A YOM KIPPUR WAR DIARY
(from: Conservative Judaism, Vol. XXIX, No. 4, Summer, 1975)
Sunday, October 14, 1973. The call came in the evening. Join the military
Hevrah Kaddisha in Tel Hashomer. Not knowing what to expect, I went
with my commander, a member of my shul. At Tel Hashomer I met the
group I was to be with for seventy-two days. At first they were suspicious
of me, but I did look Jewish (beard and tzitzit). A small room, with a slid-
ing door leading into a larger room. We were to wait there overnight, then
take the plane to Refidim at five in the morning.
At Tel Hashomer I saw for the first time many of the things that were
to become commonplace. The file of the dead soldier, the plain wooden
coffin draped in the flag of Israel, rubber surgical gloves, masks, the un-
forgettable smell of death. I wondered how I would do it. Could I look at
a dead body and take it? I was supposed to photograph faces for the files.
Could I do it?
With all the talk about the war by those who had already served one
week in the North, there was an impressive aura of seriousness. No Catch-22
or M.A.S.H. here, no hint of irreverence, no black comedy. This was the
Hevrah Kaddisha, a holy task, a great mitzvah, hesed shel emet-true loving
kindness-since there could be no possibility of any ulterior motive. The
recipient of our acts could in no way pay us back or make it worth our
while. I peeked through a crack in the sliding door to see if I could see
blood, a body. If I couldn’t take it, would I quit? I saw something, took
a deep breath and walked away. Well, I survived. Better not think about
it. Try to sleep.
Monday, October 15. Up early in the morning, ready to go. First we daven,
the twenty-five of us, for Hol Hamoed Sukkot. The one set of arba minim
among us will have to do. There is a free telephone, so I call home. After
a last minute check of equipment we are off to catch the 5:00 a.m. special
The thirty-five minute flight gives me barely enough time to worry
about the condition of the airplane. After landing we walk to the com-
pound where trucks will take us to our camp. As we walk through the gate,
sirens sound. We have been here less than five minutes. What a welcome!
The loudspeaker blares: everyone take cover!
I plump down behind a little mound of dirt. Another soldier jumps
down beside me. He huddles into the dirt, pulls out a soiled postcard on
which he had been writing, and writes some more. To my surprise I know
him. The first person I meet in Sinai, during an air-raid alert, is a young
boy named Dov from South Africa. An aspiring professional photographer,
Dov is doing his service in a Nahal unit which is responsible for security
of the base. He is off-duty now, but hasn’t been home for some time. We
talk about cameras and film. He gives me some of his film to develop.
“You’ll surely be home before I will,” he says. It is a real pleasure to meet
him here. “I’ll call you after the war for the films.” He says it like a pledge.
I pray God he will call for the films.
We ride to our base, passing the field hospital. Very impressive. There
are over two hundred doctors and nurses, with every conceivable specialty
and facility for saving men’s lives and limbs. We arrive at our low concrete
building. Three rooms for attending to the fallen, a storage room and an
office. Outside is a sukkah made by the boys on the base. A nice sukkah,
We go in to eat. Jews build the sukkah for “in sukkot I made the peo-
ple of Israel dwell when I took them out of Egypt.” Here we are again
in the Sinai Desert, sitting in sukkot. No matter how hot it is outside, the
sukkah is always cool with a breeze. Divine engineering, perhaps.
Then I hear the noise of the helicopters for the first time. We green-
horns rush out to look. A short distance from our building is the helicopter
landing pad. All wounded are brought to the hospital from the front by
helicopter. It is the fastest way, and seconds count. The pilots brave the
storm of Migs, missiles and ground fire to pick up the wounded. What
heroes! “He who saves one life is considered as having saved an entire
world,” the Mishnah tells us. This phrase comes to mind again and again
as the helicopters land one after another.
When the chopper lands, the pickup crew is already at its door. They
take the stretcher, holding up the infusions, and rush the wounded soldier
to a waiting ambulance in which he is rushed the one hundred meters or so
to the hospital for treatment. From the helicopter to the hospital takes about
So many ambulances? No. These are regular trucks conscripted by
the army. Iron fittings on the inside of the truck accommodate the stretchers
of the wounded. In minutes a civilian truck is converted to an ambulance.
