As I write this column I’m sitting in Israel, A few days after Yom HaShoah and a few days before Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Remembrance and Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel Independence Day. Israel is wrapped in blue and white — it seems like every car, street, and traffic circle has Israeli flags dangling somewhere prominent. Entire municipal buildings are lit up in blue.
A program on Israeli television last night exemplified the character of those moments when practically every Jew in the world is overcome with a mixture of pride and gratitude.
The program was about Yoseph Goodman, a young IDF soldier in Maglan, an elite unit in the paratroopers. On February 6, 2006, during a routine training, Yoseph jumped out of a plane and somehow his commander’s leg became entangled in Yoseph’s parachute. They both began an immediate plummet to their deaths.
Often when I hear about these moments of intense crisis, I can’t help but ask myself, “What would I do?” They were in a situation where both were certainly going to die, but there was at least a chance that if one cut himself free he would save them both.
Again, what if it was me? I can only tell you what 20-year-old Yoseph Goodman did. He didn’t give his commander — and friend — even a chance to decide who would cut the rope. He immediately cut his parachute, saving his friend’s life. He tried to open his reserve chute, but was too close to the ground for it to open. Yoseph is buried on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.
I have had the unending privilege to work with injured Israeli combat soldiers since 2007 through Hope for Heroism. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that this level of selflessness is something these young men live with and are ready to act on today at a moment’s notice. I have stopped counting the times I have met a young man who will spend years of his life trying to rehabilitate his body because of his decision to put himself between a terrorist and a group of civilians.
In Israel, Hope for Heroism is run entirely by injured combat soldiers and the leaders tell me they continue to see expressions of this selfless giving everyday. When they encounter injured soldiers in the hospital, the first and only request they often hear from them is to please help a friend who has been injured instead. If an injured soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress is in a moment of personal crisis in the middle of the night, he will have his brothers by his side in an instant and they won’t leave him until they feel he is able to manage on his own. It doesn’t matter what his happening in their own lives that week, everything is dropped to help a brother in need.
I don’t know what I would do in Yoseph Goodman’s situation, but I know exactly what any of our injured soldiers would do: They would fight to be the first one to cut their own parachute, no matter the consequences.
In the Jewish calendar we also find ourselves in the midst of Sefiras HaOmer, the time when we count the days from Passover to the holiday of Shavuot and the bringing of the omer offering in the Beit HaMikdash. During this time, until we reach the 33rd day of the omer, there is a tradition for the Jewish people to observe signs of mourning, including including letting one’s beard grow, as a remembrance of the the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva who died during this period. We not only observe outward signs of mourning but are also meant to reflect on fixing in ourselves what the Talmud says was the spiritual cause of the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students: They did not accord respect to each other. Disrespect and dishonor can only come from a spirit of selfishness and taking.
I know the reason the television channel chose the program about Yoseph Goodman had nothing to do with Rabbi Akiva’s students, but the timing could not have been better. I used to think that the mourning and reflection we do during this time was only for us to remember to act in a respectful way toward the people around us, but I realized last night that it’s also about something more.
Even if we show respect to each other, we do not come into this world simply to live for ourselves. We are here to go beyond ourselves for the sake of someone else. In Hebrew the word for sacrifice is “hakravah.” It is not an accident that hakravah also has the meaning “to come close.” We need look no further than Yoseph Goodman and our precious injured soldiers to see this truth in action. They share a purity and closeness that leaves anyone who meets them feeling touched and inspired.