Yesterday morning a friend messaged me to call him ASAP. He told me he was in touch with the IDF official who was going to meet Max Steinberg’s family at the airport. Being that Max was a lone soldier, he wanted to make sure there were people at the funeral. He asked me to do something social media wise to put out the word. So I made a Facebook event and the word spread quickly. I work in social media and it’s usually exciting when posts go viral, but as the event got bigger and bigger my heart remained heavy. I also felt a certain sense of disconnection because although I honored Max as Jew, as a lone solider who deserved the highest respect, and I recognized the huge honor I had been given to provide people information, I didn’t know him.
All of that changed today at Har Herzl, Israel’s national cemetery, where Max was laid to rest. Har Herzl is beautiful. Gardens and pathways line the tombstones. I tucked my tzis-tzis in as I entered the cemetery which is the custom among religious Jews as a sign of respect for the dead. Standing in the sun with tens of thousands of other people. Standing respectfully, standing mostly in silence, waiting, for about 40 minutes, we are all there for the same reason. We also shared the space with the thousands of white Jerusalem stone tombs honoring those who had passed. I read the names of the soldier’s whose graves surrounded me, wreathes, rocks and other keepsakes showing that these soldiers had not been forgotten. There was a palpable unity among the group. It was then I began to know Max as a son of Israel. I was not standing there alone, because I was part of a ‘we’, the we that is Am Yisrael, and Max was a part of us.
As Max’s coffin was brought in and Psalm 130 was chanted I saw grown men standing close by begin to weep. I knew from reading articles that Max was from California, did Birthright, fell in love with the Holy Land and returned to Israel to do the army. Listening to Max’s family and friends speak I got to know him on a much deeper level. In many ways he embodied the archetypal qualities of the Jewish dreamer.
Max’s dream was to be the elite Golani Unit 13, he was also told by the IDF -‘No’ . According to Max’s parents Stuart and Evie, “Max started training in 2012. Even though he did not speak Hebrew, Max was committed to joining the Golani Unit 13. Max was earning recognition for his combat leadership skills. In early 2013 Max was called in for an interview with Golani. Max was told that he could not be accepted to the Golani unit due to his inadequate language skills and was asked ‘where else he would be willing to serve?’. Max told them there was no other place. When they persisted, they asked him repeatedly, he finally came to them and said ‘look, my answers the same, if it’s not Golani, it is jail or it’s home’. Max was sent home with the understanding that he could reapply upon his return in one month, to our benefit we got to spend some time with him, to Max’s credit he returned and not only got accepted to Golani, he got accepted into Golani Unit 13. Max had achieved his goal.”
I made Aliyah in 2009, I also came to Israel in my early 20’s and fell in love. I also wanted to live my ideals but slowly I lost sight of my dreams. Hearing Max’s parents tell his story, I remembered why I made aliyah, how much I loved Israel, how much being here was the dream I wanted to live and that I do not have to settle for less than what I truly wanted. This was magnified listening to Max’s brother and sister speak and Max’s connection to the musical wisdom of Bob Marley.
Max’s sister Paige opened her talk with a quote from Bob Marley. Max’s brother Jake basically weaved his talk around Bob Marley quotes. Max loved life and loved Bob Marley. What I got from this was that Max was a chiller. Something that I know about many soldiers in the IDF, they don’t want to fight, they want to protect Israel. They would rather sit with their friends and listen to Bob Marley. I also used to love Bob Marley but it had been a long time since I had really been into his music but when his brother quoted the line from Marley’s classic song Exodus, ‘open your eyes and look within, are you satisfied with the life your living?’, standing with so many people who came to honor Max, listening to how Max lived those words, in truly going for his dream, in fighting for what he loved, the depths of the question reverberated inside of me, and I felt more strength to live the life I wanted to live.
The slogan of Nefesh B’Nefesh, the organization that helps people make Aliyah is ‘live the dream’. Max’s life reminded me, is that living the dream does not mean coming to a Disneyland for Jews where everything is easy. It means coming to Israel, with all its painful imperfections, being told you can’t succeed, not giving up, and striving to build the Israel that you want to see. Max did not give up, and what we are going through collectively in this war, is not meaningless. Max died for the sake of living a dream that is still being brought down through us. That includes the dream of peace. He fought so the Jewish people could continue to give birth to that dream and work through all the imperfections that are required to make that dream a reality.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov teaches that when a person passes away, all of the potential that they have inside of them, is spiritually revealed in the world. This is why Elisha the prophet could do miracles after he was present at the passing of his teacher Eliyahu the prophet. The potential went into him. This physical loss does not mean the person disappears because their spiritual potential still ripples through the world. I think that is what happened to me today. This morning I didn’t know Max personally. Today, standing with Am Yisrael, with soldiers from the IDF, with Max’s family, I got a ‘hit’ of Max’s soul energy and my own personal dreams for the Israel I want to see, and the me I want to be were rekindled.
Jake, Max’s brother, opened and closed with a quote from Bob Marley that he said described Max’s essential qualities, “Live for yourself and you will live in vain, live for others and you will live again.” Thank you Max for living for me, I feel you inside of me, and your dream lives on.