Osem food products, Hertz rent-a-car, someone’s diaper service, cigarette
manufacturers. Everyone has contributed an “ambulance” to help save lives.
I wander around like the rest of our group. I read lists posted in our
office to see if, God forbid, someone I know is on the list. I really don’t
want to know, so I skim through the lists very rapidly, hardly catching the
At about four in the afternoon our commander calls us together
for an urgent mission. A tank unit has been waiting three days for one of
our units to remove some of their men from a burned tank. Six of us climb
into our green double-cabin Volkswagen truck and drive toward the Canal.
“They will light up the area for you so you can work at night,” we
are told. “Come back immediately, whenever you have finished.”
Well, I’m off to the war. “I served here once,” says Segen Alfasi,
“I know this area well.” Roads are pock-marked from shellings. Driving is
not easy. Our driver, Jonathan, is constantly being admonished, “Slow down,
take it easy; you’ll leave a lot of orphans if you don’t slow down.” We suc-
ceed in bridling his youthful enthusiasm to fly down a narrow bad road,
and we also give ourselves something to do. Everyone is nervous. Where
are we going? Is it dangerous?
It is dark now, and there is a blackout in the area. A military police-
man stops us. “Hey meshugene, turn your lights off!” How can you drive
on a road you’ve never seen without lights? Very slowly.
“Is that better, boys?” Jonathan taunts us. “You guys wanted to go
slowly.” We are crawling, seeing only the blacked-out lights of other vehicles
crawling along with us and the occasional shapes of tanks parked by the
side of the road. After traveling for an eternity in this blackness, we begin
“Alfasi, you sure you know the way?”
“Hevreh, I know it.”
“Alfasi, maybe we should stop and ask someone?”
We do. He says, “Keep going straight, and in about twenty minutes
Maybe he doesn’t know either. Nine out of ten Israelis when asked
directions will say, “Go straight, then turn right,” even if they haven’t the
faintest idea where you’re going. It is a national reflex. We are worried, with
frightening shapes all around and a war not too far in front of us. We begin
to sing, “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah.”
We sing it over and over. Fifteen minutes, twenty minutes. Fear of the
dark and of the unknown may have been the initial motivation, but after
a while we are singing out of a deep faith that our struggle must eventually
lead somewhere. We fight not only to insure our survival but so that our
survival will hasten the coming of the Messiah.
The road winds up a steep hill. A jeep flies past us. That driver obvi-
ously knows the way. At the top of the hill, looking down, we see flares
and the firing of cannons and tanks. An awesomely beautiful sight from
a distance. But around us we see nothing. Suddenly we are surrounded by
Israeli soldiers pointing guns at us.
“We’re from the Rabbinate,” says Alfasi, “to extricate bodies.”
“Come with me.”
Suddenly I see the camp, dug into the mountain, reinforced by steel
and concrete. It turns out to be the war room of the Sinai front. We state
“Are you out of your mind? We asked for you guys three days ago.
We’re crossing the Canal tonight.”
We are embarrassed.
“We will put you up for the night in a safe place. In the morning if
you can get in there safely, you will do your work.”
We descend the mountain and follow our escort to the safe place. We
drive in further and further. Finally he stops by a group of tanks and APC’s
and says that they will give us sleeping bags. We’ll sleep on the sand tonight.
“Where are we?” I want to know.
“About seven kilometers from the Canal, right next to the Egyptian
Tuesday, October 16. In the morning our liaison officer, a young captain,
leads us to the site of the tank. The remains of the tank and the shells are
strewn in a wide circle of several hundred meters. The black charred hulk
of the tank lies at the center, its gun blown to bits. Our job is to search for
the bodies of the men who had manned that tank. Undoubtedly they are
scattered around with the debris.
Our primary and most difficult job is identification. Perhaps we will
be able to find out who was killed here by the locations of the bodies, their
position in relation to the tank, a dog tag, a watch or other identifiable
personal item. It is not simple.
First we form lines and walk in every direction from the tank out to
the periphery of the parts, searching for any bone or fragment of a Jew that
was. The captain watches us. After quite some time he begins to help us
with our task.
