November 19, 11:14 P.M.
Human beings have an incredible capacity to adapt to even the most unnatural of circumstances, given enough time to adjust.
In the first days and weeks of this war, recording my thoughts felt like breathing. I often couldn’t fall asleep, exhausted though I was, without taking the time to record my experiences and reflections. So many things were new, my emotions ran high, and it was the only way to track everything that was happening without losing myself.
And now? Now it’s all routine. Stressful shifts are routine. Meals are routine. The constant traffic of Apache helicopters over my head is routine. The daily report of casualties, sadly, has become routine.
Even my thoughts are on repeat. I think a lot about my experiences, about the people around me, and about the war as a whole. But if I wrote those thoughts down? They would be a rehash of things I have already written. Ideas about silence and leadership, stress and sleep and guilt, love and sadness.
Routine exerts a gravitational pull, whether we want it to or not.
Friends who live out of range of constant rocket fire describe the feeling of living in a bubble. In between their words, I hear guilt about having managed, somehow, to return to something resembling their pre-war routine.
Spouses and families of those called up feel an incredible pressure to find their way back to a routine, which is simply unreasonable. As I reminded Gabrielle this week, she and I built a routine for our family based on two present parents and zero wars; right now, we are down one parent and up one war.
And I will mention, though I do not pretend to understand, the pain of those whose family members were kidnapped or killed. For them, the idea of finding a routine is beyond comprehension.
After Shabbat, Gabrielle and I checked in briefly — mostly to catch each other up on the previous 24 hours. And even though I had spent 12 hours on duty, including several involving an attack on neighboring forces that required intense work on my part, I told her that I had had a pretty routine weekend. I felt it and I meant it—but even as I spoke those words, I recoiled at what has become routine.
I remember feeling similarly during the second intifada. In the Fall of 2001, I left Israel, where I had spent the first intensive year of conflict, to spend the second year of that intifada at an Ivy League university. In the middle of a surge in horrific terrorist attacks, I’d feel myself sliding into a bizarre kind of routine, so I sought a way to work against that feeling. I didn’t want routine, I didn’t want to get used to what was happening. I wanted to remain focused on what was going on in Israel, even if it was 6,000 miles away.
Ultimately, I settled on something very small, but symbolic: On days when someone had been killed in a terrorist attack, I put my watch on my other wrist. It chafed and annoyed me all day long, a constant reminder of the loss of life that day.
There are multiple reasons I am resisting routine. One is to maintain a sense of the gravity of this war; another is that routine makes me feel detached. A third: It feels unfair to find routine when Gabrielle cannot.
Yet I think there’s something else, something more essential.
I worry that we will settle into a routine that will carry us to the end of this war, without any conclusion. That we will, as we have so many times before, come to regard the abnormal things that have happened to us, and are still happening to us, as routine, rather than maintaining our focus and attention on them until they are brought to an end. I worry that this war might not end but will rather fade away. I worry that the people who have already paid such a high price will be asked to continue to shoulder the burden of a nation.
People talk, dream, and sing about parades at the end of wars. I don’t know of a war that ended with a parade since the Second World War. But I do like the idea of a decisive end.
Several times during each of my shifts, we have what might be called an “event.” Sometimes it is a direct attack by enemy forces; sometimes it is the threat of one. Sometimes we are not even sure, initially, what kind of event we are facing. But we never allow those questions to remain unanswered. We never allow them to fade away. At a certain point, even if we haven’t learned anything new, even if we haven’t answered any questions, we declare an end to the period of stress and focus. Our team leader calls out חזל״ש — an abbreviation that stands for the phrase “return to routine.”
I don’t expect a parade at the end of this war. Frankly, I am not at all sure that that is an appropriate way to conclude a war, anyway. But I desperately hope that the war will have a decisive conclusion. When I feel once again that routine is okay. When the idea of breaking with routine will be something to look forward to, rather than something to dread.
I would love to beat my sword into a plowshare. But I will be more than grateful if we can all just collectively whisper the word חזל״ש.
November 22, 11:16 P.M.
As Israel prepares for a possible prisoner swap — our women and children for their terrorists, some convicted of attempted murder — I’m not sure whether anyone who reads these updates wonders what I think about the deal (and so many other things about this war), but I will tell you anyway: I don’t know.
