April 14, 2024
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April 14, 2024
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The Pain of a Path Not Taken

When I was in yeshiva at the Gush, half a lifetime ago, I seriously considered the prospect of making aliyah. Like several talmidim did each year, I would make aliyah, do Hesder, and ultimately live in some nice Israeli community. In the end, I did not make that decision, and I ended up back in America, where I married and had three wonderful children.

Hearing almost daily now about the deaths of IDF soldiers, many of whom are former Hesder Yeshiva students serving in Gaza on reserve, has been challenging. Of course it’s difficult to see the death of any innocent person or someone trying to protect the innocent. But it goes beyond that.

It feels terrible because—why are these Hesder alumni, these Beinishim (Bnei Yeshivah) out there, taking risks instead of me? I made a conscious decision not to inhabit that timeline where I served in the IDF, protecting the State of Israel and the Jewish people worldwide. I made a conscious decision to instead take the much more comfortable, much “safer” route of returning to America.

Did I have good reasons for returning to America? At the time I certainly thought so. Would I have been a particularly good soldier? If I had been drafted to a combat unit (as most Hesdernikim were in my time), almost certainly not. Was my decision motivated, at least partially, by a subconscious fear of serving in the army and what that entailed? There’s a good chance of that, although it’s hard to summon subconscious fears nearly two decades later.

Regardless of all that, my decision meant that, instead of me serving in the IDF then, and returning to serve as a reservist now, when Israel most needs its soldiers, there’s someone else serving in my place. And when I hear that Beinishim like me—eight students and alumni of the Hesder Yeshiva in Yerucham, multiple alumni and relatives of alumni of the Gush and others—are killed, it’s hard not to wonder by what right it’s them taking these mortal risks while I sit comfortably in Teaneck.

Being a soldier, especially now, is not fun. There are genuine risks to one’s life. Even if you avoid personal physical harm, you live with an overriding fear. And there’s the moral injury of having to kill others, even terrorists, but especially if civilians are hurt collaterally. But being a soldier is very important, precisely because it is so dangerous. In contexts like this, where terrorists commit the war crime of hiding among civilian populations, armies have two choices. They can bomb from the air and take out the terrorists along with many civilians. Or they can send in their ground troops, taking on additional risks to their soldiers with the goal of minimizing civilian casualties on the other side.

Every time I hear about a soldier killed in this house-to-house ground operation—killed by cowardly terrorists who hide behind their own civilians—I feel proud of Israel for taking that risk, proud of the soldiers for protecting Israel, and I feel terrible that this is the price that has to be paid. And when it is a Hesder yeshiva alumnus who is killed, I feel terribly guilty.

It’s not quite survivor’s guilt, because I am not in fact serving alongside them and taking all the risks they are taking. It’s more a guilt of absence, the guilt I have precisely for choosing not to take that risk, for the impact of my decisions being that a different Beinish has to serve in Gaza instead of me. Another soldier has to bear those risks, has to make those excruciating decisions, has to die instead of me.

Speaking generally, over the past two-and-a-half months, overall I have felt not only pain and horror over the Hamas terror attacks and the loss of life, but also an abiding sense of detachment, feeling that I belong not here in America but there in Israel, together with Am Yisrael during this terrible experience, instead of in the comfort and safety of my home. To be nosei be ol in Klal Yisrael, to bear the burden together. This is why, to a large degree, I have held back from sharing my thoughts these past months. As I have been only marginally affected, it feels both wrong and painful to opine on what is going on in Israel.

I shared some of these thoughts with an Israeli oleh friend of mine who has seen some reserve duty these past weeks. He tried assuaging my guilt by saying that we each play a role and my role is different. It was a nice sentiment but I don’t think it really works, at least for me. At the end of the day, some people have real skin in the game and others don’t.

I don’t have a happy ending to this article—I’m not sure there can be one.

We can certainly express our appreciation for chayalim, verbally or with barbecues, which helps in some small measure.

We can acknowledge this reality, and think about whether we are making the right life choices in terms of serving Klal Yisrael.

And we can daven to Hashem that, hopefully soon, we will live in a world where we do not need to worry about these problems.


Shlomo Zuckier is a research associate at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and a maggid shiur at Stern College. He learned from 2005-09 at Yeshivat Har Etzion.

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