“I understand,” he says. “Each piece is ‘Holy unto the Lord.’ They are
also holy unto me.”
There is a Rabbinic legend about the “Luz of the spine,” an indestruc-
tible bone which is the source of the body’s future’ resurrection. As we walk,
I think of that symbol of man’s indestructibility. Will we find the Luz of
these boys who died defending their homeland? Will we have one tangible
piece of evidence of their immortality? “They put it in water and it did
not dissolve, in fire and it was not consumed, on a mill and it was not
ground. They placed it on an anvil and struck it with a hammer. The anvil
cracked and the hammer split, but it remained whole.” For us they are
immortal, the defenders of our people. We find what we are looking for.
Bits and pieces all over.
I am reminded of the prayer found in the Talmud: “Blessed art Thou,
Lord, our God, King of the Universe who hast formed man in wisdom and
created in him a system of ducts and tubes. It is well known before Thy
glorious throne that if but one of these be opened, or if one of these be
closed, it would be impossible to exist in Thy presence. Blessed art Thou,
0 Lord who healest all creatures and doest wonders.”
How many times I thought of that prayer. If one of these tubes is
opened or closed, we cease to exist. How much more so when all of them
are opened, blown to bits, hacked into small pieces by the hatred which
the gentiles nurture against Your people. The Lord creates man in wisdom
and with wonder. If the normal functioning of the human body is a miracle
for which the Lord should be blessed, then what is the wanton destruction
of the human body? How fragile are miracles in war. The most beautiful
and awe-inspiring creation-the human body-in an instant can become
rubble strewn over a wide field of fine white sand.
On the side of the tank are the cubbies for personal effects, food
supplies and so forth. We decide to open them on the chance that some-
thing remains that will help us in our identification. Everything is burned,
charcoal. But I do find a blue airline bag. Who was this Jewish boy, his
mother’s pride? His socks and underwear, so lovingly packed by his mother,
are burned to a crisp. Several candy bars. A sweet tooth, maybe a little
spoiled at home. Wrapped inside the bag in a ball is a tallit. It too is
scorched, but more whole than anything else. Inside the tallit, whole, un-
harmed, is a pair of tefillin in a bag. The only thing not burned in this tank
is this boy’s tefillin, which we show to the captain.
“Oh, he is one of the living. We will send it to him in the hospital.
What a souvenir!”
The captain insists that we drink water constantly. It is hot, we are
dripping sweat. You can become dehydrated in minutes without knowing
it, so you must drink at fixed intervals. We are sitting in the shade of the
tank, taking a water break, when something explodes about a hundred
meters in front of us. The Egyptians are shooting in our direction. The
captain shouts, “Let’s pack up and move!”
It is the first time in my life that someone is shooting at me. I am
astonished. (You knew it was a war, didn’t you? What did you expect?)
I am afraid. Maybe we shouldn’t move. Or maybe we can make our get
away and get back safely to our home base.
This is the real ein bereirah-no choice : one must believe in God to
be comforted, even if it is only for a little while. We pack up, collecting our
evidence, and off we go as fast as our little VW will carry us. Soon there
are no more explosions by the roadside and we are moving along normally.
Where is the war? The transition from war and fear to normalcy and com-
placency is frighteningly swift. But the blankets wrapped around remains
in the back of the truck will not let us forget.
We are stopped by a traffic jam. In the middle of Sinai? A red-
helmeted soldier is stopping vehicles. What official nuisance is this going
to be? Then we make out the Hebrew letters on his helmet-DASH, greet-
ings. He hands us forms for telephoning home and we write down a message
and our telephone number. This message is passed on to other soldiers who
are going home or to volunteers in the cities who receive these forms. They
transmit the message, “All is well, hope to be home soon.” The nation is one
gigantic switchboard, with everybody plugged into everybody else.
A popular song here is based on a poem by Yehuda Amichai, “Pitom
kam adam umargish shehu am.” “Suddenly a man wakes up and feels
he is a nation.” Each man is the nation and the nation is each man.
This feeling hit me over and over at various points in the war, another
leitmotif of experiences in the Yom Kippur War.
