know — how their lives ended. But neither will we give up until we have found each and every one of them, identified them, brought them home and given them the final rest that they and their families deserve.
Each of these phases is a major undertaking. This is the front: Our units head out in great numbers, covered by massive amounts of force, to do this work. There is no “cease-fire” to collect the dead. Instead, there is an expectation that we will be attacked. We hurry these operations, sometimes in the dead of night, stopping only long enough to clear the bodies of the IEDs that have often been left, a final attempt by our enemies to use these departed innocent souls as a weapon against us, a manipulation of our mercy and love for our brothers, sisters, grandparents, and children.
This afternoon, I found myself in conversation with Amit, who just came back from a short visit home. Like everyone, he returned from leave with a close-cropped haircut, as if girding himself for the long haul. He has three daughters, ages nine, six, and three. I asked how it was being home and heard a familiar answer: “Good, but it rekindled the question of when all of this will be over.” He shrugged, I shrugged. Then I went to get my gear: I’m on duty soon.
Thursday, November 2, 5:47 P.M.
I tried to write several times yesterday but couldn’t find any words.
Usually, my thoughts come out all at once. Strong emotions turn into sentences, I skim once for typos, and then I turn the page, literally and emotionally. Yesterday, the nation was mourning the loss of 15 soldiers — and I felt empty. In pre-war days, the news of such loss would have weighed heavily on me throughout the day, but I couldn’t find that pain in the same way. Close as I am to what is happening, I feel strangely distant from it as well.
A very intensive overnight shift has helped me understand a bit better: We are out of sync.
We are out of sync in small ways: nights and days, days and weeks, mealtimes. These revolve around my shifts, rather than the clock or any kind of societal norms. This is probably why I have become so attached to times of prayer that cannot be bent to my military reality: a divinely mandated tether to normal life.
But we are also out of sync in big ways. I didn’t wake up Tuesday morning to the shocking news of so many fallen, to the names and faces splashed across the front page. I knew of the planning and the strategies that would take our forces deep into enemy territory, which units were likely to face the most dangerous battles.
Gabrielle took our son to the doctor yesterday, and in the middle of the appointment, the doctor’s son messaged her. Gabrielle told me she saw a mother’s face fall as the doctor heard from her son that his comrades had been killed.
As for me: I learned about it in real time, during my shift. In the moment, there were not yet names or faces. There were no emotional eulogies, and I could not know whether I had any connection to any of the fallen. But I experience these tragic moments in a different way. The strangely poetic language of military radio; the loud but controlled voices of commanders reporting on injuries, calling for medics, all the while continuing to direct the battle. Today, the news made public a moment that I heard live, just after several soldiers were hurt. Having taken several RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades), the commander of a unit called for mortars on his own position. “They’re among us!” he called. “We’re in our tanks — fire on our position!” I didn’t pause to reflect, or think of their families; my unit and I were already working to facilitate the evacuation of the fallen.
Yesterday, the nation mourned while I slept. Last night, they slept. I did not. And by the time last night’s news is known to the nation, I will be yet again two steps ahead.
I think about the way music has always been important to me. There are songs that can put me in a certain mood — or pull me out of one — in a powerful way. When Gabrielle and I first moved to Israel, she pregnant with our oldest, I made us a playlist for the plane. If I were not in the army right now, I know that I would be devouring the songs that are being written and rewritten, played endlessly on the radio to help the public in its grief.
Apparently my kids are doing the same, reveling in songs that express ideas they find hard to articulate. No doubt when all of this is over, those songs will be a balm that helps them move on without forgetting what they went through. But those songs aren’t part of my experience of this war, and I dimly wonder whether I will remain out of sync, and for how long.
Sunday, November 5, 9:58 A.M.
I’ve been sick the last couple of days. Nothing major, just my usual cold. They used to knock me out for a couple of days until I found the right cold medicine to help me push through. Right now, that medicine is sitting on a shelf in a closet at home, so I’m just dealing with it. I am lucky that my job here relies more on intellectual abilities than physical ones.
It’s not hard to maintain perspective. One person on my team was supposed to get married this week, a wedding that has been postponed indefinitely. Another sent his wife and kids to Holland to stay with her parents, and he has no one at home waiting for him. A third has been dealing with a health scare, and I can see she’s nervous. Usually her boyfriend would drive her to the tests she has needed, but he’s been called up elsewhere. And both his cars were destroyed by a rocket a couple of weeks ago, anyway.