My oldest daughter told me that she and her friends had discussed in school whether it is better to be kidnapped or killed; I don’t know the answer, and neither can anyone else.
I don’t know whether it’s important to be more explicit about the realities of this war with our younger kids, giving them language we have crafted to describe what is happening. Or if we should try and shield them from the worst of it, in the hope that some of the atrocities that were committed will stay off their radar.
During my shift today, we sighted a group of terrorists hastily building a rocket launcher, hoping to kill more Israeli civilians before a pause in fighting takes effect. I had a hand in securing a fighter jet that dropped a bomb on the abandoned building they entered. I don’t know whether I should be proud, relieved, or just determined to continue pursuing those who rise up against us.
Tonight, a popular Israeli singer came to our base. He performed in memory of a young woman, Hadar Choshen, who was murdered on October 7 while hiding in a bomb shelter near the Nova music festival. I didn’t know whether I should enjoy the music and sing songs about coming home from battle or stay as far away as possible from what sometimes felt too much like a celebration.
It’s not that I don’t have opinions on each of these questions. But neither do I feel that I can lay claim to absolute truth. I refuse to be tempted by the idea that there are always right and wrong answers.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” I try to hold contradictory truths in my heart, but also to retain my moral clarity.
I cannot do the math on the value of innocent lives kidnapped by terrorists measured against the potential future deaths at the hands of released Palestinian prisoners. But I am certain that we must do everything we can to rescue men, women, and children who were ruthlessly kidnapped and tortured by our enemies.
I have not read enough books about the right way to tell your children that some humans have lost all semblance of their humanity. But I am certain we must prepare our children for the reality of the world in which they live, rather than shield them from it.
I do not know whether there is pride to be found in ending the life of someone on their way to commit murder. But I am certain in the biblical principle of לא תעמוד על דם רעך: Do not stand idly while your brother’s life is in danger.
I did not know Hadar Choshen. But she died at an event celebrating the power that music has to bring beauty to this world. So I sang every word to those songs about coming home from battle. I even danced. But I also cried.
Tomorrow, if all goes as planned, there will be a pause in the fighting. The potential for a few days without casualties brings me no comfort. I know that our enemies will use the pause to strengthen their ability to kill more Jews, and I am skeptical that Hamas will honor their commitments. But I will celebrate and cry for every individual released.
This morning, I heard an interview with a mother whose daughter is 23, and therefore not on the list for potential release. When asked about the prisoner swap, she refused to weigh in. But she was not silent, sharing a piercing message of moral clarity: סך הכל — מדובר בבני אדם. Ultimately, we are talking about human beings. For her, military might is but one tool in the primary goal of this war: bringing everyone home.
I was astounded at her ability to hold so much in her heart. The terror of having a daughter held captive by terrorists, alongside empathy for those whose children might be released. Sufficient presence of mind to resist being baited into political waters, and the poise to speak publicly during her life’s darkest hour.
Before concluding, the interviewer invited her to share a message for her daughter.
Unsurprisingly, love and strength came first. Then the mother paused and added one more message. To her daughter, suffering an unspeakable trauma, she offered a message of morality: “At the end of the day,” she said, “remember the difference between who they are, and who we are.”
November 26, 11:02 A.M.
Friday morning I woke up to the strangest sound: birds singing.
It wasn’t the fact that there were birds nearby, which is nothing new. But the fact that I heard them, that they were the loudest sound in range of my hearing, was. Thursday morning had been a more typical wakeup: volleys of Iron Dome rockets firing from nearby, the ever-present buzzing of a drone overhead, and regular flyovers of helicopters. But birds? It felt like the twilight zone.
Things became even more bizarre when I went on duty. My unit has spent a month and a half carefully scrutinizing a very large area of Gaza for signs of life. On the occasions when we have spotted people, 99 times out of 100 they have been Hamas terrorists trying to kill us, and we have immediately engaged them. On Friday morning, there might have been a thousand people, all at once. They were everywhere. Walking down roads, picking through rubble, riding wagons. Looking back through the fence at Israel. The scene was surreal. And all we did, of course, was watch.
The pause in fighting has introduced a complicated new reality. On the one hand, there is not a single soldier in the army who would do anything to jeopardize a deal that would see women, children, and elderly hostages released. On the other, it is unnerving to watch positions being rebuilt, tunnels being re-dug, scouting positions being deployed — by our enemy — without us making a move.
