BY MIGHT OR SPIRIT?

BY MIGHT OR SPIRIT?

From Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul

By Might or Spirit?

Breathing the air of the Land of Israel makes one wise.

Talmud

I had a revelation about the limits and possibilities of human power, as a soldier in the Israeli Army, at the height of basic training.

My unit had spent the entire day out in the Judean wilderness practicing maneuvers and shooting drills. Man, were we fierce. Between the bunch of us, we must have blown apart every target in sight. We were just tearing into them, pumping out huge quantities of lead from our automatic M-16s. Flinging our grenades, we blew the daylights out of makeshift enemy bunkers, creamed their positions with our mortars. Nothing seemed safe from us.

By the time we got back to the base, we were practically quivering with the rush of all that storming, crawling, perching, shooting and pulverizing, of annihilating everything in sight, of the rich power of destruction. We were intoxicated with our ability to undo just about anything we could lay our eyes on, drunk with our sense of invulnerability, swelled with the knowledge that anyone or anything that came in our paths would pay the price, the beautifully awful price.

We walked towards our base with the setting of the brutal sun, our faces and nostrils still covered with the fine soil of the mean terrain and with the smell of gunshot.

Twenty yards from our base, we passed by an old Arab house, home to two large extended families. We must have been quite a sight to these Arab clans, with our heavy backpacks, our muddy stubble and our big fat guns. As we passed, four little children ran fiercely out of the front door as they did almost every time we marched back from the fields. They were all barefoot and blue-eyed with chestnut hair and ginger-colored skin. The oldest was a boy of around seven, the two younger ones, a boy and a girl around five who looked like they might have been twins, and the last, a cute little three-year-old with badly cut bangs who dragged along a tattered doll behind her.

Apparently these children had learned a little something about how to relate to Israeli soldiers from the older kids in the neighborhood. Each one of them, including the one with the doll, bent down and chose three smooth pebbles to throw at us, absurd little Davids going up against our marching Goliaths. They knew there was nothing we could do, so they flung those stones as best they could and cursed at us in Arabic. The pebbles didn’t hurt, not like the heavy rocks our boys would sometimes take back in the days of the Intifada, but we certainly couldn’t let these kids get the idea that it was okay to chuck stones at Israeli soldiers. So we played our part in this macabre drama, reaching back for our guns, rapping the heel of our hands on our rifle-butts, while they ran away squealing, back into the safety of their awning.

We continued our march back past the guard tower and into our base as dusk painted the Judean Hills with its fluorescent palette. That evening, some of my religious buddies from the unit asked me if I would join them at the base’s synagogue for the Ma’ariv (evening) service, to help them make a minyan.

We walked into the chapel with our guns slung back on our backs, the barrels still sizzling. And as I sidestepped past the other soldiers to my place on the bench, I noticed that on the Aron HaKodesh, someone had embroidered a passage from the Bible. Wiping the dust from my eyelashes, I discovered that they were the words of the prophet Zechariah, and they were well chosen. Here, in the synagogue on the base of what is perhaps the most potent fighting force in the world, this is what they said:

“Not by might, and not by power, but by My spirit— said the Lord of Hosts,” and those words, well, they put it all into perspective.

I decided to put the words to work when those kids confronted us again. So the next time we trudged back from the fields and the kids charged at us with their harmless pebbles, I wedged my gun behind my back, crouched down like a catcher and gestured to the oldest boy to show me his best pitch. He wound up like Tom Seaver and gave me the finest fastball he could muster. He whipped the second one in the strike-zone as well, but before he could get off the third, I stood up and motioned him to toss it underhand. When the third stone reached me, I threw the first pair into the air as well and started to juggle all three. I proceeded to show off a trick or two I had learned when I first taught myself to juggle way back in high school. The kids just stood there with these big old smiles on their faces, as did the other guys in my platoon. They still ran away squealing, but not before letting off a laugh or two.

I was convinced that my new “spiritual” approach had altered the way those kids looked at us, the way they might have perceived Israeli soldiers for years to follow, and I felt pretty good about it. But the next time we marched past their home, those kids still ran out at us just as fiercely as the last time, but this time, instead of picking up three stones, the oldest boy picked up an extra stone for good measure.

My heart sank.

I had never juggled four stones before.

Jonathan Elkins

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