This week, a family in Bucks County is facing the ultimate tragedy. The Levins have lost their son, Michael, a 22-year-old graduate of Council Rock High School, who was killed in Lebanon on Aug. 1 while serving with the Israel Defense Force.
The Levins are not alone in their grief. Dozens of Israeli families have also been faced with the same horrifying task of burying children cut down long before their time. The casualties from the fighting in Lebanon with Hezbollah terrorists have been heavy and may grow in the weeks to come.
Each such death — as well as the many casualties from the Hezbollah rocket attacks — are heartrending. So many precious lives have been lost that each individual story of the soldiers who have been fighting to preserve the life of the Jewish state and the Israeli civilians murdered by Hezbollah are lost amid the flood of wartime grief.
But not so Michael Levin.
Not the Usual Path
Though Levin was just one of many Israeli soldiers who were prepared to risk their lives, his particular sacrifice is bound to stand out. That's because unlike the many Israeli kids who took the normal route of going straight from high school into the army, Levin's path was anything but typical for an American teenager.
Unlike in Israel, the notion of serving in the military — any military — is simply unimaginable for many of us. Indeed, for many, if not most American Jews the mere idea of even visiting Israel, be it in times of trouble like now or even when things are a bit more peaceful, is more than they can manage.
Why is this so?
The answer isn't hard to figure out. Ours is a population raised in peace and security. It's been over 30 years since any American was conscripted to serve in the military. And given the number of exemptions and evasions available even during the Vietnam War draft, the idea of universal military service is something that we really haven't known here since World War II, a conflict that ended 61 years ago this month.
But the distance between us and that culture of national service which led so many to volunteer or to at least serve willingly when called is deeper than the mere passage of time. Contemporary American culture values personal autonomy and freedom above all else.
Baby boomers were reared on the notion that marching to Henry David Thoreau's "different drummer" was the ideal, not service to the nation. Indeed, if there is any concept that is truly alien to our culture today, it is the very notion of seeing any cause as being larger than our own personal interests.
A nation that prizes individual freedom and the right to live pretty much as we like is one that must be considered fundamentally healthy in many respects. But deep down we understand that there is also something that has been lost as traditional notions of patriotism and the value of sacrificing for our country have been shoved aside.
That's part of the reason so much has been made about the legacy of "the greatest generation," as broadcaster Tom Brokaw put it. The men and women who survived the Great Depression and then helped defeat Germany and Japan — our parents and grandparents — faced the challenges that were forced upon them and persevered.
To baby boomers and their children, the idea of putting academic or business careers on hold and being thrust into a life and death conflict against the menace of Nazism is the stuff you watch on the History Channel or view in fading pictures in old family photo albums. It is not the life or the world we know even if the contemporary challenge from Islamism is no less grave.
And given the alienation from the military itself that was engendered in so many Americans by the debacle in Vietnam, participation in the armed services has become rare.
And it is in this context that Levin's decision not only to go to Israel to live a fully Jewish life but to volunteer for a combat unit — Israel's elite paratroopers — stands out so starkly.
Though by all accounts, he was a modest young man who eschewed the status of hero, his actions spoke to an acceptance of ideas that have had little resonance for his contemporaries.
For him, it was not enough to care about the Jewish people and to recognize that being Jewish was more than an after-school option. The threats Israel faces from Islamists like those of Hamas and Hezbollah wasn't merely something for other people to face. Like so many Israelis, he was prepared to do his share.
That took not only courage, which he appears to have had in abundance, but the imagination to see beyond the spirit of his times and to understand that there are great causes, such as Zionism, that are bigger than our own personal advancement.
And so even as we mourn with the Levins, it is incumbent on the rest of us to think about Michael and what lessons we can draw from his life and death.
Many of us love Israel and worry about the threats it faces, especially the ones from the Iranian sponsors of the Hezbollah terrorists who openly boast of their desire to eradicate Israel and to massacre its people in a nuclear holocaust. Yet defending Israel — or even showing solidarity by visiting it — is, we rationalize, somebody else's job.
But Michael Levin felt it wasn't somebody else's job. The rest of us can change the television channel and pretend that the attacks on Israeli cities have nothing to do with us. He couldn't.
We know in our hearts that for Israel to live, and for freedom to survive anywhere on this planet, some will have to choose, as Michael Levin did, to fight. As a consequence some parents will wind up burying their kids as the Levins did.
That is a thought that is too bitter for many of us to contemplate. Yet Levin's sacrifice can, at the very least, remind us that the fate of Israel is something to which we cannot be mere spectators. We may not all become paratroopers but we can speak out on Israel's behalf, visit it and give as generously as we can to causes that are caring for the hundreds of thousands of Israelis displaced by the war, as well as for those wounded and maimed by the enemy.
Perhaps that is, in the end, what heroes really do. Their example points us in the direction of a higher duty than what we ordinarily think about.
The life and death of Michael Levin should remind us that the deeds of a new "greatest generation" are still well within our grasp. May his memory be for a blessing.