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Burial

For certain events, there should be no first time. Today, it happened, my first military burial. A twenty-seven year old boy from R., killed yesterday in Lebanon, Major “Benjy,” married three weeks ago, is to buried by 1245 pm.

Jewish burials are ruthlessly fast: within 24 hours, unless Shabbat intervenes. Benjy was of Egoz “Walnut” unit, perhaps a variation of the idea of Sabra: tough on the outside, sweet and tender, sweet within. Some years ago, the Egoz boys were considered knuckle-draggers: tough and not too bright. Now, they are tough and bright. We crossed into Southern Lebanon, finding hidden bunkers filled with munitions, killers, who cannot be seen by air. After several thousand rockets shot into Israel, some 30 dead and many more injured in the last week, after Israeli aerial counter-bombings preceded by leaflets warning civilians to leave certain areas, after minimal let-up in rockets, we sent in troops. Benjy led his men. After his wedding, he was given two months leave with his bride. But war happened, his unit was called up, he had to go with his men. The Pirke Avot (I believe) says that a newly wedded man should not be called up for military duty — — unless it is for the sake fo the people of Israel. When the Biblical General Barak was selecting men to fight against the charioteers of Sysra, he asked anyone who had any reason not to fight, to step back. Benjy Hillman stepped forward.

Here is what I saw and heard. The military cemetery of R. is on the main back road, abutting the neighboring moshav. It is not evident at first. Today, the human train of people and cars made it eminently evident. At 9 am my neighbor, whose son is in another crack unit, told me that he had heard the funeral was set; the family had just been told; the announcement would soon be public. I asked if this were someone I knew — I felt an internal tug against going. Ira simply suggested I should go if I had never seen a military burial.

Thousands were there on a day brilliantly clear, with birds singing (their form of territorial battle). On this hot day, two breezes came through, the first warm, the second refreshing and noisome; trees are moved. 1245 it was to start and by 1230 the cemetery was packed — the living crowding the dead, tramping on their bodies, murmuring over their heads. The flag-draped simple casket being pulled out of the military jeep by buddies from Egoz, brown-bereted, a red emblem on its brim; a walnut tree epaulet.

How do people speak at such times? Two rabbis broke into tears, as did Benjy’s commander. His sixteen year-old brother’s whispered, choked words were difficult to understand. His father described a boy who was a blessing to them. One rabbi, the one who married him, said that suddenly the sun face was eclipsed by Benjy’s death. This rabbi described how before Benjy’s wedding, when he came for special study with the rabbi, it turned midnight as they finished. The rabbi invited Benjy to spend the night; “No, my men need me.” And he left to drive through the night. Someone read Benjy’s words. Words of consolation that Benjy wrote to Avi’s parents and family; Avi, who was killed four years ago. Benjy promised to live out Avi’s life. Little enough time he had to do so.

One word kept returning to describe Benjy — charming (khosen).

I expected parents to cry, the brother, the sister. I was not prepared for choked-up officers. Soldier wearing wrap-around sunglasses, had tears pouring down their cheeks. These could not be hidden.

I went on strike against this god (not God) this day, this god who Moloch-like, eats his young. The father is asked to recite kaddish, this ironic prayer praising god, recited after the dead, which mentions nothing about the dead, written in Aramaic. Two rabbis said this boy went “al kiddush hashem,” “for the blessing (“sanctification,” the dictionary says — a two fancy word) of god.” I realized as I walked to the cemetery, that I had forgotten my kippah, my skullcap. Then I realized after I arrived, I realized as the rabbis praised god, why I had made this parapaxis: I was on strike against a god who would take boys like this. Praise him? Not I.

This is a tough nation. An odd one, in which the best and the brightest also become the toughest soldiers. But they don’t want to be soldiers. They want to be fathers, and husbands; they want to be writers and musicians; doctors and teachers. For sure, not dead. Reluctant warriors I call them.

The gun salutes, three blasts, I could not prepare for. I am startled, even as I see them raise guns, from muzzles to shoulder, then stocks to shoulder, aiming skyward. I see them cock thrice, ejecting shells. My palms burst into sweat.

Then, done. We leave. No rush. Despite the crowds, the narrow, stone collonaded exit, no pushing, no rushing to leave the dead behind. Security is there, as usual in Israel, looking for whomever might be looking for a crowd to bomb. Security is young men/boys in short sleeved shirts, to keep the arms and hands free of tangles should they need to subdue someone. The living who leave the dead behind are well-subdued.

Today was a first time that shouldn’t have happened.

Copyright 2020 N . Szajnberg

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Born in a German Displaced Persons' Camp, I grew up in Rochester and attended the University of Chicago College and Med School.

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