This past Thursday was Lag Ba’omer, and here in Israel, there was great rejoicing – bonfires, weddings, and music. By pure coincidence, our tour group struck a lucky, unplanned moment by happening upon a great celebration. We had spent the day in the Old City of Jerusalem, as we stepped back through some 3,000 years of Jewish history, here in the layers of the City of David. The excavations that have been conducted, and the structures and artifacts that have been found, are nothing short of extraordinary, all shedding light upon the period of the establishment of the Jewish kingdom under Kings David and Solomon, and periods following. Then we strolled a bit through the Jewish Quarter, and ate lunch in the Quarter Cafe, as we gazed out over an extraordinary panoramic view of the Mount of Olives. Later in the afternoon, it was time for us to visit the Western Wall for some personal reflection. Then, by dumb luck, as we approached the Western Wall – the Kotel Hama’aravi – we arrived exactly as a major celebration was taking place at the Wall, scheduled for Lag Ba’omer. It was a “moving up” ceremony for the Israel Defense Force, particularly for the units of the Tzanchanim – paratroopers. They had completed their basic training, and just as we arrived at the Kotel Plaza, the soldiers were gathering in formations with their commanders to receive their red berets, and be officially welcomed into these elite units. In addition, each received a Tanakh, which they keep with them at all times.
Here in Israel, as you know, upon graduation from high school, everyone is required to serve in the Army, men and women alike. There are many different kinds of assignments, several very elite combat units. In order to be accepted into the Tzanchanim, if a young man is an only son, he must bring written permission from his parents to serve in this capacity, which of course carries with it the potential for great danger. In fact the same holds true to any unit of active combat. For us in the United States, for whom military service is strictly voluntary, the relationship that most of us have to the military is markedly different from that of Israelis to the Israel Defense Force. Every Israeli has an intimate relationship with the Army. They have served in it themselves, their sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, parents, nieces and nephews, neighbors and friends, all serve in the Army. The Army, in fact, is the great leveler of Israeli society. It is there that Israelis of different ethnicities and socio-economic strata come together, serve together, grow together, and entrust their very lives to one another. It knits together what ordinarily would be very disparate threads of Israeli life.
Sometimes even the most carefully planned itinerary must make allowances for moments of spontaneity such as the one we experienced on Thursday. It was a very special moment indeed, one that none of us will ever forget.