“Our mission, gentlemen, is to recapture Mount Hermon.”

And with that, we began a 5-day exercise in the Golan Heights.

The entire reserve army paratroop brigade had been called up for our yearly maneuvers. It was all a simulation, but that’s the way we stay “prepared.” The brigade commander was talking, and everybody thought of how we were going to capture that tall mountain. Will we arrive by jeep? Perhaps by helicopter?

“We’re going to take it by foot.”

“Hahaha!” Everybody laughed. He does have a sense of humor, that commander. Mt. Hermon, by foot? Unheard of. Impossible. Not realistic. By foot?

“Yes, you heard me right, ‘by foot.’ Here’s the scenario: The Syrians pulled off a successful overnight raid of Mt. Hermon, and are using its strategic height to shell Israeli civilians below. Stormy weather and clouds prevent any other alternative to ascending the mountain. We’re going to have to take it by foot. Men, for the next five days, we’re going to simulate war as best as possible. You’re going to get very little sleep and be under intense pressure. We’re going to push you to limits of your physical and mental capabilities. This is just an exercise, but we suggest you take it very seriously. Good luck.”

Photo credit: Uri Rymland

We packed, left, and arrived by jeep near Gamla. We had two hours to learn – by heart – a certain route in the Golan Heights. We split up into small groups, and were supplied with maps, aerial photographs and navigational equipment. Since we weren’t allowed to take the maps with us when we actually navigating, we started memorizing “the path story” like parts in a play: “after the intersection of the two dirt roads, I go 450 meters south at 175 degrees. There should be a clump of trees there. If I look west at 245 degrees, I should see the lights of a moshav. Then I proceed another 700 meters…” And so on and so forth.

The sun went down, night came, and we were off. At two in the morning, we had arrived at the exact spot of destination! Yay. What a great feeling. We were allowed to sleep until five.

The next day was spent on camouflage and marksmanship. It went by quickly. At night, we were to be picked up by helicopter at the edge of a forest. We had to navigate to the pre-arranged spot and set up a makeshift landing pad. At nine, a cold wind blew in. We started jumping up and down to keep warm. Somebody started singing “Hinay Ma Tov” and “Kol HaOlam Kulo” and soon we were dancing. It was just like Livnot, except that we were carrying machine guns.

Hundreds of Jews, dancing the hora, laughing, singing songs at the top of their lungs, waiting for those darn helicopters.  At ten, two huge spaceships broke through the clouds and descended upon us. The helicopters made a lot of wind and dust and noise, and landed. They swallowed us up (I thought of the cows in Pharoah’s dream), and soon we were airborne. They twisted and turned, up and down, right and left, and soon descended. The plank opened, and we were expelled onto land (I thought of Jonah and the whale). More navigation, night marksmanship, and finally digging foxholes. It was 3:30. We were allowed to sleep until 5. Tuesday and Wednesday were more of the same. We were now at the foot of the Hermon. We saw beautiful views and sunrises and sunsets and animals and plants and Jews-helping-each-other. The lack of sleep was starting to take its toll; helping was a necessity.

Wednesday night. This is it. The final big climb. Reaching the Syrians. Attacking. Getting the Hermon back. We packed warm clothes, bullets, explosives, grenades, rockets, the works. Some packed talit and tefillin. I found an empty corner in my backpack and added in large amounts of chocolate bars and candy.

At 10 we started climbing. We passed a memorial stone. “At this spot, the IDF began their final attack to retake Mt. Hermon in 1973. May the fallen be remembered.” “Oh my God,” I thought, “we’re walking in the footsteps of giants.”

By 11, two people had fallen and bashed their knees. They were taken to a makeshift army hospital.

By midnight, 3 more dropped out. By 1am, 4 people dehydrated.

At 2, the moon rose. But the climb became steeper. Real steep. Cruelly steep. As sergeant, I’m the last in line, and have to make sure nobody falls behind. Yuval: “I don’t think our feet were made to bend this way.” I told him: “What are you thinking about feet for? Look at the millions of stars! Hum a tune! Enjoy the view!”

Ofer: “Michael, I’m dizzy. I think I’m going to faint.”

“Horses!” I yelled. “Horses” is our own unit’s army slang for two tzaddikim who go in front of someone having trouble, who in turn grabs onto their shirts and is helped in the climb. The two righteous volunteers appeared like Elijahs the Prophets.

At 3, the climb was tortuous. More and more guys started lagging behind. I knew: This is it; it’s time for candy. I pulled out milk chocolate and dark chocolate and exploding chocolate and jelly beans and peanuts and raisins and craisins and ran around shoving it into people’s mouths. I did not ask their permission. I just shoved it in their mouths. And they were grateful. Not a person refused. “Todah!” “Thanks!” “Just what I needed!” “A godsend!” “An angel!”

At 4, we could see the top, the peak of our mountain. “That’s it!” I yelled in a whisper. “We’re going to make it! Come on, guys, push! We’re almost finished!” We had to reach the peak by 5, which was first light. The last five minutes were spent running. “I can’t take it any longer!” “I can’t go on!” “My chest hurts!”

“You must go on! There is no choice! Another 100 meters! Yallah! It’s almost over! Come on, give everything you have!”

5am came, and we had made it! We had surprised the Syrians from above a mountain they hadn’t even dreamed we’d get to! Last whispers and plans before opening fire. “Green light!” came the message over the radio. BOOM! A tremendous explosion, and suddenly, we descended upon them with everything we had. After heavy fighting, we had taken the mountaintops and Syrian headquarters! Mt. Hermon was again in our hands! And when it was over and the cardboard enemy had been destroyed, the Jews stood atop their mountain, looking down upon the Promised Land. We could see four countries, the desert and even the ocean! (I thought of Moses and his last view) As the sun rose, a cold wind blew hard into our filthy faces, and a special internal light was beaming inside of us all. We had done it. We had been pushed to our limits, and we had succeeded. And best of all, the only long-term casualties were made out of cardboard.

The real victory was made not by overcoming our enemies. It was made by overcoming ourselves.

Kol Tuv,

Michael

(This issue of Not Kansas was originally published by Livnot in 1998)