Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

19 Shevat 5764 - February 11, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Staying Jewish: The Heroic Story of HaRav Yitzchok Zilber's Life Under Atheist-Communist Rule

by Yisroel Friedman

As the afternoon sun beat down on Beit Chilkiya and a pleasant late-summer breeze blew through the houses, R' Nir Malchi gazed toward an unknown place and said, "I'm not fighting for my life. I'm fighting to live my life . . . "

We sit on patio chairs in the backyard of a house surrounded by green grass. Little Arab banana trees and cypress trees are planted and waiting to grow. The moshav is quiet. The sound of birds chirping can be heard even in the middle of the day and thoughts, too, seem almost audible--optimistic thoughts and slightly disturbing thoughts alike.

The tense silence stops you like a red light. Don't touch here. But Nir wanted to talk for spiritual reasons alone, based on the benefit he stood to gain. In his very intelligent way of speaking and with his profound thought he floods light on the subject, extracting light from the dark -- resolute conclusions drawn from the laboratory of life.

We first met in Munich. Until then I knew only his name. HaRav Gavriel Kosover, who knew Nir inside and out, arranged for us to speak with one another. Nir was in Germany to receive special medical treatments and he joined our group temporarily to spend Shabbos and pray among chareidi Jews. Our first conversation was held that motzei Shabbos at a table outside under the night sky. "And we'll continue in Israel, if you're willing . . . "

He agreed and on the afternoon of this past Rosh Chodesh Elul we arranged a conversation that extended into other sessions.

Nir was once a member of the Israeli navy's 31st Flotilla, the Seaborne Commando (seaborne elite fighters), which trained in the murky waters of Kishon Harbor, whose pollutants took a heavy toll. Years later R' Nir turned out to be among their victims.

When I sat down in his backyard he suddenly pointed out a weeping willow tree standing in the middle of the lawn. Its trunk was thick and sturdy, its leafy branches spreading out to the sides like so many arms, falling as willows do, in surrender, in humility. "See that tree? The weeping willow? It's like a Jew! Its branches fall, its leaves slant downward, submissive like a willow. But its trunk is thick and strong. Like a Jew."

"Who is he thinking of?" I wondered to myself.

This interview has been put in almost unedited. The words were written with repetitions and remarks reiterated for emphasis. To make them properly understood they had to be written not in ink, but in blood pumped straight from the heart.


Nir, are you fighting?

I'm always fighting. Man's life is a constant struggle. In essence there is no difference between me and other people. Does anyone know what tomorrow will bring? Unfortunately nobody knows what tomorrow holds in store. How many incidents all around us tear at the heart, Rachmono litzlan? How many times does it happen with no advance notice? Only when a person pushes it off, doesn't want to think about it, refuses to see. Simply because of my medical condition I am more aware, more in tune.

And it's not an easy fight . . .

HaKodosh Boruch Hu does not send a person a trial unless he can deal with it. I not only know this, not only understand this, but I also feel it. Recently I spoke with a friend who told me about his problems. It seems a bit strange that I, with my health, should be struck by problems of this sort, but when I thought about it, it seemed to me that if I had had to cope with those problems I wouldn't have managed, I wouldn't have been able to overcome . . .

With Hashem's help and through His kindness hopefully you will recover soon. But in today's circumstances, at the height of your illness, do you have a feeling of temporality, transience, a feeling other people lack?

I have met a lot of people in circumstances similar to mine. With this illness almost nothing is visible on the outside. There are no indications of dying. It can happen one day and that's it. The feeling is mostly in the head, in the consciousness, not in the body. The doctors assess and make a prognosis. And as time goes by, from day to day it could happen [anytime]. From now on it could be any day.

Some people we know live in total temporality, as if they had abandoned life. Others fall into a sort of fogginess, repression, psychological defenses to ward off the truth. Neither approach is right.

I am well aware of the disease and the situation -- and of the fact that the doctors are wrong. Through HaKodosh Boruch Hu's kindness I am here, long after their prognosis predicted.

I am not repressing anything. I'm not sinking and I'm not repressing! But this is what every person must feel, even a healthy person: Shuv yom echad lifnei misosecho venimtzo kol yomov beteshuvoh. Unfortunately it happens all the time, but it's human nature that a person does not want to think about it and therefore his time is lost.

I always live with the feeling that the sickness has a completely positive side: the reminder! The reminder is clear to me. Completely. And then everything changes -- tefilloh, brochos, Tehillim -- and time becomes planned like a second hand, so one has a chance to utilize it all.


I remain silent. The stillness in the heart between beats, this stillness is mine. In such a struggle there are no partners. A lone man walks up to the lookout point and discovers emek habocho below him. Then he sees things that only become clear from a high mountaintop, during an instant when time stands still. The expression of R' Nir's face in the afternoon light burns with a tremendous warmth as he explains that he has led a long and full life.


And what was the most important decision or step in your life?

