When a soldier goes out to war, his commander is with him. The Avner Institute presents excerpts of a powerful new biography of Moshe Levy, a corporal who lost an arm in the Yom Kippur War while defending his platoon, and whose private audience with the Rebbe revealed the Rebbe’s intense involvement with the Land of Israel, soldier and civilian alike, during those highly dramatic moments.
Between Life & Death
On 19 Tishrei 5734/1973, Corporal Moshe Levy took part in a battle that seemed hopeless, the battle for the “Budapest” outpost in the Sinai. Even after the Russian Sagger missile severed his right hand, he continued fighting and endangered his life to save the lives of other soldiers. His bravery earned him the highest military decoration given by the IDF: The Medal of Valor.
Two years later, he had yechidus, private audience. In a new powerful biography he describes his experience during the Yom Kippur war and the nearly two-hour long conversation with the Rebbe, who was told everything the soldier had been through.
It was in the month of Elul. Humid summer heat enveloped the Herzliya marina at the beachfront. I went down to the second parking level of an exclusive building to the subterranean parking area which looked, at first, like all parking lots in apartment complexes. But there, behind the iron door that opened for me, I stood astounded by a row of sixty valuable collector item cars, gleaming, along the length of the long basement. A red carpet went from end to end and on the walls were thousands of bottles of wine.
I walked the length of the red carpet at the end of which was a desk made of wood carvings from exclusive and expensive woods. Behind the desk sat a man, 70 plus years old, who despite his age was solidly built and radiated vitality. I raised my right hand to shake his hand but he held out his left. From the shoulder on down, his right hand is missing. His Hebrew sounded different, irregular; you could tell that he spent many years abroad.
This was Mr. Moshe Levy, the person with whom I would be spending the next two hours.
Moshe Levy relates:
A month and a half before the war, I broke my kneecap in a road accident. At that time, my unit was in the Reserves, but they did not call me since they knew I had a cast. The cast was removed on Rosh Hashana. On Yom Kippur, while I was in shul, I saw everyone getting their call-up orders. I decided I would also join, while still limping, even though I had not received an order. I took my car and drove to the Julis base.
Zev Littman, the battalion commander of unit 11 of the Yiftach brigade, assigned me to take command of a half-track, and that evening I joined a convoy of armored personnel carriers (APC) to the southern front.
On the way, the half-track that I was traveling in got stuck and the troop decided to continue and leave me and my crew behind. They left, and nobody stopped to help us. I stood in the middle of the highway and said that until they fixed my armored vehicle, I wasn’t letting anyone pass.
I felt I was missing the war. Finally, another armored vehicle pulled us out and we continued and joined up with the others.
In the morning, we reached the area beyond El-Arish. Seeing destroyed tanks and wounded soldiers, we could not understand what kind of crazy story we were going into. I found the sights to be especially horrific because the Six Day War was a picnic for me and suddenly I was seeing that this war was very unlike that one.
We advanced toward the Canal and reached the Beloza area, where we set up camp.
The situation was bad. We started carrying out raids on the Egyptian commando forces and on the first day, eight of us were killed.
The only stronghold on the Canal that was not conquered by the Egyptians was Motzav Budapest. The night between 18 and 19 Tishrei, Egyptian commando units sallied forth from the sea in order to conquer it. At six in the morning, a force with two supply trucks headed towards Budapest and fell into an Egyptian ambush. All the guys were killed.
Then they called the engineering unit known then as ‘Ko’ach Sasson’ to clear out the ambush. They thought it was a small ambush, but it turned out it wasn’t all that small. They took very heavy fire and many guys were killed. At this point, they asked us to come and said, “There are 30 commandos here; go and smash them.” We were 98 soldiers and we thought, “Fine, what’s 30 commandos?”
When we got there, we entered their sightline and they opened fire on us. In the first volley we had two-three people hit in each vehicle. The APC that I commanded took a hit in the tank tread and we could not continue moving. The driver told me, “Moshe, I can’t move.”
The Egyptians shot hell-fire down on us. You heard the bullets on the sides of the carrier. I immediately ordered one of the soldiers to get up and open fire so we could get out and attack.
The soldier knew that whoever got up, would die. He yelled, “Moshe, I’m not getting up. If I do, I’ll get killed!”
I looked at Shimshon Zaken a”h and said, “Shimshon, I am getting up and opening fire. I don’t know how long I will last, but you press the attack with the soldiers against the ambush.”
