One night last week, actually in the wee hours of the morning, my son finished his training in the army. The Masa Kumta is the final hike that marks the end of training and the beginning of service. The soldiers walk for many kilometers while carrying their equipment, and then another few kilometers while carrying stretchers. It’s no easy feat. The Kumta is the beret, unique in color to its particular brigade (purple in the case of my son), which is placed upon the heads of the chayalim at a ceremony that takes place immediately upon their completion of this hike. It’s considered a rite of passage in the army and is a major production.
But like everything else these days, my son’s Masa Kumta was affected by the coronavirus. First, it was delayed by two weeks due to most of the boys having to be in bidud (quarantine), as one of their comrades was exposed to the virus. It was almost delayed by another week due to a heatwave, but the commanders decided that the show must go on. In light of the extreme heat, they decided to cut the length of the trek, but even so, three boys still fainted along the way. At that point, those boys were taken back to their base and the others were given a two-hour break to rest. The journey was then shortened once again. Typically, parents meet the soldiers at the end of the trek and walk alongside them for the last stretch. Eventually, the chayalim join their families for a picnic, which is followed by a big ceremony filled with no small measure of pomp and circumstance. There are inspiring speeches, respectful saluting, and coordinated marching along with musical accompaniment – pretty much as formal as things get here in Israel. But due to the virus, parents were not invited – not for the trek and not for the ceremony. They tried to do a Zoom broadcast but, for some reason, that did not work out either.
There are many guidelines of the Ministry of Health that people are resistant to. Some find it difficult to wear masks and keep socially distant. Others suffer financially and have trouble with the regulations that apply to businesses. But there are certain restrictions relating to events that seem literally impossible for certain segments of the population to uphold. I know of people who climbed over mountains and barbed wire fences to get to Meron on Lag BaOmer. Despite the limit on the number of people allowed to ascend the mountain, they were not going to forfeit this once-a-year opportunity. Not a chance. Negotiations are currently taking place regarding whether Israeli citizens will be allowed to visit Uman on Rosh HaShanah. Yet, there are those for whom these negotiations are basically irrelevant. No matter what is agreed upon, they will be in Uman for Rosh HaShanah, even if it means that they need to swim across the ocean to get there. Absolutely nothing will stand in their way. While in some ways I admire those who set a goal and stop at nothing to achieve it; I also believe that people need to sometimes adapt their goals to their reality. To be honest, I couldn’t understand why someone would place the value of going to Meron on Lag BaOmer on a higher level than the value of their personal health and the health of others.
There were a few parents of chayalim in my son’s unit who were not going to miss their son’s Masa Kumta. It just was not even within the realm of possibility. They left their homes at 1 a.m. with their tables, food, personalized T-shirts, and cheering posters, and drove to the side of the road where the boys would pass in the hope that they would at least get to see them pass by. They stayed up the entire night keeping tabs on the boys through contact with their commanders and reported back to the rest of us parents. I was tempted to go. My son worked hard to get to this point and I was proud of him. I wanted to share in his big moment. But, on the other hand, it seemed crazy to drive to who knows where, and spend the entire night sitting on the side of some road with just the possibility of a sighting of our son on a trek, to which we were not invited in order to protect us and others from the coronavirus. But when would I have such an opportunity again? Yes. No. Yes. No. My son had discouraged us from coming. He said that if we wanted to wave to him as he walked, we could do it right in front of our house. Should we? Shouldn’t we? The struggle kept me twisting and turning most of the night, in any case, as the updating messages kept coming in on a steady basis.
In the end, the parents managed to see the boys for a few minutes, cheer them on, and drive alongside them with their cars for a very short stretch of the trek. Although parents were not invited, the commanders didn’t stop them from driving on the road. They did discourage them from getting too close and at some point, they actually blocked the road. The boys continued on their journey until they finally reached their base and immediately headed straight to the tekes just as the sun was rising. It was an intimate and moving event despite the fact that their parents were not present.
Although I decided to follow the rules and did not attend my son’s Masa Kumta, I did feel a sense of admiration for the few parents who would let nothing stand in the way of their participation in such a momentous occasion. Yes, this time I understood.
Suzie (nee Schapiro) Steinberg grew up in Kew Gardens Hills. She works as a social worker and lives with her husband and children in Ramat Beit Shemesh.