The most important decision, of course, was to do teshuvoh. After all this is the [most fulfilling deed] in life, to save my life and imprint it upon the future and the generations to come. And ever since then I have been solely involved in carrying out the plan: drawing closer to Hashem, striving to be a complete person. The decision was a long time ago but the execution never ends, it continues for a lifetime. All of life is return.

And now you're fighting for your life?

I'm not fighting for my life; I'm fighting to live my life. A person must set his goal and then strive to attain it. What's important is how you proceed and not when you arrive. If you have to study, that means you have to study -- not that you have to know. Our obligation is to study, knowing is the result. If you study, you will know!

I am fighting to live my life, to do what is incumbent on me under the existing circumstances. One must know there is a Mishnah laid out for every moment and every situation. . . When one is born, it is as if an hourglass is turned over and all of the sand is enough for x years. When the sand runs out he has to "turn in the keys and go upstairs."

Not a single moment more remains. This will happen when the sand runs out, even if he is perfectly healthy, and it won't happen even if he is sick, chas vesholom, if the sand hasn't run out! A man's years on earth are determined precisely. True, one might suppose fatal diseases are sent to people whose hourglasses are running low, but this may not be the case at all. The doctors make their prognosis and the fact is [sometimes] they make mistakes . . . Therefore my war is not for my life, but how to live life.

B'ezras Hashem, Rofei Cholei Amo Yisroel will send you healing powers in the near future along with all other sick Jews. Has life acquired a different meaning against the background of the palpable threat of what the future holds in store?

Definitely. You sever yourself from the details, from the finer points. Therefore it is easier not to grow angry, easier to lose money. Because everything is gauged with an overall perspective, a broader, more detached and deeper outlook. A large fear always eliminates smaller fears. Everybody should really act and think like this. But sometimes one fails to understand the value of life until he has to fight for it.


My conversation with Nir Zaltzman (Hebraicized to Malchi) touches exposed nerves. From time to time he remains silent, wrapped in thought. Characteristic moments of silence. They appear slowly, as when processing paper is dipped into darkroom solution and the various vague images gradually merge together to form a complete picture. His words gradually become clearer, meld together. I know I will fail in the writing task for the story must be heard from his mouth alone, in his words, with his pain, with the tremendous power flowing out from him.

I try to return to the period when the fighters did not know their rosy world was really a black sea, a polluted river that carried the stench of tragedy along its banks. This was a model of obtuseness, for there had been warnings in the military establishment. When the sea of suffering began to rise and incidents began to float to the surface the matter was soon hidden behind battle smoke. The big questions were left unaddressed as the terrible thing began to eat at the fighters from within and the angry river mixed into the brew of their lives. Since then Nir has been fighting.

In my background research on R' Nir I came across a little- known episode in his life that indicates this is not the first time he has had to confront a precarious situation. He has looked danger in the eye and come through in one piece.

Although Nir Malchi received a citation for the incident I was told he would not breathe a word about the incident even if I laid the details out before him. The members of the Commando Yami, called "the men of silence," have an unbreakable code which Nir honors to this day. Likewise I will honor the need for discretion by altering the details of the story.

The operation, designed to rout out a terrorist den, was planned in collaboration with the Phalangists in Lebanon.

The mission was to take place in an area crawling with terrorists in the mountains of Lebanon. He and his unit went to Lebanon in a small motorboat and after an arduous march they assembled alongside a fence surrounding an encampment with a single structure built of stone. Some 40 terrorists were at the site. Two-and-a-half minutes after the order to storm, the place had been overtaken and purged.

On the return march they came under sniper fire. The others continued to move ahead while Nir went to take care of the problem. The shots were being fired by a sentry, at a base whose existence had been unknown and that contained hundreds of armed terrorists. A difficult battle broke out. Nir was alone. When his ammunition was depleted he picked up several guns belonging to dead terrorists and began to fire as many shots as possible to make the enemy think a large number of attackers were present. He remained alone, to allow his buddies to escape.

During these harrowing moments he witnessed open miracles. When he raised his arm to fire he felt a burst of bullets whiz past right where his arm had been a second earlier. He had a sensation that he knew, inexplicably, when to lie flat, when to assume a firing position, where to run, when to duck for cover. He realized he was hitting his targets without aiming. Every time his ammunition ran out he picked up another abandoned gun and went on. A grenade landed right near him, exploding the butt of the rifle he was carrying without harming him.

In one instance he found himself facing off against a terrorist with his gun drawn. Nir's gun was drawn, too, but when he tried to shoot it was out of ammunition. The Arab pulled the trigger of his gun, but it jammed. A miracle. A gift of life. The feeling refused to go away. And then he managed to leap upon a gun lying on the ground. His adversary did the same, but Nir was a split second faster.

He kept running and stumbled. As he fell a round of shots whizzed by where he would have been had he not fallen. Etzba Elokim.

When he eventually made his way home in one piece he couldn't stop asking himself what had taken place. The questions that had already nagged at him in the past began to eat at him even more. He also asked about the intelligence blunder. Could it be that the existence of such a base was unknown?

Questions continued to plague him, but he never received an answer. He did receive a citation for his performance in the mission.

