It lay precariously on the arm of the chair, its copious wrinkles betraying the long, hard slog that its wearer had recently endured. If it could talk, if it could somehow describe what it had seen and heard over the past month in Gaza, my son’s drab olive-green uniform would surely have quite a tale to tell.
Looking at the hardy fabric, I picked it up and held it in my hand, assessing its texture like an expert jeweler scrutinizing a precious stone. But before I knew it, my thoughts had strayed, wandering from the material in my grasp to more cerebral matters of the mind. And a few poignant subjects of the heart.
This, I told myself, is what my son had worn during his foray into Hamastan, from where he and his unit had thankfully emerged unscathed.
This is the attire that he had slept and fought in, this is the garb that he was unable to change for weeks on end, as it absorbed his sweat along with his experiences.
His uniform, I suddenly realized, had an irrevocable bond with him – one that I could not, and will not, ever have.
This unassuming piece of clothing had been to war with him and back, while I, his father, could do little more than pray and worry from afar.
The simple fact that he was wearing this uniform, which identified him as an Israeli, was enough to prompt Palestinian gunmen and snipers to fire at him.
“What have I done?” I asked myself in an impulsive moment of guilt. My boy, the child whom I had brought to live in Israel when he was barely a year old, was performing military service and risking his life for cause and country, while young people his age back in America were partying their way through college.
This uniform, this collection of threads, more than anything else, symbolized the sacrifice he was making, giving three of the best years of his life to protect the Land of Israel and the People of Israel.
“Have I done the right thing?” I wondered, posing a question that parents down through the ages have used to torment themselves. I gripped the uniform ever more firmly, closing my hand in a fist, as if to punish it for my very own deeds.
But the Zionist within me would have none of it, swatting away the fleeting dose of self-imposed guilt, bringing me back firmly to a much better reality.
For God’s sake, it berated me, don’t you realize what you hold in your hands? It is a piece of Jewish history, an item that countless Jews for the past 2,000 years could only dream of: A Jewish uniform that belongs to a Jewish army tasked with defending Jews in their own land.
What could possibly be more holy? Seventy years ago, Jews were being gassed at Auschwitz and worked to death at Majdanek. Now, they put on the IDF uniform and proudly bear arms, fighting back against those who seek our destruction.
These garments, which represented the revolution in Jewish existence that had taken place when we regained our sovereignty in 1948, the ones that only a moment ago had caused me to question some of my major life decisions, began to take on a new importance.
The IDF uniform, such as the one I held in my hand, had restored our national pride and reinvigorated our collective sense of destiny. It symbolized the return of the Jewish people to the world stage, and the end of our dependence on the mercy of others, a tangible precursor to the Messianic era.
My grip began to loosen.
And then I remembered two very special stories about rabbinical giants from two very different worlds, both of which underline how essential it is to appreciate what a special generation we are privileged to live in.
Once, a student approached the late haredi leader Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach to seek permission to travel to the Galilee while yeshiva was in session, in order to pray at the graves of the righteous.
After listening to the query, he replied, “To pray at the graves of the righteous, you don’t need to go to the Galilee. You can go instead to Mount Herzl, to the graves of the soldiers who died in sanctification of God’s name.”
And then there is an incident involving the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, head of the RIETS rabbinical school at New York’s Yeshiva University. Known as “the Rav,” he was a pivotal figure in American Orthodoxy.
Once he was visited by a student who served in the IDF and whose job was cleaning and maintaining the tanks. Often his uniform would get dirty and he wanted to know if he needed to change his clothing before reciting the afternoon Minha prayer. The student explained that while it would be possible for him to do so, it would be difficult and very inconvenient.
Astonished, the Rav looked at the student and said, “Why would you need to change? You are wearing bigdei kodesh, holy clothes.”
Indeed, it may be hard for the modern mind to conceive of a piece of clothing as bearing holiness, particularly in our day and age, when the fashion industry has taught us to see the wardrobe as an enhancement of physical beauty.
But the IDF uniform is truly unique. It has been elevated to a special status by centuries of Jewish yearning, and sanctified through the sacrifice of countless young Israeli men and women who have fought to defend this country.
It is not merely a shirt and a pair of pants, but a badge of honor for all who wear it, one that provides our society with a sense of existential cohesion and purpose.
What parent would not be proud to see his child adorn this set of clothes? Normally, it is sons who look up to their fathers as larger than life, flesh-and-blood heroes.
But as I carefully laid the uniform back down on the chair, tenderly flattening its creases and crinkles, I realized that when your son comes home from a war in defense of the Jewish people, the opposite is no less true.