On so many levels, fallen soldier Nissim Sean Carmeli didn’t have to be there, on the front lines in Gaza, when he was killed by a terrorist five days ago.
Reason #1: he was American.
Sean’s parents left Israel before he was born. He didn’t have to move here, but he did – becoming more religious and moving here to finish high school. He never would have had to serve if he’d stayed in the U.S.
Just like all of us, he didn’t have to live in Israel – he chose to live here.
Reason #2: he was already injured.
Apparently, when his officer suggested that could be excused from service, Sean – a proud member of Israel’s “tough guy” Golani brigade – told him, “bruise or no bruise I am coming with you.”
Just like many soldiers, he didn’t have to go to Gaza – he chose to be there.
“He was enthusiastic to go in and to fight for the Jewish people, and he gave his life for the Jewish people,” Sean’s rabbi said (full article here).
Every soldier’s parents dread getting the news that something has happened to their kid. Perhaps Sean’s parents thought they were safe from ever getting that phone call. But it found them, even an ocean away.
And on Tuesday, two days ago, I stood helplessly, staring down at his mother, huddled deep in her grief on a low foam mattress. Into eyes that held more pain than any person should ever have to endure.
“Min hashamayim tenachemu,” we were told to say in place of the Ashkenazi blessing to a mourner. Luckily, there was a rabbi in our group to fill us in.
Yeah, I went with a group. I could never have done it alone.
Sderot, Beer Sheva, and beyond
Sean’s shiva in Raanana on Tuesday was the last stop on a whirlwind day I spent in Sderot and Beer Sheva with a Canadian mission.
It’s a name that sends shivers down the spine of any slightly-aware North American Jew – the Auschwitz, perhaps, of 2014, where Jewish lives are in peril every single day. Where Jewish children are threatened and murdered by a force of hatred so powerful most of the world can’t comprehend it.
I admit, I’ve always wondered why anyone would choose to live there.
They don’t have to, I always thought. Why not get out?
The flipside of that – the nasty underbelly that nobody talks about – is silently blaming people who live in places like that.
“Sure, it’s sad if they get hurt… but isn’t it kind of their fault for not leaving?”
Even back in Canada, we knew it was dangerous in Sderot. Why don’t they know it over here? I probably sort of wondered.
I think on Tuesday I finally got it.
They stay because they are sending a message: to Hamas, to the world. This is our home. Don’t mess with us.
It’s true, lots of people have left Sderot since Operation Cast Lead in 2008. It’s no secret. So yeah, the people who live there know they don’t have to live there.
They don’t have to live in Sderot in the same way that Sean Carmeli didn’t have to move to Israel and get drafted into the army.
Reason #3: he didn’t have to serve in a combat role.
It’s true that recruits don’t get to choose, but I’m sure you could convince the army that you’re a total wimp who deserves a “jobnik” type of posting. Actually, the situation seems to be the other way around. This article is four years old, but claims that up to 75% of Israeli kids would prefer a combat position.
They don’t have to serve in a combat role… but they do it anyway.
Sean didn’t have to go to Gaza… but he did it anyway.
We don’t have to move to Israel… but we do it anyway.
Choosing to live in Israel
Heck, even people who were born here don’t have to live here. We met lots of Israelis back in Toronto, many who love Israel like nowhere else in the world – but who will never, ever live here again.
And yet, we’re here. Even when the world says it is dangerous, we remain. Even when the world blames us for bringing danger onto ourselves, we stand in defiance.
This is our home. Don’t mess with us.
For all those reasons and more, Sean’s parents and sisters were joined by 20,000 Israelis at their son’s midnight funeral less than 24 hours earlier.
Yet something in me cannot quite come to terms with the shiva.
I can’t reconcile the picture of that smiling boy and his proud (yet probably anxious) mom in the picture up on top with the shattered woman we uselessly consoled on Tuesday. Leaning on her husband for support on that too-low mattress like she might never find the strength to get up again.
We use the clichés like they’re easy: we say he “paid the ultimate price” or “made the ultimate sacrifice.” We say that phone call is a “parent’s worst nightmare.”
But there is comfort in clichés, too.
Like faith, clichés can help us understand things that are by nature impossible to understand.
Things like hope. Like resilience. Like defiance.
Like how Nissim Sean Carmeli was a hero, defying expectations, triumphing against evil… and yet we, together with his parents, weep at the price he paid for that triumph; the sacrifice of a life cut short much too soon.
- More about Nissim Sean Carmeli from chabad.org