This week marks one month since this war was thrust upon us. No one has told me how long these things usually last. Gabrielle has stopped asking me whether anyone has any idea how long we’ll be called up. I think she has come to realize that this is one area where I don’t have any more information than she does. I’ve read plenty of books about the Yom Kippur War, but they mostly deal with the outbreak. Few cover the later parts of the war. None mentions what I recently learned: that the final reservist went home on Pesach. Six months later.
The uncertainty makes the occasion of marking one month somewhat meaningless. I count differently, anyway: four Shabbats. One of my kid’s birthdays. Thirty bedtimes and goodnight kisses. One, soon two, lost teeth. Half a dozen coffee dates with Gabrielle.
This week felt like one of loss. Many, many soldiers were killed. I haven’t known any of the fallen personally, but there are so many second-degree connections that it feels like being in bumper cars, trying to drive a straight line as you get constantly struck from various angles. On Thursday, Gabrielle informed me that the owner of the photo album I rescued from ruins in Kibbutz Be’eri was killed. We will have to return the book to her surviving sons, now orphans. That’s not the scene I had imagined.
On Friday afternoon, I was caught up in something for longer than I had hoped, leaving me with precious few minutes to FaceTime my family and, together with my wife, give the Shabbat blessings to our children over video. I try not to do this too close to Shabbat, as it sometimes leaves them in tears. Alas, it was beyond my control this week. Everyone was pretty okay, but Eden stubbed her toe on the way to the phone. I had only about 90 seconds, so she was in tears throughout.
Being off-duty, I went to the base’s shul on Friday night. Small as it is, I couldn’t help but read over the shoulder of the lieutenant colonel/rabbi who was sitting in front of me, texting on his phone. He sent two messages, the first reviewing the body count of Jewish dead and the locations and status of each body. The second was in answer to a simple question: “Rabbi, will you be available by phone over Shabbat?” “Yes,” he typed, adding a smiling emoji with a single tear running down its face.
I tried very hard to get into the spirit as we were led in the familiar tunes of Kabbalat Shabbat, the Friday evening prayers. But I was thinking about the change from those first couple of intense weeks, when the pain was so raw and the emotions ran so high. That first Friday night, there were too many of us to fit in the tiny shul, and we danced and danced in the road outside. Tonight, most of us fit in the shul, and anyway, my cold left me too tired to dance.
My reverie was suddenly interrupted by cries of “Tzeva Adom! Tzeva Adom!” — rockets or mortars fired on our location.
The singing suddenly stopped.
I was third in from the aisle and everyone had to grab his gun and fold his seat, then run for the nearest shelter. I wasn’t going to make it. Instead, I prostrated myself along with a few others against the wall, covering my head, aware that this was not very effective but better than nothing. Iron Dome is quite successful, but nothing is 100 percent. What to do in that moment?
Then I heard the soldier lying next to me mutter ואנחנו כורעים ומשתחווים ומודים: “Yet we kneel, bow, and give thanks, to the King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed Be He.”
This was not just a prayer. He was reciting the same words that are said on the High Holidays, the only time each year that Jews prostrate themselves in shul. We were in that very same position, in a shul, only a few weeks after Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Now, as then, praying for life. I added my own words of prayer alongside his.
Then the moment passed. Soldiers trickled back in, quiet, with a kind of awkward silence. How to resume?
Our hazan, who had been leading us in singing, simply picked up at exactly the place he had left off. And for my part, I felt a second wind. Not just in the context of the singing — in the context of this war. None of us asked for this, all of us are grappling, in different ways, with the reality of this long journey into the unknown. But our fatigue doesn’t begin to touch our morale. Nor does the loss. Nor do our personal problems.
I mentioned my count of how long this war has gone on, but there is another number that keeps me going: one. One state. One home. One place in the world where we can rise up when needed and fight for our safety and security — and for the safety and security of Jews around the world. Because there is another number tucked into the back of everyone’s minds: 6 million. A number from before. A number that will never happen again as long as we have an army of Jews, rabbis using their phones on shabbat, priests offering blessings with pistols strapped to their legs.
