SEEING BEYOND THE FOG OF WAR

April 11th, 2024

(For the SoundCloud audio, scroll down)

A report in January revealed that the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) was experiencing significant mental health issues with some of their personnel as a result of the October 7th massacre and war in Gaza; at that stage, 1,600 soldiers had been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), with some requiring in-patient treatment. Most of the affected soldiers had been exposed to the gruesome aftermath of the Hamas attack in Southern Israel, seeing tortured and mutilated bodies, as well as witnessing their friends dying or wounded in the effort to clear the area of Hamas operatives.

According to the January report, 90 soldiers were deemed unable to continue their service and had been discharged from duty. The IDF’s mental health experts also expressed concerns about the broader psychological repercussions of the massacre and war over time, particularly for reservists who needed to transition back to civilian life. They warned of the potential for “functioning difficulties” and a pervasive sense of meaninglessness in daily life after active service in urban warfare situations, and voiced concerns for the long-term welfare of those who were serving and continued to serve.

Three months later, the grisly six-month anniversary since October 7th has come and gone. Sadly, the situation has not improved, and indeed, it may have worsened. Moreover, with many of the reservists now back in civilian life, the predicted malaise has filtered its way into Israel’s population. Add to that those affected by the massacre and war through displacement and bereavement, plus the uncertainty of a war that isn’t over and a very uncertain political situation – clearly Israel is not in a good place.

The bitter taste left by the audacious terrorism of the massacre itself, which exposed a vulnerability that most Israelis had convinced themselves had been mitigated by impenetrable defenses, has been compounded by months of war, IDF personnel killed, growing dissatisfaction with Israel’s leadership, and an acute awareness that the world-at-large is not on the same page as Israel regarding the threats it faces.

Early last month, it was announced that the official state ceremony for Israel’s 76th Independence Day in May will not feature the customary fireworks display due to the ongoing conflict. Miri Regev, the government minister overseeing the celebrations, explained that the adjustments to the ceremony’s format were in response to the October 7th massacre and the ongoing war. She also called on municipal leaders across Israel to omit fireworks from their local celebrations.

This week, Regev revealed that the official state-sponsored Independence Day ceremony will take place without a live audience, and will be pre-recorded. This set-piece event, usually held at Mount Herzl as the country transitions from Memorial Day to Independence Day, will be held in advance and then broadcast as Independence Day begins – the first time this has ever happened since Israel’s establishment in 1948, marking a significant departure from tradition.

Against this backdrop of strife and difficulty, we must reflect on the deeper spiritual and historical essence of Eretz Yisrael, the land of Jewish heritage that has been at the center of Jewish faith and identity for millennia, and at the same time a place of immense sacrifice and suffering. To this end, Ramban (Nahmanides) offers a profound insight in his commentary on tzara’at, the malady described in detail in Tazria and Metzora.

Tzara’at can only occur in the Land of Israel – which means, says Ramban, that it is not a natural disease, but rather a miraculous manifestation of Divine providence, highlighting the unique spiritual stature of Eretz Yisrael, where Divine presence is most acutely felt. Ramban also mentions that tzara’at on houses only came into effect in Eretz Yisrael after the Israelites, led by Joshua, had completed the full fourteen years of conquest and division of the land after crossing the Jordan River following Moses’ death.

If you paused at that point in Ramban’s commentary, you might think that this rule is connected to his previous point – namely that tzara’at is a manifestation of the Divine status of Eretz Yisrael. Given that the full sanctity of the land wasn’t achieved until after fourteen years had passed—a period after which regulations like tithes and offerings began to apply—you might assume that the laws regarding tzara’at on houses followed a similar pattern, appearing only when the land’s full sanctity had been established.

However, Ramban offers a far more meaningful insight to explain this phenomenon: the reason why afflictions on houses did not occur during the period of conquest was not due to a lack of sanctity, but because a heightened state of God-consciousness is essential for witnessing a divine intervention like tzara’at.

But in times of war, when survival dominates thought and action, achieving such a level of spiritual awareness is nearly impossible. The fog of war not only obscures the ordinary course of events in day-to-day life, it also puts up a barrier between us and God – and in that state we are incapable of being sensitive to the sanctity that is so obvious in times of peace.

Over the past few months, as the fog of war has descended upon us and clouded our minds, I have worried that the incredible miracle of Israel will recede from our consciousness. We are all in survival mode, even those who live in the Diaspora – all of us fielding unbridled hatred, and wondering how it will all end. In moments of doubt, we wonder what lies ahead for Israel in the long term, now that the existential threat has been revealed as ever-present and far more vigorous than we had ever previously imagined.

It is in exactly times like these that we must remember the resilient spirit and sacred essence of Eretz Yisrael. As we reflect upon our current hardships, we must draw strength from the profound wisdom of Ramban. His teaching regarding those fourteen foundational years must remind us that even when the fog of war obscures the holiness of the land, that holiness remains, waiting to reemerge once peace is restored. Just as Joshua and the Israelites persisted through years of conquest so that they could bask in the land’s holiness and glory, we too must persevere, maintaining faith that the trials we face today are but temporary shadows over the enduring light of our nation.

Israel’s story is one of overcoming great adversities, the unbreakable spirit of its people, and the deep, abiding connection to Eretz Yisrael. The challenges of war and social discord cannot and will not diminish the sanctity of Eretz Yisrael, nor can they permanently cloud the divine providence that has guided our history. The current conflict, as harrowing as it is, presents an opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to this sacred land, recognizing it as a source of strength and hope for us all.

As we approach the period in our Jewish calendar celebrating redemption and the formation of our nation, both in ancient history and in modern times, and while we endure the greatest challenges we have faced for generations, let this be a time of reflection and renewal.

We must hold fast to the belief that peace will return, and with it, the full expression of our land’s holiness and elevation. In the spirit of those who came before us, let us bear these trials with dignity and strength, looking forward to a future where Israel can once again shine as a light unto the nations, its sanctity fully rekindled.

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