There are lots of definitions of the Jew. Each one is incomplete by
itself, but altogether they may approach an understanding of “what
is a Jew.” I want to add my little piece of the definition. The Jew is an
aggadah-making animal. What is aggadah? It is more than legend and
philosophy and literature, more than all the sum of the parts put
together. It is the Jew’s spiritual life force, his attempt to wrest mean-
mg and understanding from the facts of his people’s existence. If the
Jewish people is (in Isaiah’s words ) a tree stump, then aggadah is our
flowering, the fruit that we bear, and halakhah-Jewish law-is a noble
attempt to concretize aggadah in rules for living.
Each generation builds on the previous generation’s strata of
aggadah, assimilating them at the same time. Thus ideals of behavior
are built up. A collective ego of experience and the interpretation of
that experience together form norms of behavior. All this process is
aggadah. But aggadah, because it is Jewish, has its basis in a text, in
the holy word of the Lord, and Jews-like it or not-are formed by and
are forming the succeeding continuous aggadah of that word.
And so our concern for the dead, for proper burial, for sanctity
of the dead with such pedantic precision. For us this grim task is the
most holy of deeds. Performing such a seemingly distasteful job with
true religious fervor and devotion comes from the accumulation of
honor due every Jew who dies for kiddush haShem.
Kiddush haShem is the ultimate personal assertion of the worth
of God, of a way of life, of an ideal. The spirit of kiddush haShem
reigns among the soldiers of Tzahal, and at no other time is it so
apparent as in this war, with its multiple attacks and its high firepower
rate leading to many more casualties than usual.
Accumulated honor is due every Jew who chooses to point out to
the world in this ultimate way that his God and his people and their
way of life is the highest value, more important to him than life itself.
It is a vast accumulation of the will to bear witness to God, a tribute
to the best in man in the face of the worst in man. All of this informs
our concern for each and every one of the dead, for every part of them,
for each drop of blood. The weight of Jewish martyrdom is too much
to bear; it presses down on us and makes our task difficult. We work
and weep, work and weep. “In every generation they arose against us
to destroy us, but the Holy One blessed be He stands by us.” So the
Haggadah on Passover night. We also stand by the Holy One blessed
be He. It is a mutual stance, He protecting us from utter destruction
by giving us courage, and we supporting the honor and holiness of
His name and reputation by performing acts of kiddush haShem.
Tonight will be Hoshana Rabbah, the last of the intermediate days of
Sukkot. A few of us are standing around waiting for others to join us for
the minhah service. A doctor (green outfit) is walking toward us. I wonder
if he has come to pray, but something tells me that prayer is not for him.
“You guys from the Rabbinate?”
“Hevrah Kaddisha,” I tell him.
“But you are from the Rabbinate?”
“Yes, I suppose we are.
“Could you come with me? We have a guy in the hospital who wants
to pray, and he’s asking for a rabbi.”
I start off with him.
The doctor is a psychiatrist. He was called in to treat a young
wounded officer who has been crying and sobbing uncontrollably since his
operation. His gunner was killed, and he is inconsolable with grief.
“He wants to say a prayer,” says the psychiatrist.
“You don’t need a rabbi for that,” I tell him.
“I didn’t know what to do.”
“Watch me. Maybe you’ll learn for next time.”
He looks kind of skeptical as we approach the hospital. I can hear
the crying and the sobbing.
“Yaakov! Where are you, Yaakov?”
“Yaakov was his gunner,” says the psychiatrist.
How will I face him? I don’t know. I pull out the Siddur I brought
and hold it up in front of me as if it could be a shield against this Jew’s
He looks up at me from his bed. “Are you a rabbi?”
He starts to sob again. “Yaakov is dead, my haver Yaakov. What will
I tell his folks? Why am I alive?”
“Look here.” I open the Siddur and point to the blessing for those
who have escaped danger or harm. “Say this blessing.” He says it and I repeat
the traditional response.
“Now say this.” I show him some of the minhah prayers and Aleinu:
“We must repair the world so it is worthy of God’s kingship.”
He stops crying. “Thank you,” he says to me, “Thank you.” He puts
his head back and falls asleep.
