If Israel's Soldiers Prayed More, They'd Win More Wars - or Not?

The comment and subsequent apology by Interior Minister Eli Yishai about Israeli soldiers failing in the Second Lebanon War because they did not pray reminded me of a story my dad told us one Shabbat dinner a few years ago. It's a story Yishai would like.

Last week, Interior Minister Eli Yishai said (I'm paraphrasing here) that Israel's soldiers need to pray more or they will lose wars. He has since apologized for his statement, but it isn't hard to see through that false platitude. It's about as transparent as when O. J. Simpson wrote a book called, "If I Did It" about how he didn't kill his wife, but explained exactly how he would have gone about it if he had have done so.

There's no talking sense - it seems - into some people. I've often found that people who look for evidence that their prayers go answered tend to suspend their reason. People who recover from severe illnesses, for example, often credit their prayers whilst ignoring the many, also-prayed-for, sick people that sadly didn't make it.

IDF soldiers in Second Lebanon War, Nir Kafri
Nir Kafri

Yishai's inane assertion that praying is what will end Israel's wars fits this theme neatly, and it reminds me of a story my father told over Shabbat dinner a few years ago. It's a story that seems relevant now, and one that Yishai would like.

As part of an organized trip to Israel during operation Cast Lead, my father spent some time at a temporary base where soldiers who were rotated out of Gaza came to rest, eat and generally be taken care of.

"I have never seen people look like that in my life," my father told us, "dirty, exhausted, bewildered and traumatized, some staring vacantly, some crying and some with their heads down just trying not to make eye contact with anybody. We spoke to everyone we could, you know, just trying to be supportive and listen to them. While I was there, a young, religious soldier - a boy really, of nineteen or twenty - came over to get a cup of coffee and a sandwich, and we struck up a conversation. He told me the most amazing story I have ever heard.

"It was a Friday evening and his unit was holed up in an empty house somewhere in Gaza. He told me that there was nobody on the streets for most of the operation; everyone just moved around inside, choosing to climb through windows and blow holes through walls rather than go into the streets. They were trying not to be seen and to just stay alive. There was a lull in the fighting, as happened from time to time, and the quiet was almost peaceful.

"It being a Friday evening, the soldiers decided to take advantage of the quiet to perform afternoon prayers and Kabbalat Shabbat. As they progressed through their impromptu service, they felt transported away from the horror of their surroundings and back to the warmth of their homes. This young soldier told me that he welled up inside as they started to sing Lecha Dodi; never before had he felt Shabbat so personally and directly. At the climax of the song as they turned and bowed their bodies, singing the words 'Boi kalah' (come, o bride, come) to welcome Shabbat into their little oasis, the silence was shattered. The cinderblock of the wall directly over this young man exploded in a shower of concrete, as a lone bullet hit the spot where his head had been a moment ago. The soldier and his friends looked up in time to see a lone figure with a rifle in the building opposite them, running away."

At this point in the story my father sat back, looked and me and my brother and said, "That was the hand of the almighty. What do you think of that?"

"Just one question," interjected my mother with a cynical look on her face, "do you think that if they wouldn't have been so busy praying, they might have seen the sniper?"

This left my father a little dumbfounded. Maybe someone should ask Eli Yishai the same question.

Josh Mintz is completing his degree in International Relations and Middle Eastern studies and is the communications director at Friend a Soldier, an NGO that encourages dialogue with IDF soldiers.