Later in the afternoon, I listened to radio reports of the first few hostages who have been released. It took me back to 2011, when Gilad Shalit was freed by Hamas after more than five years as their hostage. Then, too, I was in uniform, hearing the news during a long stint of reserve duty.
Truth be told, there is really no comparison. In 2011, I was in uniform by chance, and while that felt appropriate at the time, I was really a spectator, like everyone else in Israel. We were simply shocked that after so many years, that nightmare was finally coming to an end.
This time is different. The heinous acts that culminated in nearly 250 men, women, and children being taken hostage were what put me in uniform. What happens over the next few days will have an immediate impact on my life. And the work of my unit will, in turn, have an immediate impact on theirs.
In English, this period is being called a cease-fire; in Hebrew it is not. We very intentionally refer to it as a הפוגה: a pause, or temporary truce. We are not currently doing battle, but neither are we idle. As the government and media grapple with the public-facing aspects of war — diplomacy, public relations, analysis — we are keeping the pause under control and preparing for the next phase.
I know some more, but not much more, than what is public about the army’s plans after this phase. But there are two things I can share that make me confident that this war is far from over.
The first: Hamas is playing dangerous games with us at every opportunity. Delaying the release of hostages and then reneging on their commitments by tearing families apart yet again, as they release sisters without brothers, children without parents. In one case, they are releasing a child who now has no family to come home to. The games happen in the field across the Gaza border as well: Some of the same farmers whose tractors ripped down the border fence on October 7 are returning to salvage their crops. Groups of men inspect cars — cars that perhaps they themselves had booby-trapped for IDF troops — looking for signs of success or explosives to salvage.
The second reason I believe this war is far from finished: The overwhelming feeling of everyone around me is determination. נחישות. We are determined to secure the release of our hostages, and we are equally determined to exact a heavy price from those who perpetrated the attacks of October 7.
Last night the pause nearly fell apart. The long hours during which Israel waited for news about the next wave of hostages were gut-wrenching, I know, for those watching it play out on TV. I was on duty, and we were hard at work, preparing for both possibility that something would go (violently) wrong.
A year before I first joined the IDF, a friend of mine, now a lieutenant colonel at West Point, shared with me a famous line, often dubiously attributed to George Orwell: “We sleep soundly in our beds, because rough men stand ready in the night to do violence on those who would harm us.”
Our children slept soundly in their beds on October 7. But we were not ready for the depth and scope of the atrocities that disturbed their rest and took them into a living hell — or brutally ended their lives.
The day of reckoning for those in leadership will come. But right now, we have but one goal: making those beds the safest in the world.
It gives new meaning for me to these words, recited as a prayer before bedtime, about King Solomon, who ascended the throne when he was 12 years old:
Just as I finished writing, I caught a live interview with the mother of Eitan Rosenzweig, the last soldier killed before the pause. The first words out of her mouth were about seeing pictures of the children being released, and that that was what Eitan had fought for. The last words: Let us not stop until we have finished what we started. Until we can sleep in our beds in peace.
She left me, and the news anchors, unable to add anything more.
November 27, 10:30 A.M.
Objects in the mirror may be closer than they appear.
Moments in life may be more significant than they appear.
Yesterday for me was filled with such moments.
In a scene that has played out thousands of times in recent weeks, an Israeli family spent the day volunteering on a farm that had lost its regular laborers because of the war. They spent a long morning doing back-breaking work in the sun, and when it got too hot, they drove an hour farther to see their son and brother at the gate of his army base, where he has been since the war broke out. They brought sandwiches, home-baked cookies, and freshly brewed coffee. But mostly they sat and talked, laughed, and hugged.
Like I say, it is a scene that has become commonplace in this country of ours. But no less significant for being so. Because this was my family.
In typical Israeli fashion, a group of colleagues that work together daily (but are rarely all in the same place at the same time) took a moment to come together. Late into the evening, on a small patch of grass with a couple of dozen stools, they made dinner together, shared stories, and opened slightly wider windows into each of their personal lives. There was music and laughter, good food and good people. Welcomes to new members of the team, goodbyes to others whose careers are taking them onward. And a moment to reflect on the importance of the work they are doing, on what they have accomplished collectively.
