By Matthew Wagner
Two soldiers made their way through the winding streets of Gaza City, carefully watching for booby traps. Their objective was to hunt down Hamas terrorists and locate caches of Kassam and Grad rockets and other arms.
As they deliberated whether to turn left or right at an intersection, a woman dressed from head to foot in black appeared from out of nowhere.
“Go this way,” she said, pointing to the right. For some reason, the two soldiers listened to her.
After proceeding for a few seconds, the pair heard a large explosion behind them, in the direction they had almost taken. A rigged house blew up, destroying everything in the vicinity.
The two soldiers asked the woman dressed in black who she was.
“I am the Matriarch Rachel,” she said, referring to the beloved wife of Jacob.
This story, whether true or not, is being circulated in religious circles – via Internet forums, SMS, e-mail and word of mouth – and is fast becoming an urban legend.
There is a tendency among the faithful to introduce metaphysical dimensions to the fighting in Gaza. Two-and-a-half weeks into Operation Cast Lead, religious faith has been integral to many soldiers’ morale.
“We are being swamped with demands, from religious and secular, kibbutzniks and yeshiva students, Sephardim and Ashkenazim,” for the names of soldiers to pray for, said Rabbanit Grossman, director of the Jewish Information Center in the capital’s Mea She’arim neighborhood. The haredi organization has created a special “prayer hotline” for soldiers.
The initiative, backed by the Bostoner rebbe, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak Horovitz, and Rehovot Chief Rabbi Simcha Hakohen Kook, pairs a soldier involved in the Gaza fighting with a supplicant who prays for that soldier’s health and welfare.
Only soldiers who are interested in the service – or whose family members or friends are interested – are being singled out for this special spiritual protection from Hamas terrorists.
Thousands, Grossman said, have contacted the Jewish Information Center, which has publicized the service via word-of-mouth and e-mail.
People from all walks of the religious community, from the religious-Zionist Bnei Akiva to the anti-Zionist Eda Hahareidit, have volunteered to pray for the soldiers, said Grossman.
“Our prayer-sayers include yeshiva students at the Mir, Kol Torah, Ponevezh and Hebron, residents of Mea She’arim, students at Beit Ya’acov seminaries as well as national-religious yeshiva high schools and ulpanot,” said Grossman, who preferred not to give her first name because “good deeds are best left hidden.”
“Soldiers from all walks of life and from a variety of backgrounds, both religious and secular, have asked that we pray for them,” she said.
“Just the other day an entire battalion of soldiers, just about to enter Gaza, gave us all of their names. They passed the phone from one to the other, secular and religious – not one of them refused.
“People might disagree on politics and ideology, but no one objects to praying,” she said.
According to an IDF rabbi stationed with Golani and Kfir Brigade soldiers near Tze’elim in the Negev, where they are preparing to enter Gaza, there is a tremendous thirst for anything spiritual.
The rabbi, who asked to remain anonymous because the IDF Spokesman had not given him permission to speak to the press, said that more than 1,500 sets of tzitzit, the four-cornered fringe garment religious men wear under their shirts, had been distributed to soldiers “who want the segula [spiritual protection] of being wrapped in a mitzva.
“Tzitzit are a heavenly flak jacket,” the rabbi added.
The money to finance the tzitzit was raised by Radio Kol Hai, a religious radio station.
Many soldiers naturally turn to God in the face of warfare, the rabbi said.
“In Golani, there is a large percentage of Sephardi soldiers who might not wear a kippa all the time, but who have a strong faith in God. At times like this, when they face the dangers of war, that basic religious faith expresses itself.
“Dozens of soldiers here carry Psalms with them into battle as another form of spiritual protection. Some carry two books for a double effect,” he said.
The rabbi said that numerous guest lecturers, rabbis who belong to the IDF’s Jewish Consciousness Division, have visited the soldiers to boost their spirits before the go to battle. The soldiers were very receptive, he said.
Rabbi Aharon Pruss, who heads Chabad outreach activities aimed at IDF soldiers, said a special emphasis is put on encouraging soldiers to don tefillin.
“The rebbe [the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson] said before the Six Day War that tefillin provide soldiers with special protection against the nations in times of danger,” said Pruss, who referred to a biblical verse that infers that when a Jew wears tefillin, the nations of the world fear him.
“When our emissaries go to meet the soldiers, there is a tremendous demand to put on tefillin. They line up to do the mitzva, even though they do not put tefillin in normal times.”
He said that another form of spiritual protection is assigning each soldier a letter in a Torah scroll that is in the process of being written, that corresponds to the soldier’s name. Pruss said that this belief is based on a verse from the Book of Daniel.
Grossman said that she has seen first hand how the prayers for the soldiers have helped.
“A soldier from a secular kibbutz who we were praying for was shot in the back the other day,” recounted Grossman. “But the bullet passed right through his body without hitting his backbone. He has already been discharged.
“There is no doubt in my mind that all these prayers are helping our soldiers,” she said. “And, God willing, the merit of being united in prayer despite all our differences will help bring closer the final redemption and the coming of the righteous Messiah, quickly and in our times,” she said.