Wednesday, October 1 7 Today is Hoshana Rabbah, the culmination of
the Sukkot holiday. Our group cannot stop talking about our being at
the Canal crossing. The news is just filtering back officially, but we are bear-
ers of the “real” story. An uneasy premonition is in the air about the price
we will have to pay for this bold move. We look at one another, and to
the prayers of this Hoshana Rabbah we add one very strongly-felt prayer.
“0 Lord, let us have no work.”
“Work” is our unit’s euphemism for the task we perform. “We must
be the only group in the world that prays for unemployment,” quips the
joker of our group. We nervously watch the helicopter landing area. Our
commander approaches me with a sad face.
“What’s up?” I ask.
He asks if I know a certain soldier.
“Of course. I know him and his family well. His father and I are
very close. We worked together for a long time.”
“Yeah, well . .
“In there?” I ask, nodding my head in the direction of our compound.
The grief that each of us feels in our work is heavy enough. We do not
want to have it compounded by genuine familiarity. Yet it had to happen.
I knew it would. But my first reaction is that it must be a mistake.
“Are you sure?” I stammer.
“Yes. I checked the address in Jerusalem. Do you want to identify
him, just for the records?” I don’t want to, but I do. You have to be sure.
I have to be sure. Maybe it is a mistake. But it is he. I think of his father,
a sage, a talmid hakham. How will he bear up? I feel that I am going
to pieces. I leave the room and walk in circles. I weep.
I approach the sukkah. We all reach down deep inside of ourselves
for strength to celebrate the holiday. We wander, each one wandering
around in his own circle, slowly building up strength to celebrate, even
strength to say the words.
I see our unit’s cook. “Come, Eli, to the minyan.”
Come, Eli. Maybe you can lose yourself for a minute, maybe for a few
hours you can see not death but life, not sorrow not the desolation
and isolation of sacrifice in being a Jew but the communion and joy.
“O.K., but only for you, Michael.”
We wander around together as we gather for prayer. There is a heated
discussion about the service. How many hakafot must there be? The festive
spirit is being slowly sought. Should we improvise a choir? We are ready to
begin, but none of us really has the strength yet, so we look for more things
to discuss, to put off starting. Then there is silence again.
Suddenly one of our unit steps up to the lectern and starts the service.
A large crowd has gathered by now. People are streaming in from all direc-
tions. Some join in. Others stand, not knowing what to do, simply wanting
to be there. We start mechanically at first, reciting because we are com-
manded to do so. Bit by bit we lose ourselves, our time and place changed
by the eternal words, by this bit of time sanctified and hallowed by the
Jewish people for millennia as a holiday.
We feel removed from what is happening around us. Everywhere in
the world Jews are reciting these same prayers, sanctifying this same bit of
time for the purpose of rejoicing in the Torah, affirming our joy at our
peculiar form of existence. Oh Lord, let no “work” come now, at least not
for a few hours. Give us rest. Miraculously He does. Simhat Torah eve is
undisturbed. The Torah is taken from the ark, and the hakafot begin. With
each hakafah singing and dancing traditionally prolong the rejoicing.
Tonight more than any other time the singing and dancing are particularly
frenzied. We shout the songs at the top of our lungs. We dance with the
frenzy of the intoxicated. By our very violence in these activities we will
assert the truth of the words we sing. Come what may, by the strength we
pour into this activity we will make these words come true, we will force
God to keep His promise to us, we will force God by our very power this
night to exist, to be God, to redeem His pledges to His people. We are
carried away in our ecstasy and the whole crowd joins us, even those who
do not know the prayers. To sing and to dance is their prayer; this is their
service of the heart, and they join in with wild abandon.
We move out toward the hospital. The doctors and the nurses hear us
coming. Slowly they come out to look, then to listen, and then they too
begin to dance. Into the tents of the wounded we go. They strain to sit
up, to kiss the Torah, some even try to get up and dance.
