TEL AVIV (Sep. 4)
The Chief Chaplain of the Israel Army, Rabbi Mordecai Firon, said in a pre-Rosh Hashanah interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, that in 27 years of participation in directing High Holy Day services, he could report that most of the army chaplains did succeed in achieving contact with soldiers most of whom, he said, were secular-minded.
He described the annual program as “a young tradition in the young Israel” going back 2000 years when Ezra returned from Babylon and called on the Jews to prepare for the High Holy Days, to express repentance, to enter the New Year with a feeling of purity, with a true desire to sin no more. The leaders of the spiritual awakening effort now are the rabbis of the army chaplaincy led by Rabbi Firon, who holds the rank of major general, and his deputy Rabbi Gad Navon, a brigadier general.
The interview was held in Rabbi Firon’s office, where he sat surrounded by books on Jewish lore. On one wall was a quotation from a letter from the late Chief Rabbi Abraham Kook which stressed the importance of a healthy body, of being able physically to defend the spiritual values of the Jewish nation. Rabbi Navon took part in the interview.
Like all army activities, the annual observance is based on military orders requiring soldiers to attend the meetings with their rabbis and to pay heed to their message urging repentance, not in connection with relations between man and God but in relations between man and man, to his surroundings, his family, his unit and his homeland, Rabbi Firon said.
He observed that each Rosh Hashanah period was a challenge to reach the soldiers’ hearts and minds and that “we get them interested, we get them thinking.” He added that the chaplains “find a readiness to listen, an openness to Jewish values, Jewish tradition and everything that stands for Jewishness, national Judaism.”
WIDESPREAD INTELLECTUAL CURIOSITY
Rabbi Firon explained that the programs were not for enlisted men only. He said that he meets first with the higher command in the General Headquarters and in the various commands and bases. Then the senior officers and the rank-and-file participate. He added that “we find an intellectual curiosity among many listeners that are far from Jewish religion and tradition.”
The rabbi readily described emotional meetings with soldiers in remote units on the Golan Heights and in the Sinai. There, under a burning sun or in the shade of tanks, he meets the soldiers, talks with them and seeks to bring them to thinking on the Jewishness which they represent.
He noted that it was not preaching in the sense of trying to get a soldier to become religious. He said he felt that not even the Yom Kippur War “trauma” had brought Israelis back to religion but that it had made them more open to understanding of matters connected with the Jewish heritage, Jewish morals, Jewish values.
THE STRENGTH OF DEEP BELIEF
Rabbi Navon stressed the need for a special campaign for repentance in the army. He said every Jew must think of his wrongs to himself and to his society, but the Israeli soldier must also ponder on whether he has fulfilled his duty to his unit, to the army and to the State of Israel, whose security rests in his hands.
He noted that the Jewish faith is one devolving upon the individual. It is not a mass that Jews perform, it is a service, a prayer by the individual Jew to the Almighty, Rabbi Navon said, and hence the need for each Jew to make his own spiritual and moral reckoning during the Hebrew month prior to the High Holy Days.
He said the main theme of this year’s effort is faith: faith in the Jewish nation, its mission, its force, and in the Almighty. He noted that the Israeli soldier has a good example to cite. All Jews are children of Abraham who was a lone man in his new thinking and belief in one God. Abraham, Rabbi Navon said, was called “Ivri” because he stood alone on one side (“Ever” in Hebrew) with the world on the other, but he was able to stand against the whole world because of the force of his deep belief.
Rabbi Navon declared that now, 4000 years later, “again we Jews are alone against the whole world, with the power of our faith and we shall overcome. The rabbis are confident of this and we would like to share that belief.” On their behalf, he said, he conveyed to Jews everywhere the hopes for a happy, peaceful year full of faith.