Yom Kippur is upon us. I have a debt that I need to repay, and cannot.
This is a note of thanks. It's meant to go to an Israeli soldier named Netanel Yahalomi, who used to live not far from us. But the note cannot be delivered. The recipient is dead. He gave his life so that my family, or some other family he did not know, could live.
I never got to meet Netanel Yahalomi. People who loved him said he'd told them that he would not be home for Yom Kippur. The luck of the draw had him stuck serving at the border of the Egyptian Sinai, at Har Harif, a mountainous wilderness as coldly close to a moonscape as anything a human is ever likely to see close up.
The luck of the draw put Netanel Yahalomi where he was Friday afternoon. He was one of the few soldiers standing between three heavily armed men and the many murders they planned to carry out against Jews on this side of the border.
To be an Israeli soldier is often to be prejudged by the world as a monster. To be an Israeli soldier and posted to a place like Har Harif is to be put into an unusually impossible position. The work is thankless. The units placed there are not illustrious. The humanitarian gestures the soldiers perform there - helping exhausted, exploited, tortured, food- and water-starved refugees from Africa - are often carried out on the soldiers' own initiative.
People may tell you that this is about politics. It's not. Often as not, we stay alive here, and help others to do so, despite the efforts of politicians, not because of them.
It was the luck of the draw that gave Netanel the poor eyesight that, all things being equal, would have exempted him from serving in a vulnerable post. But people who knew him said that the luck of the draw also gave him the generous heart that made him demand it.
People who loved him said that the members of his unit were giving water to a group of refugees on an unfenced section of the border, when the three gunmen leapt from hiding and opened fire on the Israeli soldiers. Netanel's father said later that Netanel had fired at once, killing one of the gunmen. He said his son hadn't had time to put on his helmet. Moments after the exchange of fire began, Netanel was shot in the head.
We are used to thinking of Yom Kippur in connection with sacrifice. But we cannot seem to get used to this. Nor should we.
We owe a debt of thanks, not only to Netanel's artillery unit, but to the soldiers of the Karakal infantry battalion, two-thirds of whom are women. The Karakal troops, one woman in particular, put an end to the Friday attack, and prevented any further loss of life.
That woman, it turns out, was a volunteer medic for the Magen David Adom ambulance rescue service for four of her mid-teen years, before she went into the army.
It may be one lesson of this Yom Kippur, to give thanks to the people who keep us alive, while they still are.
I have a long list of people to thank, whom I cannot repay. Exactly 39 years ago, on the morning of Yom Kippur, Egypt and Syria took Israel unawares and invaded in an onslaught that made then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan fear that Israel itself was on the verge of annihilation.
It was a war which, we now know, our politicians could have foreseen, one which they could have prevented. The cost was unbearable. An entire generation, suffering horrible losses, was wounded forever. Many of the soldiers who saved Israel with little more than valor and resourcefulness and refusal to quit, have never recovered from the war they physically survived.
We all owe them more than we can ever repay. But we can still thank them.
This is not about politics. And that may be another lesson of Yom Kippur. One day a year, you can hear yourself think. You can consciously fast from preconceptions. And you can take a moment to appreciate those people who, without fanfare and often at great cost to themselves, keep us safe.
I want to believe that the Book of Life has a special mention for those who help keep others alive.
For everyone, may this be a year of life.
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