The only possibility I had was to raise my right arm, grab the magazine and fire with it even before I got up. I thought it would be my only chance to stop the Egyptian shooting. As I raised my arm to take hold of the magazine, a Sagger missile flew by and cut it off with one of its wings. My arm fell and the Sagger continued on its way.
Suddenly Without an Arm
It was suddenly silent. I looked and saw I had no arm. All the guys were pale. Then I coolly said, “One missile hit the tread, a second missile passed overhead, and in another minute we will take a missile hit in the middle.” It was simple thinking. I took my Uzi in my left hand, jumped up and shouted, “After me!”
Whoever jumped after me got a bullet. After about a minute, another missile hit the carrier and four guys who could not get out, were killed. I looked at the half-track and saw the dead. It is hard to see people that you know, whom you know what they like to eat for breakfast, whose families you know, in such a state. Very hard.
I had seven wounded guys. As for me, a bullet in my leg, two in my stomach, and blood continued to flow freely from my severed arm. I knew I had no chance of remaining alive and it was a matter of three to five minutes before I would die. I looked at the guys and knew that if someone came from the Egyptian position, he would shoot them like ducks in a shooting gallery.
I decided I would eliminate the Egyptian position at the far end that threatened us. I took my Uzi and tried to rack it into firing mode with my remaining left hand.
Fortunately, or extremely fortunately, the Uzi did not cooperate. So I threw aside the Uzi, took out a grenade and opened the safety catch with my teeth, thus breaking all my front teeth together with the safety catch.
At that moment, nothing hurt me. I had a goal and I moved toward it. The pain was tremendous but the anger and desire to save my buddies were the most important things.
I took the grenade and began moving toward the Egyptian position. My arm was shredded, and blood continued to flow and my uniform was soaked with blood.
Suddenly, the Egyptians stopped shooting. They looked at me and saw I was minus a right hand. That distracted them from seeing that my left hand grasped a grenade. I guess they thought I was coming to turn myself in or surrender. The truth is that my goal was to take the grenade, jump into their position, and explode together with them. There was no chance I would remain alive anyway; blood was flowing and nothing was stopping it. How long could I continue like that?
When people say, “I saw stars,” people think it’s a joke, but it isn’t. I saw stars. Suddenly everything began to go dark, and I saw sparkling lights in front of my eyes. I realized I was going to lose consciousness, which meant I would explode along with my grenade and the Egyptians would continue killing my buddies. In that moment, I simply lifted the safety catch and threw the grenade toward their position. I was five meters (about 16 feet) away and could look the Egyptian soldiers in the eye. They stood and stared at me.
The grenade reached the air above their position and then exploded. If it had landed, it might have killed two or three of them. This way, in the air, it killed them all, eight enemy soldiers. But the blast and some of the shrapnel hit me too. I was hit in the face, hands and foot and I fell. I was totally covered in blood. Still, I suddenly had such a great feeling, a feeling of “we won.” It was a feeling of satisfaction. If someone had photographed me, maybe they would have seen me grinning.
Till the Last Moment
I returned to my friends and they looked at me and said I looked like a pile of blood. I said, “Wait, I’m going to get help.”
As I stepped forward to see what was happening with the rescue mission, another Egyptian position shot a bullet directly at my back, a bullet that is still there today. I still continued onward.
At this point, two Zeldas came loaded with paratroopers. On one Zelda they said, “Come, let’s evacuate you,” but I explained that until they evacuated all my soldiers, I wasn’t going to evacuate.
One paratrooper said, “You’ll die.”
I said, “Could be, but first take out my soldiers.”
One Zelda approached to make the extraction and took a hit from a missile. This was followed by a second Zelda that extricated the soldiers.
Then came an APC to take me on a stretcher. I was fully conscious the entire time. I said maybe they needed the stretcher for someone else.
I decided to sit next to the driver. With the last of my strength, I opened the driver’s door, sat next to him and we drove to the battalion aid station, a kilometer and a half from there.
When we arrived, I remember approaching the doctor so he could treat me, but he literally backed away. I looked frightening. Afterward, he said that all he saw were two blue eyes and a pile of blood.
Worth Fighting For
During the battle at the Canal, Moshe Levy lost three and a half liters of blood. Put plainly, he was on his way to another world. He was transferred to Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem, where he was transfused with 35 units of blood! In the following months, he underwent a series of difficult operations until he recovered.
Levy says that his trip to Hadassah hospital led to a beautiful encounter.
In the ambulance were a 14-year-old boy and girl who volunteered for Magen David Adom and they made sure it wouldn’t be painful for me as we went.
