While visiting my family for a couple weeks in New Jersey, I was celebrating at the wedding of a good friend. I was speaking with a friend from high school who told me that her sister, a current high schooler, often quotes the time that I came to speak at my former high school about my experiences serving in the IDF. I was delighted to hear that of all the nice things I had to say about Israel, the army and my motivations for making my decision, what resonated with her was my comment that, “I would rather get hit by a rocket in Israel, than stabbed on a subway in New York City.” I had said this in the context of why I passed up the opportunity to attend college in NYC, and joined the IDF instead. While yes, when friends in NYC tell me to stay safe in the army I enjoy telling them to stay safer in New York City.
Flipping around this pessimistic and cynical outlook using the Torah’s help, I think it’s a beautiful angle of how to value life that I wish I had heard in high school.
In Parshat Bechukotai, Hashem tells Bnei Yisrael of their reward if they follow Him and his commandments. The pasuk states: וְנָֽתַתִּ֤י שָׁלוֹם֙ בָּאָ֔רֶץ וּשְׁכַבְתֶּ֖ם וְאֵ֣ין מַֽחֲרִ֑יד וְהִשְׁבַּתִּ֞י חַיָּ֤ה רָעָה֙ מִן־הָאָ֔רֶץ וְחֶ֖רֶב לֹא־תַֽעֲבֹ֥ר בְּאַרְצְכֶֽם: וּרְדַפְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־אֹֽיְבֵיכֶ֑ם וְנָֽפְל֥וּ לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם לֶחָֽרֶב, “I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down with no one to frighten you, I will remove wild beasts from your land, and no army will pass through your land. You will pursue your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword.” (Vayikra 26:6-7). Upon examining these pesukim, the order of the reward is very peculiar. First, they will sit in peace, and only after will they strike down their enemies. How can you sit in peace when there are still enemies surrounding you, plotting your destruction? Perhaps there can be a lesson that underpins why the Torah puts the rewards in this order, and also a reason for why Israel is known as one of the happiest countries in the world.
While Israel must deal with continuously hostile surrounding nations, as much as its enemies try to disturb Israel’s physical peace with rockets and constant attacks, there’s one peace they can’t take: Israelis’ peace of mind. A peace of mind that, regardless of any challenging circumstances we find ourselves in, we believe that we are part of an opportunity and responsibility that we haven’t had for over 2000 years—being a part of the Jews’ rebuilding and final return to Israel. A peace of mind that carries us through any obstacle or setback is the certainty that whatever the hardship, it is following Hashem’s will. And it’s with that peace of mind and confidence, that we are then able to then strike down our enemies with trust in Hashem, as declared above in Bechukotai.
I would now tell high schoolers, gap year and college students this: finding a way to live with peace of mind and confidence that can be used to withstand hardship is an extremely important quality for starting our own, and our future family’s, lives. For example, every time I get ripped off for dried fruit in the shuk, I can always say at least some farmer has some extra shekels to plant another tree because of me. Furthermore, while we can simply and dispiritedly say “I’d rather die in Israel than America,” we should also say “I’d rather build up Israel than America.” I’d rather cure people in Israel, or help an Israeli company figure out their taxes, or make spreadsheets for an Israeli startup, or whatever professional contributions you could and plan to offer. In Israel, you will contribute to the country’s economic growth, societal well-being and religious and spiritual destiny as well. And along with that, always live securely and with peace of mind knowing you are part of an objectively good, real, God-given purpose.
Just like the sweat and tears of the ones who fought to take back and build up Israel over the past century, so too, it takes sweat and tears to find your path, your career and your place in Israel. Navigating bureaucracy, buying a house, finding a job, are all extremely scary and frustrating experiences. But we’ve gone through worse as a nation. At the end of the day, we must consider where our contributions should really lie, what we would die for and, more importantly, what we would live for. And I think that an uncompromising peace of mind is something worth living for.
Brian Racer is originally from Teaneck and lives in Beit Shemesh. He drafted to the IDF in March 2022 through Lev Lachayal and is currently serving as a sharpshooter in the 932nd Infantry Batallion in the Nachal Brigade.