In the middle of brutality, in the midst of a battlefield strewn with
burnt-out vehicles and dead bodies, soaked with blood of young Arabs and
Jews, in the midst of a holocaust of destruction of human life, an amorphous
mass of several hundred people dance and sing at the top of their strength,
jumping up and down, bumping into one another, a large uniformed circle
of people screaming and dancing. And in the center of all this merriment
a lone man holds a small scroll written with specially prepared ink, pain-
stakingly written by a scribe with a feather pen copied precisely as every
other Torah scroll has been copied for ages and ages. This mass of people
rejoicing in the midst of slaughter around this anachronism of time
and place-this hand-made, unmachined, unmodern scroll of writing on
Thursday, October 18. The worst day of the war for receiving casualties. It
is a nightmare. Every room is full, and bodies are laid out in the back of
the installation. The commander goes to the hospital to order one of the
big tents used for the wounded.
Each truck pulls up with the same faces, the same sadness. They un-
load their cargo, give their report and hang around, unable to tear them-
selves away from the fate of their comrades. Reluctantly they part and
others replace them. I help unload. Everyone is unloading. We start to
fill up the huge tent that has been set up. My God, is there no end? Simhat
Torah has vanished for all of us.
“Let’s organize.” Anything to put it off. Just a few minutes more respite.
“We have to organize.” Finally we must enter the rooms where the precious
cargo lies. We have to make a preliminary identification of each soldier
through identification tags or papers, empty all pockets and write a full
report. We also have to remove all live ammunition, grenades and so forth,
from the body. We then carefully place the body of each soldier in a plain
wooden casket, and label each casket with the name and number on the
outside and the inside, placing the same information in a glass bottle as
well. The casket is then registered, loaded on a truck and sent to a temporary
This may sound like a mechanical, simple job, but it is almost impossible
for me to write about it. What characterizes that night more than anything
else from the external point of view is our wandering. It is an obsession an
illness. We cannot sit or stand still, not even to rest. It is like some long,
extended neilah service in which one continually tries to reach out for
God’s mercies in a last desperate effort before the gates close and it is
no longer the hour of grace.
The whiskey is the second strange thing. I don’t usually drink anything
stronger than sweet red wine for kiddush, but a small mouthful of whiskey
feels good this night.
The last thing is the sighing. I walk a few feet away from the building
and sigh. I have a great desire to sigh-not to cry out, not to curse (that
comes later) , but just to sigh. Everyone is caught up in these things. We
all do them. We wander, we drink and we sigh.
The other external feature of that night is the sound of the same
phrases heard over and over, a litany of phrases that one starts and the
others pick up like a chorus, again and again. Yiddishe bohurim, Jewish
boys, accompanied by a long wailing sigh, bashert-it is destined.
From that first peek into the room at Tel Hashomer I had eased myself
into looking at what I was doing. When working on the tank I had
slowly steeled up the courage to look at the burned remains of what
had been human. But there still had been no confrontation with a dead
body, a recognizable human form. Until now all my contact had been
with objects, and my feelings of anguish arose from the thought of who
these objects had been, what they had done and what they stood for.
I had not yet been challenged to associate these thoughts with the
recognizable body which shortly before had been a living Jew. Slowly
I had been working up to it. I had looked under the blankets bit
by bit to see if I could stand it. But the confrontation with such great
numbers of dead was shocking despite all my preparation.
I had always imagined that nothing Jewish could be foreign to
me. I had always identified with the Jewish plight, even the Holocaust.
If all of us were present at Mount Sinai, all of us were present at Ausch-
witz. The burden of Jewish being is to live all of Jewish history.
I see no difference between the victims of Auschwitz and the
victims of the war I dealt with; they are all casualties of Jewishness
and Jewish history. What difference could there be? Did they die less
painfully, did the burns affect them less, are little pieces of men less
horrible scattered around a tank than burned in an oven? is their
kiddush haShem less?
Maybe the statistics of the wars of Israel should be added to the
statistics of Jewish martyrdom of the Holocaust, the pogroms and the
Crusades. Perhaps we should make up a grand total of Jewish martyr-
dom and proclaim that the world owes us that many lives. Each and
every war casualty lives for me in his death, whether he be a stump
burned beyond recognition or a clean body marred only by a small
hole through the head; whether his uniform be burned and ragged with
arms and legs missing, or whether it be whole and pressed with shin-
mg boots and the insignia of a colonel adorning his epaulettes; whether
he be from a wealthy family of industrialists living in a villa in a Tel
Aviv suburb, or the son of a poor family of thirteen children barely
existing in a two room hovel in a Tel Aviv slum.
