On Wednesday morning of last week, just hours before the start of Sukkot, hundreds of young men in drab green uniforms mulled about at the foot of the Nahal Brigade memorial in Pardes Hanna.
A mixture of exhaustion and enthusiasm was evident on their boyish faces as they prepared for the start of the Tekes Kumta, or “beret ceremony,” signifying the end of their basic combat training. To mark this important milestone, each soldier would be receiving a new bit of headgear, with its unique color signifying the unit in which he serves.
Just a day beforehand, these weary warriors had all completed the traditional torturous trek, marching more than 50 km in the desert throughout the night until they reached Masada, which their tired bodies then had to find the energy to climb (no cable cars allowed, of course).
As I observed the scene, I could not help but marvel at the miracle the Israel Defense Forces embodies.
Young black soldiers, immigrants from Ethiopia, mingled easily with blonde-haired, blue-eyed arrivals from the former Soviet Union, while the children and grandchildren of refugees from places as far afield as Munich and Morocco shared a joke or two under the blazing sun.
The exiles are indeed being gathered in, I thought to myself, even if we do not always appreciate just how wondrous this process is.
It was with all this theology, pride and emotion swirling through my mind that I sat down for the start of the ceremony, which promised to be brief but inspiring. Thirty minutes later, at its conclusion, that promise was only half-fulfilled.
As expected, there were the usual speeches by commanders, droning on in motionless monotones, interspersed with the soldiers standing at attention, then at ease, and then back at attention. I listened carefully to the messages which, for all the clichés, sought to underline the importance of service to one’s country, defense of the homeland and standing up for what is right.
But there is one thing that I did not hear, one word so central to our collective and individual lives that I practically gasped with disbelief once the event was over.
There was not a single reference to G-d.
Much was made of the might and power of the IDF, of Israel’s vaunted technological skill and unmatched military prowess. But there was not even a hint of humility nor a word of thanks to the One on high Who watches over His people Israel.
I couldn’t believe it. After all, when a young Midwesterner enters the U.S. army and utters the oath of enlistment, he declares that he will support and defend the Constitution, bear true faith and allegiance and obey orders, “So help me G-d.” And when a Londoner or a Mancunian enlists in the British armed forces, he swears “by Almighty G-d” to be faithful to the Crown.
Has the Jewish army, representing generations of Jews who gave their lives for the sanctification of the Divine Name, suddenly forgotten G-d? Worse yet, even the “Yizkor” memorial prayer for fallen soldiers has been stripped of any mention of G-d. In a scandalous decision made two years ago, the IDF decided to drop the recitation of the traditional “May the L-rd remember the souls of,” and replaced it instead with “May Israel remember.”
Now don’t get me wrong: I don’t expect a military ceremony to resemble the afternoon prayer service, or for the chief of staff to give a lecture on Talmudic hermeneutics. But it is common practice throughout the Western world, even in the most secular of democracies with iron-clad separation of church and state, for military rites of passage to invoke the Creator. Why should Israel be any different? Indeed, anyone with even a faint acquaintance with some of the greatest military figures of the past three centuries knows that they were not ashamed to invoke G-d. Men such as George Washington, Horatio Nelson, Stonewall Jackson and Norman Schwarzkopf all prayed before setting out to battle.
One of the most compelling examples of all was General George S. Patton, the colorful World War II commander who believed any successful military strategy has to take G-d into account. “I am a strong believer in prayer. There are three ways that men get what they want: by planning, by working, and by praying,” he once said.
In early December 1944, as Hitler was preparing to launch the desperate assault against Allied troops, which later came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge, Patton interrupted his war-planning to place a call to James O’Neill, chief chaplain of the U.S. Third Army.
Worried that inclement weather might complicate events on the battlefield, Patton asked O’Neill to compose a special prayer asking not only for better weather, but also for victory over America’s foes.
“Grant us fair weather for battle,” it read. “Graciously hearken to us as soldiers who call upon Thee that, armed with Thy power, we may advance from victory to victory, and crush the oppression and wickedness of our enemies, and establish Thy justice among men and nations. Amen.”
At the general’s instruction, the U.S. army printed up 250,000 pocket-sized prayer cards and distributed them to every American soldier under his command.
Subsequently, Patton led his troops in a surprise counter-attack against the German forces, relieving a contingent of trapped soldiers, staving off an Allied defeat and setting the stage for the demise of Hitler’s evil regime.
To any outside observer, it was clear that Patton’s brash tactics and bravery had resulted in an unexpected victory. But Patton himself saw things differently.
In January 1945, after routing the Germans, he summoned Chaplain O’Neill to Luxembourg, where he told him, “Well, Padre, our prayers worked. I knew they would.” He then awarded O’Neill the Bronze Star, undoubtedly marking the first time in history that a soldier had received a medal for composing a prayer.
Patton knew that the line between human pride and arrogance is a thin one, dangerously so. Our own top military officers can learn a thing or two from his example. As the army of the Jewish state, it is only fitting that the IDF avoid the pitfall of smugness and maintain the proper perspective. Military ceremonies need not be only about G-d, but they certainly shouldn’t be without Him altogether.
So let’s stop turning our backs on our heritage, and show a little more faith. It is time to put G-d back into the IDF. With dangers mounting all around us, we need Him now more than ever. (This article originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post)