On my kibbutz there is a large and colorful central playground, with children running around it, swooping down slides and dangling from monkey bars any time of day you might walk by. Really, it's just like any other playground, and these kids play just like any others their age would, except that now and then their games of tag are interrupted by a piercing automated alarm that tells them missiles or mortar rounds have been launched across the Gazan border in the direction of the kibbutz. The children respond straight away, sprinting into the safety of the concrete bomb shelter adjacent to the playground - and after the shells have landed, emerge from the shelter and resume their game where they left off.
The first time I observed this procedure, I was shocked by the extent to which it seemed like just that: a procedure, a programmed response, a routine, rather than a frightening, traumatic event. And I found myself wondering whether these little kids truly grasped the totality of it. If in my kindergarten classes we had learned missile drills in addition to fire and earthquake drills, I wasn't sure whether I'd have had the capacity to distinguish between what they actually represented - whether, beyond the trained "stop, drop, and roll" fire response and the "run to the shelter" missile response, I would manage to internalize and grasp a larger distinction between the two threats. This is the reality into which these children were born, and their run to the shelter seemed just as fluid and natural as the game of tag it interrupted. Did these children really understand what it was they were running from?
The question stayed with me for a while. I never had a clear answer to it until the day that, out of simple curiosity, I wandered past the playground into the shelter, and found a bright, beautiful mural running along the length of the interior wall. Painted messily and with broad, childish strokes, the mural depicted a brilliant sun, and underneath its neon yellow rays a large circle of children of different colors, all holding hands. I was dumbstruck, and quickly found tears streaming down my cheeks. I stood frozen in the shelter, hearing the children's faint laughter from outside ringing against its walls, while taking in the mural's every detail, somehow too enchanted to tear myself away from it.
Any doubt that I had over these young kids' capacity to understand was extinguished that day, and the image of that mural has never eased its grip on my mind. I thought about that mural while interacting with restless Arab children in the West Bank. I thought about the mural during reconnaissance missions on the Gazan border. And I thought perhaps most vividly about the mural a few days ago, when I officially was honorably discharged from the army.
I'd known for quite a while that, soon enough, the day would come when I'd say goodbye to fellow soldiers who were still waking up the next morning to load their weapons for patrols, when I'd walk away from a base still encircled in concrete bunkers and barbed wire, when I'd leave a kibbutz still living under the heavy shadow of terrorist missile strikes. And it was difficult to accept - it was a strangely empty feeling.
The truth is, a few days after being discharged from the IDF, I'm still not so sure how it feels. But one thing that I do know certainly helps. In an earlier blog entry, I mentioned that in the army I've learned a lot about love - I was referring partly to the unique brotherly love that soldiers have for each other, but even more so, to the overwhelmingly fierce love that they have for their country. It's a love that's so inspiring as to be infectious, that still quickens my heart's beat a little every time I see our flag. In the army, I have been privileged to meet, and then to come to know as brothers, people so genuine and so noble in their love for Israel and their call to protect it that I felt it as the honor of my life to stand shoulder to shoulder with them.
As I close this chapter and give up my post in a country still under siege, all of that is what's most comforting to me. My rifle may already be in a new pair of hands, but it's a pretty sure bet that they're a damn good pair of hands.
There was no reason to expect it to be easy to hang up the boots. And while it's safe to say that I'm not sure quite what I feel, if nothing else I know to feel blessed - blessed to have had the opportunity, to have carved in my own little piece in the story, and to have been counted among the defenders of the bravest little nation in the world.