Each and every one of them is a victim of the Holocaust. No
matter that their fathers and mothers escaped the Holocaust and
brought forth this child as a rebuttal to the brutality and Jew-hatred
they had experienced. Out of the ashes of European Jewry they wanted
to create a new, independent Jewry; out of the mouth of death they
created life. Their offspring jumped back into the mouth of death,
running willingly back to the Holocaust of their parents.
And so the horror of that night I find impossible to express. The faces
of the soldiers young and old, dark and fair, recognizable and Un-
recognizable. The torture that modern weaponry can inflict on the human
body is almost infinite in its possibilities. The burns and tearings of flesh,
the mangling of limbs and faces-these images could be written down,
but no one who was not there can know this particular hell. Faces swollen
with death, lips puffed out and red as with lipstick but it is blood, the
whooshing sound of a body being turned over or lifted as the air leaves
collapsing lungs or rushes through the holes of the body, those made by
God and those made by war. The constant flow of blood, the emptying of
souls onto the concrete floor of the installation or onto the sandy wastes of
the desert. All this I can describe. And the pain, oh the pain deep inside,
the desire to flee and the strange ineffable push to continue, the mystical
drive that sends you back to work, the coming of the almost unbearable
pain and the mysterious passing of pain, allowing you to work again.
Early in the evening I learn a lesson of the trade. Looking at papers
found on a soldier whose identity we are trying to establish, I read part of
a postcard written by the soldier “. . . Be good kids and pray that Daddy
will return safely. Help Ima out in the house and listen to what she says.
I will bring you back some candies and good things from the army. . .
I love you most of all.”
I could have written that to my own kids. I did write it to them.
I feel dizzy, I want to cry. Outside into the night of beautiful stars. A
moment of sorrow and tears for that man. It is too much for me. And so
I learn: never read the letters, never pry too much, keep it on an im-
personal level. It’s the only way you can survive. In the midst of this
holocaust, in the midst of this great sorrow, I adopt a rule of self-preserva-
tion: mourn for them collectively, not individually. No one has enough
strength, enough emotional depth to mourn for so many martyrs one by
one. If we cry, let us cry for our people, all of them together.
The enormity of what is happening is almost too much for us. We take
a few steps into the desert away from the installation, sigh or cry, stand up
straight and return to unloading. Everything is automatic. No one thinks
about what he is doing. We just do it. We pray minhah, then maariv, eat,
all automatic. At last it is night, the festival is over and it is time to start our
We go on and on, doing what must be done, and suddenly it is
6:00 a.m. I have been up for twenty-four hours and don’t feel anything.
We are almost finished. The rooms are now empty, the space out back is
empty, and only a few cases remain in the tent. The group we relieved
has started to filter back in. It is Friday morning and we may go home for
Shabbat. As if at a signal, we stop. No orders are given. We just stop work,
go outside the tent and begin to wash up.
“The truck for home will leave in forty-five minutes,” says our com-
mander. “Get your stuff ready and load all of our unit equipment on board.”
We load up, climb into the truck, and off we go.
ONE YEAR LATER. We are in charge of the reinterment of the fallen from
their temporary burial sites to their permanent sites chosen by each family.
It is staggering, almost more awful than the war itself.
My last funeral is a long trip, the longest yet, to a kibbutz in the far
North. After the funeral the father of the boy embraces the chaplain and
weeps on his shoulder. The chaplain and I walk back to our car and he
“It was Yom Kippur on the Golan. The boy was the commander of
a tank unit where I happened to be conducting services. We took a break
and he started questioning me about God and about faith. He was bright
and wanted to find a belief. Suddenly shelling started-nothing new-but
then his assistant burst into the room and said, ‘It’s war! The Syrians are
” ‘O.K.’ the boy said. ‘Just a minute.’ He started to ask me about
teshuvah, about a passage in Rambam he had studied in high school.
“I interrupted him, ‘It’s war! Don’t you have to go? Theology can wait.’
“He looked at me intensely. ‘Theology cannot wait. The war can wait.
What are we, animals or human beings?’ “