It was only a day later that I realized the last words that had been sung right before the rockets fell: אוהבי ה׳ שנאו רע, שומר נפשות חסידיו מיד רשעים יצילם. Those who love God, despise evil. He guards the souls of those who love Him fervently, and will save them from those who do evil.
Monday, November 6, 11:18 A.M.
These updates have been almost completely unfiltered, the exception being for purposes of informational security. But I’ve been thinking about the parents reading these messages. And their children — how hard it is to find the right words for them. What’s the right balance between honesty and brutal honesty? Between preserving their sense of the world in general and exposing them to the worst of humanity?
I wrote a message to my children yesterday; I am sharing excerpts from it in a way that could be shared with other children, in the hopes that it helps other parents find words in these times. שנדע ימים טובים יותר: May we know better days, when preparing our children for adulthood is a less scary prospect.
Tuesday, November 7, 12:31 A.M.
Today (by now, yesterday) I joined a small group of soldiers, and one of the rabbis attached to our unit, for a tour of Kibbutz Be’eri.
You may recall that I spent some time based there, and I walked around the kibbutz, reflecting on the juxtaposition of beauty and tragedy in that place. This was to be a guided tour, however. Someone who would show us what had happened and where, tell us stories of tragedy and heroism, stories whose ink has barely dried on the page.
Part of my unit is still based there; convoys go back and forth regularly. But this time, 20 of us loaded onto a minibus with our vests and helmets for the short ride from our base.
And then the most wonderful thing happened: They didn’t let us in.
Be’eri has been a military zone since October 7. No civilians living there, just a glut of soldiers and gear, green and brown vehicles. But as of yesterday, some of the locals returned and took over the entrance gate to Be’eri. And today, when we arrived, they said no.
What they actually said was, “You didn’t get approval in advance.” But that’s not what I heard. What I heard was, “This is our home. This is not a military base, it’s not a tourist attraction, it’s not a memorial. We haven’t yet decided if we are ready to move back and live here. Maybe some of us never will. But it will always be our home. Ours.”
I smiled the whole way back to base. It’s November 6, only a month after unspeakable tragedy happened in Be’eri. But I can already see a glimmer of hope.
Wednesday, November 8, 1:01 P.M.
This one has been percolating for a while; it’s going to be longer than usual.
On Sunday, in between shifts, we held a short ceremony marking the end of shloshim, 30 days of mourning, for those slaughtered on October 7.
For most of the soldiers standing there, we had no idea that amount of time had passed. As I’ve written before, our days and our nights bear no resemblance to the normal rhythm of life, and as a result, we have simply lost our grasp on the passage of time.
The ceremony was brief. Our rabbi recited a chapter from Tehillim (psalms) that spoke to battles fought with God’s help. An officer told the story of a soldier who heroically saved many of his neighbors before being shot by terrorists running through the streets. In his final moments, a medic dashed to his side, but the soldier used his last breath to stop the medic in his tracks. “Don’t come over here,” he gasped. “You’ll be killed on the way.” Literally saving lives with his dying breath.
A short song was played on guitar — one I had not known, but many others whispered along to — about the fallen in battle who will no longer dream or love, and those left behind who will ensure that the fallen are never forgotten.
A second officer spoke about Oren Nissim Bitan, the soldier from our unit who was killed a week into the war. A third, a teacher in his civilian life, spoke about memory. Drawing parallels between Rosh Hashanah and Yom HaZikaron, the Israeli Memorial Day, which falls the day before Independence Day, he suggested that memory poses a question: Do we remember those we have lost? Are we worthy to celebrate what they paid for with their lives?
We lit a memorial candle, sang the national anthem, “Hatikva,” and got back to work.
I have spent a lot of time thinking about the realities of serving in the army during war, about my role in this one, and about the power of words to channel thoughts, feelings, and ultimately memories.
The song from our ceremony — מי שחלם לו (“He Who Has Dreamed”) — was written after the Six-Day War. In a time when every new song was a triumphant celebration of Israel’s newfound strength and resilience, one songwriter, Didi Manusi, could not bring himself to adopt the upbeat, joyous tone of victory. Instead, he penned a melancholy ode to the fallen that reminded me of a similarly themed song, הרעות (“Friendship”), written after Israel’s War of Independence, that speaks of “the friendship we will never forget” of those who fell.
