May 19, 2023

A Zionist message from the rainforest - opinion

By Barbara Sofer

Look carefully and you’ll see the black numbers 88 on each of the white hind wings of the Diaethria anna butterfly, also known as Anna’s eighty-eight. The coati, a member of the raccoon family, digs for food in the thick underbrush. Jaguars are reputedly hiding among the trees. In the branches above are Toco toucans with carrot-orange bills.

This is the Parana Jungle, part of the remaining Atlantic Forest in Argentina. Its main attraction, Iguazu Falls is considered one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. These glorious waterfalls, on the border of the Argentine province of Misiones and the Brazilian state of Parana, are the world’s largest, nearly twice the height and almost three times the width of Niagara Falls.

That’s the setting of this story. My husband – Gerald Schroeder – and I have extended a joint speaking engagement to see this wonder of Brazil. He’s the expert on science and the Bible, and I have been sharing the wondrous stories of modern Israel.

In Israel, we have just celebrated 75 years of statehood.

Our Brazilian hosts are vehemently pro-Israel Christians. It’s a joy to be enveloped by their love of Israel and their respect for our Jewish religious observance.

To see the waterfalls properly, one needs to visit them on both the Brazilian and Argentinian sides. Reaching the Argentinian highlight, known as Garganta del Diablo, “Devil’s Throat” (or “Devil’s Gorge”) requires a 7 km., 20-minute ride on a narrow-gauge British railway train through the Atlantic Forest. Once there, standing at the stunning acme as the waters pound down, we absorb the mist and feel the awe of this creation.

We have a local host, a young lawyer and pastor. We also have a guide whose name is Eder. He points out that his name is biblical – the Hebrew word for a “herd of sheep.” It is also the name of a Brazilian soccer star.

Exhilarated by the stirring and striking sights and sounds, I’m surprised to hear Hebrew as I settle into my seat for the return trip. A lanky young man steps over me onto our train bench and calls out to a friend in Hebrew, inviting him to join. In the homeland of Havaianas, this young man is wearing flip-flops with “Isrotel” printed on the straps.

I immediately guess that he is on his post-army trek to South America. My Hebrew greeting startles him. Soon, I introduce him to our party.

His name is Lior and he hails from Ashdod, a city with fine beaches, I say. There are many immigrants there, but he’s a 10th-generation Israeli. Lior means “my light.” He’s traveling to relax after serving his three years in a special unit of the infantry called Lotar.

“It’s hard to explain what we do,” he says, “if you’re not in the IDF.” When I look it up, I learn that Lotar is an IDF special forces unit that protects civilians and takes part in hostage rescue operations.

Lior has just started his journey, having delayed it to spend Passover with his family. He has joined fellow soldiers who left Israel earlier. One of them is now in another of the train’s cars.

Lior sits across from our local host – their knees almost touching. After about five minutes, our host says that he feels very moved to be in the presence of an Israeli soldier. He says he has a question he needs to ask: “How does it feel to know that you are defending God’s chosen people?”

Lior pauses for a moment and asks me to translate his answer. His English isn’t adequate for the nuances of what he wants to say.

“I don’t think of it exactly like that,” Lior says carefully. “I don’t think of my service as a religious act. I do it out of responsibility for my country, for Zionism. I love my country, and I feel committed to defending it. If I don’t serve, who will?”

I continue to translate to make sure Lior understands our host’s reply as he speaks of how grateful and fortunate he feels to be sitting near one of the defenders of Israel. He tells Lior how much he appreciates what he has done, and offers his logistical help if Lior and his friend need assistance any time in Brazil.

I explain to Lior that there are many Christian Brazilians like our host – supporters of Israel who value Israeli soldiers.

“I didn’t know,” Lior says. Friends and family have told him not to stress his identity as he makes his way through foreign lands.

Israeli soldiers certainly know of those who defame our country, our soldiers and our civilians. We are often so focused on our critics that we forget that so many people in the world still look toward Israel with admiration and affection.

I’M BACK home in Jerusalem, on Shabbat, in my synagogue, Shira Hadasha. When a young man – not unlike Lior– is called to the Torah, the gabbai mentions the reason for this honor: his upcoming induction into the IDF.

On the men’s side of the mechitza (partition), family and congregants surround the soldier-to-be. On the women’s side, we rush to embrace his dewy-eyed mother. Together, we serenade them with the emotive melody of a prayer from the Shabbat liturgy: Shomer Yisroel, Shomer Shearit Yisroel, V’al Yovad Yisroel, Ha’omrim, Shma Yisrael. (“O’ Guardian of Israel, guard the remnant of Israel, and suffer not Israel to perish, who say, Hear, O’ Israel”).

Maybe it’s because rockets have been falling recently on the fields and homes of Israel. Maybe it’s because on this Shabbat we are also marking the wedding of a beautiful young couple in our synagogue – students of law and computer science who have served in the IDF and are only now getting on with their lives.

Maybe I’m thinking of my husband who has served, or my children and grandchildren who are serving in the IDF and who are still doing reserve duty. Maybe I’m thinking of all the Liors out there who don’t even realize what heroes they are.

My eyes are glistening, too, as we sing our blessings to the newest defender of Israel.

Only later do I learn that this particular new soldier had to fight his way into the IDF. He has a brain tumor. He doesn’t have to serve. Nevertheless, he has insisted on contributing his own intelligence to the necessary defense of his beloved country.

As King David asked, “Who is like your people Israel?”