Soldier’s battlefield question puts him on path to Hasidism

(Originally appeared in the Jewish Advocate)

Forty years ago, Shmarya Harel was in the Golan Heights fighting the Syrian army.
What he saw, Harel said, turned him away from secular Zionism and toward Hasidism.
“We are all emissaries of Hashem,” he told an audience at Beth Menachem Chabad in
Newton this month, “and Hashem is choosing for each person his route in life. Along
my life I see real miracles, as if Hashem takes me by the hand and pulls me on the path
to a good end.”
For Harel, that path has been particularly perilous. He was born in 1950 in Rehovot;
11 months later he contracted polio. His mother told him how an older Yemenite nurse
insisted that he not be placed in hospital quarantine. “People go into Kaplan [hospital]
with polio,” the nurse had said. “But nobody comes out.”
The infant spent weeks in a crib isolated from the outside world in one of the kibbutz
buildings. His mother would look in on him every day through a window. She would
see him pulling the posts of the crib, trying to stand. “One day,” Harel said, “she saw me
suddenly stand, and from then on the polio left me. That was the first miracle.”
The others came years later in the army, he said. After growing up on Kibbutz Na’an,
Harel went into the IDF in August 1969. His training officer was a young Benjamin
Netanyahu. Harel remembers the future prime minister as a good commander and a
tough trainer.
The recruits would run up and down the valleys near the Dead Sea. One day they ran out
of water in the middle of the day. Netanyahu found a cave with a small stream and used
a plastic bag as a funnel to fill their empty cans.
Around Yom Kippur in 1972, Harel was in Lebanon on a covert mission, rooting
out PLO cells. On the way back, his platoon was ambushed. Harel recalled his horror
as a rocket flew through one window of his armored vehicle and out the other side –
somehow missing the half dozen soldiers inside. Seconds later, the Israelis had the
terrorists on the run.
The Yom Kippur war in 1973 was a hard time for Harel. Partway through the war, he
was transferred from the Egyptian front to the Syrian front on the Golan Heights. As one
of the few active soldiers who had experience in wintery conditions, Harel often was
assigned to lead troops around Mount Hermon. He remembers the uncertainty the snow
would cause. Mere meters off course at the beginning of a trip could mean crossing the
Syrian border instead of arriving at an Israeli base.
At the same time, Harel found himself growing dissatisfied with secular Zionism. “In
Kibbutz Na’an, we studied the Tanakh, the promise to Abraham, but when we asked the
teachers who is Hashem, they told us ‘he doesn’t exist.’ Yom Kippur was a hard war,
3,500 dead, and when you’re giving your life for something and you ask what for, and
the answer is: It does not exist, it is not real; it’s hard. ”
After the war, Harel worked as a security guard for El Al for six months. That earned
him a free airline ticket, which he used to go to Boston. He studied Jewish mysticism
at Hebrew College. Chaim Prus, now the rabbi at Beth Menachem Chabad, became his
spiritual advisor. Within four years, Harel was studying at Yeshiva Tiferes Bachunim in
Morristown, N.J. He returned to Israel in 1979 as a Chabad emissary. “As someone who
wasn’t born into this lifestyle,” he said, “some days it’s easier than others. Some days
it’s a lot of work to observe all the mitzvot.”
Today, Harel works in education for the Chabad movement in Israel, using theories
that “engage all the senses, not just sight and sound,” he said.
While Harel views the social values of kibbutzim as compatible with Judaism, he said
Orthodox traditions have enabled him to lead a more complete life. “It’s better when a
person is connected to the Torah, to the idea of the land,” he said.