This “team night” was almost cliché for its standard Israeli format. But powerful nonetheless. Because it was my team, my unit. And the work we are doing is fighting a war.
At the end of October, I began one update with “We are still finding bodies.” The searches have continued to be a part of our unit’s routine, even if we have been finding fewer and fewer. But one of the benefits of the pause in fighting has been that we have been able to more thoroughly comb the area near the border fence for those still labeled as missing, since there is less of a threat to our troops, for the moment. Toward midnight, during my shift, one of the rabbis in our unit came up to me with a big smile on his face. This is pretty typical; he is always smiling, often humming as well. But it was a fraught kind of smile. Why was he glad? He was glad because a body had been found, one he had reason to hope was that of someone whose story he knows well. He smiled at the possibility that the hero’s family might soon have two basic things they have thus far been denied: the closure of knowing with certainty of his death, and a body to bury with honor and respect.
Last night, I played the tiniest of roles in one of the most momentous events of my life: the release of some of our hostages.
Elements of our unit’s regular operations, which have become routine for me, were breathtakingly powerful because of their context: watching from above as, deep in Gaza, individuals were loaded onto a caravan of cars. I did not know that the people surrounding the cars were armed Hamas fighters, taking a final opportunity to terrorize our children by banging on the windows of their vans and chanting the same words they had shouted on October 7 while murdering their families in front of them: “Allahu akbar.” “God is great.”
A helicopter landed in the field near our ground troops, ready to transport the elderly grandmother who was brutally kidnapped shortly after undergoing open heart surgery; she spent 51 days without proper care or medication.
The radio broadcast mundane reports, in the same even voices typical of our incredible commanders, made all the more unbelievable because of their meaning last night: אני בקשר עין אתך. “I have eye contact with your vehicle,” spoken by forces at the fence when the convoy transporting the hostages came into view.
אנחנו נעים בציר על פי תכנון. “We are traveling on the route per the plan,” spoken by the leader of the convoy, confirming that all vehicles had safely crossed the border.
There are approximately 15 million Jews in the world. Most of them, I hope, exchange a hug or kiss with a family member at the end of the day. Every day. Important moments — but not unusual. It happened for me, too, yesterday.
But at the end of the night, when 14 mothers, grandmothers, sons, and daughters, were hugged and kissed by their families after 51 days of captivity…. That was a moment when all of us cried.
November 29, 8:25 A.M.
Last night was cold and rainy. Several dozen of us huddled together under a camouflage net, digging into our coats for warmth as we sat in a semi-circle around a short man of about 50. We leaned in on our plastic stools, trying to catch every word of his raspy voice despite the buzzing of the drone overhead.
This was how we learned the details of what happened at Kibbutz Re’im, a town that had 430 residents before the events of October 7. Since then, it has become part of our sector and something of a second home for a large part of our unit.
During my initial training as an infantry soldier some years ago, a recurring element was something called מור״קים, battle legacies. Our unit would file into a classroom with our notebooks, one of the commanders would review the tactical details of a famous battle in Israeli history, and then we would discuss what could be learned from its successes and failures.
Last night we heard just such a talk — but that is where the comparison ends.
The speaker was a רבש״ץ, the military liaison in charge of security for a town. He told us the story of defending his home, an event that happened just weeks ago. And we ourselves came into the story at the very end.
I may or may not remember every detail of the story. But I will remember the even keel of his voice as he described the horrors that took place in his own neighborhood, the offhand and understated remarks about his own extraordinary heroics, the careful control of his emotions as he described failures that might have been avoided.
I will remember how he talked about avoiding killing Palestinians who had come to invade his town but were clearly there just for looting. And how, in the same breath, he spoke of finding written orders in Arabic, instructions for the attackers to make sure to kill children.
I will remember that he spoke emotionally about what it felt like to clear rooms with grenades within the borders of Israel. That his professional description of the tactics he used included the phrase הכל זה בעצם ניסים. It was all a miracle.
I will remember the way it felt to notice we were all taking notes, not for our own knowledge but because we are constantly evaluating and improving our tactics against the same enemy, in the same war. And I will remember being startled when I realized I was part of his story.
I will remember how he answered when one soldier asked how he felt about the idea of returning to live in Re’im after everything that happened there.
“No question. We will return. We have no other homeland.”