As kids we were taught early on to give up our seat on public bus for an older person, and my mom told us to do just that. But, as the story goes, my brother, about four or five years old at the time, responded: “I don’t want to get up for the old lady (mind you, she was probably about my age now –), but I will”, he continued proudly, “for the soldier over there”.
Growing up in Israel, soldiers were like gods, with their sharp uniforms, special shoes and barrette, unit emblems and all. Each one of them better looking than the other; they are all tall, charming, handsome, bright. As a child, you learn to look up to them with awe; you know they do “what they must” and at any moment, might be called to give the “ultimate sacrifice”, just so you can have a state and a safe home. You’re taught the verse “bemotam tzivu lanu et hachayim” – ‘dying, they commanded life to us’, and soon, though you don’t quite understand it, you hear it – and maybe even have the honor to recite it – especially on Yom Hazikaron, Memorial Day, when you stand respectfully, dressed in a white collared shirts and dark bottoms, to read mournful, heartbreaking stories, under the watchful eye of your teacher, her eyes hidden behind thick sunglasses.
It sucks that they have to die, but you’re ten or twelve, and they are giants of 18, 19 and 20, and you think, so it goes. Then you become 20, 21 and 22, and the name in the dark frame is your friend, your classmate, the guy you dance with, joke with, thought you’d have forever with to chat again at a street corner of your neighborhood; and you meet his parents, who turned ancient over night, at the cemetery gate and shiv’a calls; and you and your friends hug each other and cry together, and you think you’re all adults and so very grown-up, and this is “the price we all must pay”, and so it goes and so it must go-on.
And then one day, all of a sudden, you are your teacher; the one who came to school on Yom Hazikaron in her dark sunglasses so no one will see her red eyes; the one who asked the students to read the heart wrenching poetry so no one will hear her broken voice. You look back at your friend’s faded photos and it just hits you; and you realize that those mighty soldiers are just kids; and you’re tired of tragedies and pain, and poignant stories and touching poetry; and you know this is not how it goes; this it not how it has to go; and your heart doubly breaks, for the loss itself and for its continuation; and for the first time you stop and wonder, if maybe, after all, when they commanded us life, didn’t they also ask us to at least make a better effort in finding another way.