I am not, as most Israelis are not, what anyone would call religious. But Shabbat is something else. I believe in God, not ashamed of it. Though it is not exactly a career enhancer in Hollywood, not proud of it either, as it is as natural to me as one of my limbs. It’s part of me, and I am grateful for that. But I certainly don’t follow all the rules, not even most of them. Not close.
But Shabbat is something else.
There is something about being in a feminine presence as the candles are lit, of blessing the wine and sweet Challa bread, of the hauntingly beautiful melodies.. I was raised partly on a kibbutz. Not religious either but every Friday night, the whole kibbutz would gather in the dining hall, one woman would light the candles for the community, someone would read a portion from the bible and those beautiful songs ingrained themselves in my heart and soul and wherever I am in the world, hearing them, I am home, and at peace. That’s the greeting. Shabbat Shalom, Sabbath Peace. Shalom is the every day greeting. You say it probably with as much feeling as a Malibu kid says , “Wazzup,Dude?" But “ Shabbat Shalom” is something else. You are wishing someone Sabbath Peace, real peace, tranquility, wholeness, quiet peace, joyous peace, the peace of those melodies.
It might seem strange, then , to say that we Israelis feel it absolutely most poignantly, in those horrible times when we are called upon to take up arms and defend our homes, our families, our lives, our right to live in peace in our land, the land that gave birth to everything in our religion and culture and language,whether our ancestors were from Israel, Yemen, Ethiopia, Kiev, Baghdad, Cairo, L.A. New York or New Delhi.
So there I am on the border of Gaza and it’s getting near sundown last night ( Friday night) Erev Shabbat, Sabbath eve. Because my job in the Military Spokesperson Unit has me out operating by myself, there is no base nearby to go back to. No place to eat with my mates, as it were, engage in the camaraderie that means so much to a soldier in a war zone. And it;s Shabbat. And on this particular Sabbath eve when I have had the pleasure of being under six different rocket attacks today , when my heart is with my fellow soldiers who are now operating in Gaza, I want Shabbat. I yearn for it.
I’m standing near a place which is an entry point to Gaza. I see some soldiers with kippoth, skull caps , on their heads, identifying them as religious soldiers. I walk up to one of them
" Shalom, Achi” I say ( Hello my brother)
He answers with the Hebrew equivalent of Wazzup. It’s not yet Shabbat after all.
“ Where are you guys going to be celebrating Shabbat? “ I ask. I explain I’d like to celebrate with them.
He points over at the border opening. He and his guys are getting ready to mount up and go back into Gaza. That’s where they’ll be celebrating Shabbat, in armored Personel carriers, under fire , looking for homicide tunnels and dodging the booby traps and I.E.D.s that await them.
“Take care of yourself Achi, my brother, “ I say and there is nothing perfunctory about it.
We shake hands warmly. “ Listen “ he says, “ You’re not religious , right?’
“ Right” I say.
“ So do me a favor then.”
“ Tell me what it is and I ‘ll do it bisimcha ( with joy)”
“ Celebrate Shabbat for me tonight. And for my chèvre ( my pals, my guys).”
He and his guys mount up. Dust clouds choke the air, engines roar to life as in the not so distant distance we hear the sounds of war to which they are headed instead of lighting candles, blessing wine, eating the sweet challa or singing the songs.
Within moments they’re inside Gaza. I take off in my car looking for some lunit with whom to celebrate the sabbath, and there by the side of the road I see possibly the two saddest looking sad sacks in the Israeli army.
They are military police.They can’t be guarding anything important. There’s only two of them. They’re reservists and look like slobs, which is to say, like reservists. Unshaven, uniforms stained with sweat and dust, stuck out in the middle of nowhere with the heat reaching around a hundred degrees and probably eighty percent humidity and they’re in their flack jackets.
I pull my car up to them.
I can’t say they snap to attention.
They get up as laconically , as phlegmatically as it’s possible to imagine.
But one of them gets the “ cop “ look on his face.
“ Who are you ? and what do you want here? This is a closed area.”
Nothing but attitude.
The guy’s a private. I’m a captain. For some inexplicable reason I forget what army I’m in and say, “ First of all I’m a Captain”
“ What do I care?” he says with even more attitude.
Oh…that’s right , I’m in the ISRAELI army and he’s a reservist and he couldn’t give a rat’s orifice. He’s a cop and I’m not.
“ Second of all” I say, “ I’m looking for a place to celebrate the shabbati
“ There;s only two of us here.” he says, “ We’re not exactly a synagogue.”
“ You have any wine for the blessings?”
“ What kind of wine you think they’d give us?! We’re in the middle of nowhere?”
“ Candles? Challa?”
“ Zip” he says, or the equivalent.
“ So how are you going to bring in the Sabbath.?”
Now he knows I’m serious.
“ Would you like to join us?” and he says it hopefully. Two guys isn’t much of a shabbat, but maybe with three…
“ Are you inviting me?”
“ Are you joining us?”
“ If you invite me.”
“So, okay, “ he says” You’re invited”
We said the kiddish over a bottle of sun warmed water. Instead of Challa, we ate a stale piece of pita after reciting the blessings, and for candles we lit two matches. And for that moment in the gathering darkness of war, there was light, and I swear to you the Feminine presence of the Lord, the shechina, as it’s referred to in Hebrew, was with us.
We sang Peace be upon you Ministering angels, angels of the Almighty, Bless me unto Peace Oh you Ministering angels, Angels of the Almighty, May you arrive in Peace, may your departure be in Peace, O Angels of Peace.
Shabbat Shalom, Chevre
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