A relatively recent phenomenon is the increase of Orthodox officers and soldiers in the Israeli Defense Forces. This phenomenon extends through the ranks of the IDF, where increasing numbers of religious officers can now be found. Some come from religious backgrounds, while others find religious observance once they’ve enlisted in the Israeli army. One such soldier arrived from a totally secular home, from a remote kibbutz where organized religious observance was unheard of. In fact, it was ridiculed and looked upon as backward and not in line with modern day values. The young soldier joined the IDF and, once there, he saw the Yad Hashem in ways he had never previously known, and it made quite an impression on him. He began to study and learn and even found a chavrusa, a study partner, who could teach him about Torah and mitzvos. Indeed, from week to week, his appetite for Yiddishkeit grew and he found himself seeing Judaism in a new light.
He had one serious problem, though. He kept a close relationship with his parents and family back home, and each time he would go back for a weekend furlough, or for any other visit, his family and friends could not wrap their minds around his newfound religious passion. They badgered and ridiculed him, and he had a hard time keeping up his spirituality. Time and time again, as much as he gained over his weeks in service, he felt like he was plummeting in his will and desire every time he went home. He could not understand it and asked his study partner, “What does Hashem want from me? Why does He send these obstacles and tribulations my way, to constantly bring me down and tear me away from mitzvah observance?”
Many philosophical conversations ensued, but the young soldier could not find his place and it was wearing him down. Finally, someone gave him an idea: Why don’t you take your next vacation abroad and visit the cities of Eastern Europe. While there, you can pray at the gravesites of some of our greatest Torah scholars and rabbinic authorities of the past few centuries. Perhaps, through your t’filos, you might find clarity and the spiritual ascent you so intently crave.
The soldier mentioned the idea to his chareidi chavrusa and even invited him on the trip. A week at the kivrei tzadikim in Eastern Europe sounded like a great idea and the chavrusa joined. The two traveled and studied together, and when they arrived in Prague, they made their first stop at the kever of the Noda BiYehudah, Rav Yechezkel Landau zt”l.
Unlike today, when the old cemeteries of Europe are open to the public and attendants are usually on hand to unlock a gate, if need be, years ago it wasn’t always easy to gain entry into these exclusive sites. There was a number to call, but it wasn’t always answered; the person with the key was usually not on hand, and it took greased palms to open up a gate that would otherwise remain locked. When the yungerman and his soldier friend arrived at the “new” cemetery in Prague where the Noda BiYehudah is buried, they found the tall gates locked and no way in. They stood there for a few minutes before the agile soldier climbed the fence and jumped over. He bade his chavrusa to do the same, but the yungerman was incapable of scaling the high fence. In the end, the soldier prayed at the gravesite, while his friend prayed standing at the locked gate.
The same thing occurred at the kever of the Maharal MiPrague and the Kli Yakar. The heavy gate was locked, and no one was around to open it for them. Once again, the soldier easily climbed the fence, but his chavrusa could not, and they each davened where they could: the soldier at the k’varim themselves and the chavrusa locked out, standing by the gate.
This happened on a number of occasions, and finally the soldier told his friend that he felt bad that he was unable to get inside the cemetery. “For you,” he said, “these walls represent a barrier, and they keep you out. You are stuck and cannot get inside. For me, these fences and walls do not stand in my way. There are no barriers that block me from getting inside and elevating myself through prayer at the graves of these tzadikim. In fact, I welcome these fences, since I have no problem overcoming them. That is my nature. Give me a wall or barrier and watch me get over it – these things do not stand in my way!”
His chavrusa smiled and replied, “Listen to your words. It was worth coming here just to hear you say them. Why are you worried about the barriers that bring you down? You can easily overcome them – no obstacle to Yiddishkeit can keep you out!”