Armed with Spirit: A Father’s Advice to his Son in the Israeli Army Based on the Weekly Torah Portions
Gefen Publishing House
Reviewed by Devorah Talia Gordon
“I always tell Americans who make aliyah that they do not become full-fledged Israelis until they see their first child drafted into the army. While that moment makes people anxious, it is also a moment of tremendous pride and gratification,” writes renowned lecturer and Torah scholar Rabbi Shalom Hammer in Armed with Spirit: A Father’s Advice to his Son in the Israeli Army Based on the Weekly Torah Portions. Hammer’s pride and respect for his son Yakov reverberate in this thoughtful book, which manages to be both a work of the intellect and the heart.
As a work of profound scholarship, the reader learns much about the parashiot and chagim. As a record of a father and son’s private correspondence, the reader is moved by the honesty in their relationship and inspired by the commitment of Israeli soldiers.
Over the course of the three years that Yakov served in Tzahal, his father sent him divrei Torah via WhatsApp. These words were meant to encourage Yakov, as a religious young man in the Israeli Army, surrounded by mostly secular soldiers from the Shomer Hatzair Kibbutz movement. As a lecturer in the IDF and a teacher for pre-military academies, Hammer was well-aware of the challenges Yakov would face. Hammer conveys many messages to his son through his Torah thoughts – whether they be insights into the human psyche, thoughts about the Land of Israel, or reflections on the secular vs. religious soldier. Much of the give and take discusses the unique role of the soldier in the IDF, particularly the religious one.
Following the Torah gems (which are mostly on the Torah portion, but sometimes focus on chagim or special days in the Jewish calendar), are Yakov’s reflections. The pairing works well (clearly identified in a different font); although Yakov’s responses are usually brief (with little downtime in his demanding schedule), his comments show the depth of their relationship, the authentic give and take between the two, and the real struggles of young religious soldiers.
For example, when Rabbi Hammer writes to Yakov on Yom HaShoah about the hallowed role of Israeli soldiers being the, “elite responders reminding the world, ‘Never again,’” Yakov replies, “Abba, one of the most popular questions posed by my fellow chayalim who are secular is, if there is a G-d, then how could He have allowed the Holocaust to happen?” While his father’s response is validating, it also overflows with humility and emunah. These are the types of real exchanges and struggles we are privy to in the book, as well as issues such as kashrut problems on army bases, soldiers not knowing basics about Jewish belief and practice, and staying inspired when performing mitzvos (both in and out of the army).
It would be wonderful if the reader could hear more from Yakov, since his insights and daily challenges are what give this book so much of its originality and texture. One of the most moving passages was a long one, where Yakov tells about completing a grueling, twenty-kilometer trek around sunrise on morning. While the other soldiers took the much-needed pause for some time to rest, Yakov donned tefillin and davened Shachris. Yakov is candid, however, about his inner struggle to do so; and shares the keen observation that moments such as these make it much harder for religious youth to stay strong in the army service.
Hammer does a fine job of raising religious and political issues, not in a didactic manner, but giving the reader the opportunity to explore the issue. For example, his son raises his concern about secular Israelis perhaps feeling apologetic for the “Israeli occupation;” Hammer and his son discuss the need to educate Israelis who may not want to relate to Judaism but at “the very least they need to be made aware of what Judaism and Israel have to offer from a historical and cultural one.”
Many exchanges, such as this one, make this book worthwhile, even if the reader has different political or religious views from Hammer. In fact, it seems the reader who could benefit most (perhaps after a religious chayil) is the one who has dissimilar views, and can learn about the religious Zionist perspective.
Most of all, the reader of Armed with Spirit will walk away with more respect for Israeli soldiers, for the sacrifices they endure to protect Eretz Yisroel, and the way they are taught, as Yakov writes, “to lead by example for our soldiers and for our nation.”