After I was operated on and miraculously survived, I was told by the nurses that I had a guest. A 14-year-old came in with a box of chocolates to the room and said, “I was with you in the ambulance and it’s very important to me to know that you are okay.”
I looked at him and said, “You know what? For kids like you it’s worth fighting for.”
As if He were in Battle
Moshe Levy spent nine months of intensive rehab at Hadassah hospital until he recovered from all his injuries. Then it was time to return to society, and upon his doctors’ advice, he went to the U.S. to be fitted with an artificial arm, since at that time, the field of prosthetic devices in Eretz Yisroel wasn’t as developed.
In the U.S. he had one of the most dramatic encounters of his life.
It was 5735 (1975) when one night, I got a call from Mr. Yossi Chechanover, the director-general of the Defense Ministry at the time.
He said, “The Lubavitcher Rebbe heard about you and wants to meet you.” Due to his position, Chechanover knew I was staying at New York University’s military hospital.
I am ashamed to say that until then, I was not at all aware of the persona of the Rebbe, so I told Chechanover that I had no time to meet with him.
Chechanover began to laugh. “Moshe, people from all over the world come to meet with the Rebbe and you don’t have time? You have to meet with him!”
“Okay,” I said. “When?”
“Go to Chabad headquarters tonight at 11:30 and the Rebbe will meet with you at midnight.”
“Eleven-thirty at night? They don’t sleep?”
“Moshe, once you’ve been there, you’ll understand.”
I arrived at 770 at 11:30 and a group of Chassidim gathered around me, wanting to know who I was and what I wanted with the Rebbe. The truth? I didn’t know what they wanted from me. At midnight, the Rebbe’s secretary came and brought me into the Rebbe’s room.
The first thing I noticed was that the room was not large. A wide desk and lots of books and a cup of water were on the desk. Facing the Rebbe, on the other side of the desk, was a chair.
The Rebbe looked at me and I tried to return his gaze, but I couldn’t. His eyes were so luminous… I looked down.
I can tell you that in my life I have met prime ministers, presidents of countries, and never had difficulty looking into their eyes. At that moment, I realized that I was facing a most unique personality.
The Rebbe began to ask me about the war and I told him my story. I remember that he spoke to me as though he himself was in the battle with me.
Strong Question/Gentle Answer
At a certain point, I said, “Rebbe, I will tell you my story and I want you to give me an answer that satisfies me.” This is what I said:
In our unit of 98 soldiers, only one was religious and his name was Eliasaf Zandani, from Moshav Yinon. It was the Shabbos after Yom Kippur when we anticipated a major attack by the Egyptian armored forces. The Chief of Staff came to our unit and said to me, “Moshe, you need to form a line of defense. You should know that there is nobody behind you to stop the Egyptian tanks all the way until Tel Aviv.”
Morale was low. I remember that I led the way, in order to serve as an example to the soldiers, with one sergeant at my side. All the rest of the soldiers hunkered down. It was quiet.
It was eleven-thirty. One of the soldiers in the back, Avner was his name (he was killed during the war) said, “Moshe, how will we stop the Egyptian tanks with our rockets? Perhaps we will manage to scrape some of the paint off their tanks.”
While I wondered what to say in response, Eliasaf Zandani took a Sefer Tehillim, Book of Psalms, raised it high, and said, “Friends, we will stop the Egyptians with this!”
They all stared at him in astonishment. It was hot and our helmets were on the ground.
Eliasaf opened the book and began to read. I saw all the soldiers pick up their helmets, place them on their heads, and in all ignorance say, “Amen.” They didn’t know you don’t say “amen” for Psalms.
At that inspiring moment, I said to the sergeant next to me, “If I remain alive, I vow that I will put on tefillin every day of my life because I feel very close to G-d now.”
Hearing this nice story is one thing; experiencing it is another thing entirely.
I stopped Zandani for a moment, rose from the trenches and said to the soldiers, “Listen to me for a minute. When Avner asked me how we will stop the tanks, I didn’t know what to say to him, but Zandani gave us the answer. You should know that we are not standing here to defend Tel Aviv; we are here to protect thousands of years of history! We are here to defend the past, the present and the future of our people!”
At this point, the Egyptians began to approach and started shooting at us. Zandani read Tehillim and we blew up many tanks with our pathetic little rockets. The rest of the Egyptian tanks turned around and withdrew. Zandani was killed.
I told all of this to the Rebbe, and I said in real pain, “Rebbe, the one who returned us to our roots in that moment and caused us all to believe in G-d, and we all put our faith in Him, was Zandani. Why did G-d take him of all people? Why was he killed? Why did I, who vowed to put on tefillin my entire life, lose my right arm?”
