Fourteen years ago the Second Lebanon War took place. I remember the days of uncertainty, the friends who were immediately drafted to the IDF reserve forces and the feeling of immense social cohesion that arose. But I also remember the conversations after the war with those who had returned from it. Today, fourteen years later, those whose lives were changed by the war beyond recognition, still walk among us.
In this week’s parasha, a war takes place; the Israelites go to war against Midian. The purpose of this war is not conquest, but rather, it is to avenge the Midianites for past injustice. Moshe commands, just before his death, that the Israelites aveng the Midianites: “Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites; then you shall be gathered to your kin.” (Numbers 31:2)
When the Israelite soldiers returned from war, Moshe went out to meet them and instructed that anyone who had “slain a person” during the war was to remain outside of the camp for one week and, only after this, may they purify themselves and reenter the camp. “You shall then stay outside the camp seven days; every one among you or among your captives who has slain a person or touched a corpse shall cleanse himself on the third and seventh days.” (Numbers 31:19) At that time Moshe already understood what Alexander Bek came to understand in twentieth-century Russia: “The cruel truth of war is not in the word ‘death’, but rather, in the word ‘murdered.” There is a complex and ambivalent attitude toward war. On the one hand, we choose to go to war, and on the other hand, there is an understanding that those who experience war first-hand must go through a process of purification. After the war the soldier carries an immensely heavy burden.
Back to us and back to today, fourteen years after the war. During the Second Lebanon War all who were able to be drafted, were drafted. But what happened afterward to those who return from that hell – those who killed or witnessed their fellow soldiers being killed? Fourteen years later, women and men walk among us, whose dead peers are still with them. Men and women walk among us within whom the war lives on. Our soldiers returned home from the war, but some of them never truly managed to reenter the camp. The biblical recognition of the need for a process of return between war and the home still resonates today. We must deal with the consequences and effects of war, on our soul and psyche.
During the Yom Kippur War, my grandfather painted a painting at the Gidi Pass in Sinai. During a break in the battle, he painted on the back of a postcard, on the other side of which was written Send a word home. He would send paintings as greetings to his children. On this particular postcard he drew a bird, red, colorful and bright. A desert bird that had chosen as its resting place the barrel of a gun that lay on a helmet. The gun and helmet are gray and colorless. But the bird illuminates the painting with its colorful beauty while next to it grows a green shrub. All color in the painting is reserved for nature, alone.
My grandfather fought because he had no choice, but in his mind's eye he always managed to find nature and hope. The bird that he painted does not notice the danger of the gun upon which she is perched. For her, the sounds of war integrate with the sounds of nature. Nature was here before war and remains beyond war.
From my grandfather, and from Moshe in our parasha, I learned to look at life after war. To stop for a moment and ask what of the war remains within us and who among us remains within the war. To boldly face what took place at that time and today, to see both the red bird and the song that she sang after the war.
"This is an after war song. It always reminds me of hope" – Arik Einstein
Ayala Dekel is an educator and facilitator at The BINA Secular Yeshiva in Tel Aviv.