Rabbi Dr. Jerold Isenberg
Executive Director, Mizrachi – Religious Zionists of Chicago
As we approach the summer months, my mind is drawn back to the summer of 2014, where, in the midst of the Gaza war, there was a special funeral on Har Herzl.
It was supposed to be sad. And it was.
It was supposed to be an honor to a life too short. And it was.
It was supposed to be a comfort to the family and friends grieving over their loss. And it was.
But nothing prepared us for the unifying dimension of this funeral.
Along with an estimated 30,000 others, my wife and I paid final respects to Max Steinberg, a young man from California, who, only two years earlier, had participated in the Taglit – Birthright program. That trip opened his Jewish eyes, convincing him that his destiny was to make Israel his home. Not just in theory, but in practice. And to join the IDF as a member of the elite Golani 13th.
Walking uphill, seeking a semi-shady spot under which to find a bit of relief from the summer sun, I was struck by the moment. All that had happened in the previous weeks: the kidnappings, the murders, the rockets, the Iron Dome, the ground action, the tunnels, the sacrifices our brave soldiers were making, all came together.
Max was a “Chayal Boded – a Lone Soldier.” He had no blood relatives in Israel, but soon discovered that “family” may be defined by more than biology. He was filled with love, had an easy smile, and was always helpful.
He was killed in action in Gaza.
Max’s father and mother, who came to Israel – for the very first time – to bury their oldest son, said, unequivocally, that they had no regrets. Max’s entire life had been a blessing and a comfort to the family through various rough times. In Max’s death they found solace and comfort in his heroism and dedication to his new-found connection to his roots and his people.
As Max’s father and brother said Kaddish, the “Amen Y’hai Shmei Raba…” of thousands of co-mourners filled the mountaintop in a tangible manifestation of achdut (unity).
Dati-leumi, chareidi and chiloni (secular), native and tourist, soldier and office worker, student and professional, babe-in-arms, elder with cane and everyone in between; all backgrounds, all uniforms, all flavors of Jews came together for 90 minutes to share the grief. Emphasis on the word “share”. As the chazzan’s booming voice recited the tefilot, it was chilling in its purity and its timeless connection to Yahadut (Judaism), a unifying encounter that seemed to bind all of us together on that mountain.
Throughout the Jewish calendar, we mourn for the churban (destruction), shedding tears not just for the past, but for the future, for the rebuilding of the Bet HaMikdash. We need to channel those emotions to help us daven better, to learn more, to increase our Sh’mirat HaMitzvot and Ma’asei Chesed (keeping the laws and good deeds). And all of that is happening every day, in every way, around the world. But we also need something else: to express Hakarat HaTov (gratitude) for the soldiers who daily demonstrate, as HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein, Z”TzL, explained, the highest form of Gemilut Chasadim (benevolence) – putting your life on the line to protect someone else’s life. Precisely what Max Steinberg did.
Disconcertingly, throughout the levaya (funeral), red alert signals were going off on smartphones all around. While these rockets were targeting south of us, they underscored in stark, tangible terms the significance of what Max had died trying to accomplish, the unfinished mission, the objective still to be attained.
As we recall the grief, we cannot forget the lesson Max taught us, not in his death, but in his life. Max taught us about the oneness of Klal Yisrael. A young boy, not dati, not chiloni, just a boy. He felt the connection to Israel, to join himself to his roots, to his people; to their rich history and their magnificent destiny, and he answered their call for help.
Max Steinberg died protecting his homeland. Our homeland. We all owe it to him to make his sacrifice, and that of each of our chayalim, more meaningful. Max reached across the ocean and tied together his California family with his newfound family in Israel. We need to emulate that achdut, that shleimut (wholeness). We need to find ways to connect with Am Yisrael, Eretz Yisrael, and especially, Torat Yisrael. To strengthen our faith, to increase our dedication to Tefila, Tzedaka and to Ma’asim Tovim. To be sure that all the Maxes of this, and every, battle we have faced – and, chas v’shalom, will yet still need to face – will serve valiantly and successfully until that most amazing of times, when we will have war no more, with the coming of Mashiach, bim’hera v’yamainu.