I was not surprised to learn that Manusi was himself a veteran of the 1948 War of Independence. My experience of those who have directly suffered the most painful losses in war is that they don’t often regain the perspective they had before those tragedies. Where the rest of us find meaning in the oft-discussed juxtaposition of Memorial Day and Independence Day here, grieving families struggle to make the dramatic shift to celebration in the wake of immeasurable pain. For them, the celebrations are marred by the bitterness of loss.
My nine-year-old son has been (reportedly) playing Israel’s newly written inspirational songs ad nauseum. In a moment of precocious reflection, he said to Gabrielle, “I don’t know where I’d be without these songs, I really don’t. I’m so glad they wrote all of these songs.”
I know which songs he means. Not the melancholy ones. Not the scary one whose words are one person’s story of escape on October 7. He means the inspiring ones. The ones that speak of the nation pulling together, of the hope of the future, Am Israel Chai — the People of Israel Endure. The songs written by those who are one step removed from the immeasurable pain of grief. Who see it and feel it and remember the fallen, but who are not seeing, every day, the empty seat at the table. The empty side of the bed. The photos that will preserve an age while others continue to grow, to live.
I struggle to come to terms with my own role in this war. Like many of my fellow soldiers, I spent years running up and down hills, ducking for cover, lying silently in overnight ambushes. Covered in dirt and sweat, tired and hungry but also filled with adrenaline and focus, all the time.
Today I find myself in a war, but in a different role. There is danger, but far less of it than if I were still a sharpshooter or a fire-team leader. In some ways, I have the ability to do much more where I am now, though my distance from that former job feels like a current of guilt underneath everything. I feel lucky to have a role to play — and Gabrielle would say there is already far too much danger in what I do these days — but I also identify with and empathize with those back home and abroad, who feel a burning sense of purpose coupled with the frustration that they are not more directly involved. When I reassure friends and family that they, too, are no less a vital part of this war, am I reassuring them? Or myself?
I have always preferred the melancholy songs. The ones that elicit feelings of pain and loss, the idea that things may never be quite the same. Maybe because I feel the guilt of being one step removed from immeasurable grief.
From where I sit, I have the luxury of perspective. I see and understand and experience much more of this war than if I was fully in the trenches. And maybe part of writing these updates comes from the sense that I have a responsibility to share my thoughts and perspectives. To provide others with a window into the reality of this war, in a way that those who are covered in dirt and sweat, tired and hungry but also filled with adrenaline and focus, all the time, cannot.
Before I had a chance to post the above, a friend shared a guide for dealing with the emotional stress of handling bodies after a mass-casualty event. I was struck by the constant references to guilt — specifically, the common experience, even among those tending the fallen, of feeling guilty about not doing enough.
There is guilt all around me.
The guilt of those who have aged out of service, or who are not part of the IDF, that they are not a direct part of the war effort.
The guilt of those in the IDF with support jobs, that their roles have little meaning or purpose in the grander scheme of the war.
The guilt of units operating in reserve, or training, or covering quieter fronts, that their service is a background to the “real” battles.
The guilt of those on the front lines, whose units may have faced combat but who weren’t themselves “in the right place at the right time.”
The guilt of those who faced terrorists but called in air support rather than storm ahead themselves.
The guilt of those in attack helicopters, who eliminated terrorists but were never in the danger faced by those on the ground.
The guilt of those who escaped kidnapping.
The final moments of guilt of the fallen, who died knowing they were leaving behind families, spouses, children who wouldn’t have them in their lives.
Jews are really good at guilt. Maybe we should spend some time developing our pride.
Pride that all of us feel for one another.
Pride that we are, each of us, doing something.
Pride that our people made the instantaneous switch from pitched internal conflict to overwhelming unity. We can return to arguing later.
Pride that the phrase “never again” is no longer a phrase but a mantra for action. I used to think Never Again meant Jews would never again be killed for being Jewish. Would that it were so. But now I know it means that never again will the murdering of Jews go unnoticed, unremarked — and unanswered.
Let us set aside our individual guilt, and our national guilt. There will be time for reckoning and tough conversations later, but what we need, what will carry us into a brighter future, is our collective pride.