A Farbrengen is a Chassidic gathering in which the participants inspire each other to lead an exemplary Jewish life. In the spirit of true Ahavas Yisroel (love for one’s fellow Jew), the participants encourage each other to study Torah diligently, to fulfil Mitzvos in the best possible manner, to improve one’s character-traits, and to spread Judaism to others. These messages are all shared through a unique blend of Torah explanations, stories and Chassidic melodies; at times poignant and at times exuberant. No wonder that "What a Hasidic farbrengen can achieve, even the angel Michoel cannot achieve!"

Elul 5771 - September 2011

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Rabbi Yitzchak Shlomo is a successful businessman based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. During a recent visit in Melbourne, he shared some of his experiences growing up in Israel. These were subsequently recounted at a Farbrengen at the Rabbinical College:

Shortly after high school, at the young age of eighteen, I was drafted into the IDF. It was quite the transformation; from spoiled and naïve high school kid to highly trained and disciplined soldier – in a matter of months. I was attached to a mortar firing division of the Golani brigade, and we deployed onto the battlefield after six months of training, only a few short weeks before the breakout of the six-day-war. Even before the war, there were constant exchanges of fire between the Syrians bunkered high above in the Golan Heights, and us Israelis exposed in the valleys below.

I didn’t come from a religious family, but my father had given me a card containing a “prayer for the soldier”. As we were readying to take up our positions that first night on the battlefield, there was an eerie silence. We were all fighting for the first time, and we knew that we were staring into the face of death.

In a moment, my hand instinctively made its way to the card in my pocket. Although I had never really thought about whether I believed in G‑d, I found myself fervently asking the Rock of Israel to save and protect me. As I finished the short prayer, I looked up to the questioning glance of my fellow soldiers; they wanted to know what I was doing. I couldn’t believe what happened next. My comrades, representing every background, all lined up for a turn to recite the prayer as well. After everyone finished, we deployed.

Our contingent was an integral part of operations. The enemy was strategically in a far better position; they were able to fire directly at us in the valley below, whilst taking cover behind the natural shelter provided by the rocky heights. For the very same reason, we could not fire directly at them; any artillery shells, due to their low angle of flight, would be blocked by the intervening natural rock-face. This is where mortar fire comes in; the cannons propel the ammunition in a high arc over any obstructions, and come crashing down directly on the enemy positions. Our division travelled directly behind the infantry, in order to soften any upcoming resistance. We would fire our ammunition over the heads of the infantry and into the enemy trenches, shortly before the infantry would storm them.

Our job was arduous and hazardous. We were ready for hand-to-hand combat in case we were ambushed from behind. We were highly trained in operating the mortars, as well as in accurately calculating the exact angle at which to fire them. This was no easy matter, as the mortars are not aimed directly at the target. On top of that, we had to lug around the heavy ammunition and control the track vehicles upon which the canons were mounted.

There was no point in conducting operations during the day, for the enemy would clearly see our positions. So we fought under cover of the night. This did not provide complete obscurity either, as the flares released by the firing canons were noticeable in the dark, and the Syrians would immediately pinpoint our exact location. We therefore had no choice but to fire a quick round of fire, and immediately relocate ourselves and our heavy equipment to a new area in less than half an hour, before the enemy would have a chance to pound the area that we had occupied.

We were lucky to have half an hour. The Syrians were using newly acquired Russian weaponry, and they were not trained to use it. Therefore, every move on the part of the Syrian army required detailed commands from the Russians and an accurate translation into Arabic, before the commands could be executed. We knew this because both armies shared the same radio waves; such was technology back then. All battle commands were delivered over the same wavelength, ours in Hebrew, and theirs in Russian and Arabic.

Bravest of all was our reconnaissance officer. He piloted a small piper plane, and passed back and forth above the Golan Heights. He needed to fly low and slow in order to properly stake out the enemy positions. We could hear the constant pick-pock ricochet of enemy artillery directed against his plane, and we knew all too well that if the engine or fuel tanks were hit, it would spell doom for the plane and its pilot. Yet, the pilot’s voice was calm and collected as he radioed our instructions. When we missed our targets, he gently guided us in correcting our strikes. Many a moment, our hearts skipped a beat; we thought that he was going down. I will never forget the feeling of relief when he landed safely. We later saw the plane; bullet holes pierced it like a sieve.

The Syrians were desperate (albeit confused) fighters, and when we eventually conquered the Heights, we found out why. The Syrian commanders had abandoned the battlefield, but not before chaining their soldiers to their posts. The soldiers were warned that they would be tortured by the Israelis if captured alive, and they fought to the death!

For me, these experiences were a turning point in my life. I confronted age old ideas, such as the value of human life, the sustained existence of the Jewish nation, and their unique relationship with G‑d. I also encountered the activities of Chabad, whose people had the tremendous self-sacrifice to visit and inspire us in such dangerous conditions. These experiences ultimately led me on my quest to discover Yiddishkeit.

Fast-forward several years. It was the early seventies, and I was studying at Berkeley, California. I would frequent the Chabad House, and one Shabbos, we were privileged to host the famous Reb Mendel Futerfas. Reb Mendel was not expecting to meet an Israeli at Berkeley, and during the Shabbos afternoon Farbrengen, he wanted to hear about me.

When I told him about my army experiences, Reb Mendel had a question: “That first night on the battlefield, you and your comrades were seized with fear! How were you able to function? How were you able to execute your commands with the requisite precision?”

I explained to Reb Mendel that this was the point of our training exercises; to drill battle technique so deeply into the fiber of our natures that we would be able to fight even in our sleep. Only due to our training were we able to function in the confusing atmosphere of the battlefield, even when we were deprived of food and sleep, fearful, disoriented, emotionally confused, or grieving the fallen. Our bodies were trained to fight, even when we were not there mentally and emotionally.

Reb Mendel responded, “You just taught me a valuable lesson. Much of Yiddishkeit seems to be all about going through the motions. We daven three times a day, and recite exactly the same words in the Shmone Esrei. We celebrate Shabbos each week, in exactly the same way. Every Yom Tov is celebrated exactly as it was the year prior, and exactly as it will be in the year following. Why?”

“You have just answered that for me! We go through the motions, again and again, in order to prepare us for those turbulent times when we are not “there”; when we are torn emotionally, going through difficult patches, or having our doubts. Without these drills, we might fizzle during these crucial moments of spiritual battle, maybe never to return. But our constant training and drilling protects us. It allows us to remain loyal to practice even when we doubt its purpose. Through it, we survive to see better times spiritually.”

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