The Rebbe gazed at me with his piercing eyes. Even at that point, after more than an hour of talking, I still could not look straight into his eyes. I tried to force myself to look, but it was impossible. Each time I tried, I failed and had to lower my eyes.
The Rebbe said, “You said you were all heretics.”
“Right,” I said.
The Rebbe said, “Zandani sacrificed his life for you. It makes no sense that 98 soldiers managed to fight and defeat 120 tanks. You all should have died. But Zandani, by reading from his Tehillim, raised you all to a level of holiness and he sacrificed his life for your success.”
The Rebbe continued, “Who knows? Maybe you were also meant to be killed, but the moment you made your vow, you created a bond with G-d and this is what miraculously saved your life.”
Before my meeting with the Rebbe, I met many types of rabbis. During the months we were hospitalized, many rabbis came to visit us. This question bothered me the entire time, but nobody had an answer that satisfied me. The Rebbe had an answer that for me was a good one; it was a very real explanation for the situation we were in.
I remember that at that time, I had no self-confidence because I was left with one arm. I had been a righty and that was the arm that I lost. I took the opportunity and asked the Rebbe, “Rebbe, will I be set up in life? Will I be successful?”
The Rebbe looked at me and said, “You will be very successful.”
Needless to say, the Rebbe was right about this too.
Knowing Every Detail
During our conversation, I was impressed that the Rebbe knew every detail of the Yom Kippur War; the events that preceded it, how the attack occurred, what happened on the first day and the second day, and so on. I was amazed. The Rebbe spoke about the reason for the outbreak of the war, how the Israeli government called up its reserves twice and by the third time, it no longer believed that war would break out.
I remember how he said, “It was a very big mistake on the part of Sadat to attack on Yom Kippur, the holiest day for the Jewish people. First, the Egyptian army was punished for not allowing Jews to pray on Yom Kippur because they were forced to mobilize for the army. In addition, all the roads were open because of the fast day and prayers so the soldiers were able to reach the front much faster.” There was much logic to what the Rebbe said.
The Rebbe did not speak to me as a rabbi. For the most part, rabbis preach, but he was very intelligent. He spoke like an army commander, like a person with a doctorate in the strategy of war. He described what occurred, how it happened, as though he was there, without missing a detail, including my battle. I remember that he corrected me in certain details and it made me feel as though he was with me at the time. He also knew the smallest details, even those which I myself, who was there, did not know exactly. His knowledge was absolutely accurate; where each force was stationed and where the divisions were located.
He was not pleased by our not continuing to Cairo and Damascus to conquer them. That would have sent a message to the world, showing that we have the power to wield control, even if for one day, over the capital cities of the enemy. It would have shown everyone how powerful our army is. He maintained that our holding on to parts of the land would place us in a better position in negotiations, and only a resolute stance would bring peace. Every time we make concessions, it drags along another capitulation and another one and there is no end to it.
We see today, in hindsight, how right he was. The more we gave, the more they wanted. I felt that talking about this caused him much anguish.
The entire conversation was very sensitive for me. When we spoke about my personal story, the Rebbe spoke gently, softly, slowly. But when the topic changed to giving away land, suddenly his voice was very determined and he spoke forcefully.
You could easily discern the difference between the personal, sensitive conversation and what he said as a leader. When he needed to speak as a leader, he spoke with firmness and resoluteness. He did not like the fact that the government sought permission from Washington for what it did. He said, “It is our land, promised to us by G-d, and we do not need permission from anyone to be there.”
Although I sat comfortably throughout our meeting, I felt like I was hovering above the ground. I was in another world. Everything was just so simple in this room, but so intense.
I had been previously at the Pentagon on a visit to the Deputy Secretary of Defense; there I encountered impressive military ceremony: flags, soldiers, guns, pictures of admirals and generals with all their medals and ribbons on their chests. It’s all meant to impress, but I wasn’t impressed. It was when I entered the Rebbe’s room and saw the simplicity with which he lived, a desk and a cup of water … I remember that I continued to think about this for many years … For me, it was a very powerful experience.
The conversation was not paused by me nor by the Rebbe; just occasionally, when a secretary came in. It was an hour and forty-five minutes that passed like five minutes. Since then, I have not had a feeling like that. When I got up and tried to leave, I wasn’t able to find the way out; this, despite the room having only one door! I was overwhelmed and blinded by this experience.
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