Friday, January 9, 2009

Paired with a soldier (Derashah Vayyichi 5769)

[Jack's Gaza Update 13 is here. Important reading.]

Adam ben Gila.

That’s the name of someone I’ve never met, someone about whom I know nothing further.

Well, that’s not quite true:
• I know that he’s an Israeli soldier.
• I know that he’s probably relatively young, although he may be my age if he’s a reservist.
• I know that, as _____________ said in her email last week, he’s probably tired, cold and scared.

And I know that on some level he must believe in the power of תפילה, of prayer, because he signed up to be paired with someone who would daven on his behalf.

That “someone,” his prayer partner, is me.

First, a bit of background.

At the end of the Jews’ period in the desert, before their entry into Israel, they were attacked by the Midianites. In response, at Divine command, the Jews mustered their troops for battle:
• The Torah records that Moshe told the Jews, “Prepare your soldiers - 1000 per tribe, 1000 per tribe, for all of the tribes of Israel.”
• The Torah then says, “From the thousands of Israel, 1000 per tribe were given to Moshe, a total of twelve thousand warriors.”
• And then the Torah adds, “And Moshe sent them, 1000 per tribe, to the army.”
What’s with all of the thousands?

A midrash explains, “שנים עשר אלף חלוצי צבא ושנים עשר אלף שהיו משמרין כליהם ושנים עשר אלף לתפלה - 12,000 warriors, 12,000 to guard their equipment, and 12,000 for prayer.” One davener for each soldier - that’s the ratio.

The Bostoner Rebbe, and Rav Simcha Kook, Chief Rabbi of Rechovot, have adapted this idea for the current war in Gaza, so that, as we advertised this past week, each of us can email or call and be paired with a soldier, to pray on his behalf.

And that’s how I “met,” so to speak, Adam ben Gila. I am responsible to pray and do mitzvos on behalf of this “tired, cold and scared” young man I have never met.

On one level, this idea of performing a mitzvah on someone else’s behalf is the simple concept described in a gemara which says, “One who gives tzedakah for the sake of his son’s health is fully righteous.” It’s about my mitzvah providing merit for someone else. He receives credit as the motivation for my mitzvah. Even if Adam ben Gila is entirely secular and would never have prayed on his own, he is my inspiration. So when I say tehillim, it’s as though he was saying tehillim. When I perform a mitzvah, it’s as though he was performing the mitzvah.

But more powerfully than that, when Adam ben Gila and I agree to this partnership I join with him, so that we are truly a single unit in the eyes of Hashem. Nations, in the eyes of the Torah, share merit and responsibility, so that Gd may reward or punish a nation, collectively. Cities share merit and responsibility, too, and so do families. Now, Adam ben Gila and I have become a sort of mini-tzibbur. If he is hurt, I am hurt. And if I perform a mitzvah, he has performed the mitzvah as well.

I have only known Adam ben Gila for a day or so, as of this writing, but he has already taught me a lot about ערבות, responsibility.

I thought I knew what it meant to say כל ישראל ערבין זה בזה, that all Jews are responsible for each other. After all, I spend most of my time looking after people and trying to help them in various ways. But this has given me a whole new understanding; it feels, oddly, almost like parenting.

I’ll be riding in the car, and suddenly wonder, “I wonder where he is now? I wonder what he’s doing? Maybe I could say a perek of tehillim for him while I wait at the stop light.”

I receive an email with a list of wounded soldiers and read it with trepidation, wondering if his name will be on there. Will I have let him down?

I worry a lot, actually, about letting him down. Since I took his name, the next person to email in will receive someone else’s name. Maybe the next person would have been a better match, would have said more tehillim, would have performed more meaningful mitzvos in his name.

It really is almost like the experience of having a child, and wondering how he is, what she’s doing, and whether I’m being a good parent - but this is for someone I’ve only just met.

Which leads me to wonder what it would be like to feel this way about everyone, about all of us, since all of us are part of a pact of national ערבות.

To a certain extent it would be impossible; to have this intensity of feeling for everyone would be unhealthy. As the gemara says, there are three types of people who cannot enjoy life: רחמנים, רתחנים ואניני הדעת, people who are overly merciful, people who are overly irritable, and people who are hypersensitive to their environment. To constantly think about everyone in this way would be self-destructive.

But imagine if we could have even half of that sensitivity, not just a sensitivity that tries to avoid harming others, but a sensitivity that stops every once in a while and says, “I hope he’s all right,” “I hope I’m doing enough for her.” This would be a wonderful advance in our Judaism and our humanity.

I hope that others here will be inspired to enter a relationship like this, to sign up for a soldier, even if it just means saying one chapter of tehillim or giving one dollar to tzedakah or doing just one mitzvah on his behalf. There is a sheet in the lobby, with the email address and phone number.

It would be a big deal for the soldier, and I hope it would turn out to be a big deal for you as well.

At the close of his life, as we read this morning,Yaakov gathered his children and offered them messages which spoke to the unique character of each one. One was a leader, another needed to work on his temper. One was destined to produce merchant sailors, another would produce scholars, and so on.

This strikes me as a bit odd - why did Yaakov gather all of them together for this moment? Why did Yaakov say, “הקבצו ושמעו, Come together as a group,” to hear such personal messages en masse? Would it not have been more sensitive to convey his thoughts one-on-one?

Perhaps Yaakov did have separate meetings as well; we know that he did it with Yosef. But the group message was important too, to reinforce this message that I have learned from Adam ben Gila: We are all unique. We all have our own character, and our own destiny. But הקבצו ושמעו, Gather together and hear it together, because, in the end, we are all one.

1. Feel free to pray and perform mitzvot for Adam ben Gila, too. This is not an exclusive relationship.

2. The email address for this project is The phone number is 212-929-1525 ext 100. Tizku l'mitzvot!

3. The war with Midian is in Bamidbar 31. The midrash is Midrash Tanchuma to Matot, #4. The gemara on giving tzedakah for another's health is Rosh HaShanah 4a, and the gemara on overly merciful people not enjoying life is Pesachim 113b, as explained by Rashbam there.

4. There is much more to say on ערבות, of course, and I have said some of it in other speeches, but I wanted this one to be simple and to the point. Besides, it's after 1 PM on a short Friday.


  1. I am paired with Hadas Bat Norit. Thank you for verbalizing the link we now share so beautifully!

  2. Great post. I, too, have a paired with someone.

  3. Your post is really powerful. I am paired with ZVI BEN YARDENA. I posted his name by my computer at work to remind me throughout the day. They should all safe.

  4. Proudmommy, Neil, Esqcapades-
    Thanks for your comments; I'm glad to see that my feelings match those of others on this.
    I wonder how many people have paired; I hope we have at least one per soldier.