When I lay the facts out before him, Nir takes a sip of water. I know that experience gave him a big push in deciding how he would lead his life and eventually led him to the spiritual ladder he is now climbing. He makes no reply. I press him further, asking, "Do those moments during which you stared death in the face carry any implications for how you cope today?" He insists on changing the subject, after a few short remarks, which I have interpreted.

All of life is essentially a battle from the outset. We are constantly fighting against ourselves, fighting to do the best we can and fighting against a hostile environment. Every step we take, every victory, brings us to a new confrontation. Gradually we must progress and win the next contest. A confrontation in which one stares death in the face definitely hones one's ability to confront other difficult situations, provides the right perspective and helps one come to the right decisions in life.

"When a person examines his prognosis and hears doctors say modern medicine has no solution to offer, he must continue to fight and win. The fact is that contrary to every professional opinion we are sitting here talking and I have plans to finish all of the Shas, Bavli and Yerushalmi, and to start from the beginning.

"I don't want to know. And when I received the doctors' prognosis I went to HaRav Chaim Kanievsky shlita. He added onto my name, making it Yechiel Nir and told me, `Do you want to believe the doctors?' and now it's a year `after the time' yet here we are talking today and I have more things I'm planning to do."

At this point, to clarify matters and to keep us from losing our sense of proportion, Yechiel Nir cites the Ramban on the verse, "Venosati Mishkoni besochachem" (Vayikra 26:11): " . . . For since Yisroel is [spiritually] whole and numerous, their affairs do not follow the natural course at all, not in their bodies and not in their Land, not as a whole and not as individuals, for Hashem will bless their bread and their water and He will remove sickness from amongst them until they do not need a doctor or to be sustained through any medical practices at all, as is written, `Ki Ani Hashem Rof'echo' (Shemos 15:26). And indeed the tzaddikim [did not rely on medical treatment] in the time of prophecy, and even if they happened to sin, thereby bringing sickness upon themselves, they would not seek physicians but prophets, as Chizkiyohu did when he fell sick (Melochim II 20:2, 20:3). It is also written, `...yet in his disease he did not seek Hashem but the physicians' (Divrei Hayomim II 16:12), and had [consulting] physicians been the practice among them, why mention the physicians? The only culpability was in not seeking Hashem . . .

"But he who seeks Hashem through a prophet should not seek physicians. And what place do physicians have in the home of one who does Hashem's will . . . ?

" . . . And Chazal said, `Ein derech bnei odom berefuos, elo shenohagu' (Brochos 60a). Were it not the practice to seek medical treatment, a person would become sick in accordance with the punishment he deserved for his sin, and would recuperate if it was Hashem's will. But their way was to seek medical treatment and Hashem left them subject to natural occurrences."


The Rambam, however, disputes this approach. In his commentary on the Mishna he writes about a medical book Chizkiyohu hid that held that one should not seek out doctors. This is a "lightheaded and faulty view," says the Rambam, for just as a hungry man is allowed to eat and in fact is obligated to eat, so too the sick man must consult a doctor, and then he must thank HaKodosh Boruch Hu for making these forms of healing part of the world He created (Pesochim 4).

Apparently this is a machlokes Rishonim. But in Michtav MeEliyohu HaRav Dessler maintains there is no dispute here, saying the matter depends on one's spiritual level. Someone at a high level indeed should not consult doctors but should turn to a prophet to search for the spiritual root that caused the illness and it must be rectified. But the Rambam says someone not at such a level who avoids consulting doctors displays "stupidity."

True, on the one hand people on our spiritual level must consult doctors. When I was sent the examination forms, HaRav Chaim Kanievsky told me to undergo the exam. Nevertheless, as I told you, when they made their medical determination and gave me a set amount of time [to live], HaRav Chaim asked, "Do you want to believe the doctors?"

Hishtadlus [should be done] as much as possible, but life is only in HaKodosh Boruch Hu's hands, in His hands alone. This has nothing to do with medicine. He allots time for every living being.


A conversation with Nir can take one to great depths and this diver knows how to navigate the depths, even under harsh conditions. The clock ticks away as the notebook pages fill up. I suggest we return to the subject of the Kishon Harbor and the beliefs Nir was instilled with in his past, both at the kibbutz where he was raised and in the Navy, beliefs that sank away before he burst forth out of the depths of anonymity.

"In the unit a debate was held over the necessity of diving in the Kishon. Even those who claimed these dives really were needed had various opinions. Was it necessary to build the unit around diving or was the goal to strengthen the members of the unit by testing the soldiers' ability to cope and function under difficult conditions? I think the debate continues to this day."

And nobody knew it was hazardous?

This kind of training takes place without safety measures. Just as in warfare there can be no allowances for [difficult] weather, other conditions are also not taken into consideration. When you confront immediate dangers there is no thinking about tomorrow. With most smokers, for example, it does no good to say to them, "Quit smoking or else you'll get sick in the future." There's nobody listening.

When the issue began to gather momentum how did the establishment react?

At first the forms that had to be filled out began to arrive and a referral to undergo tests. The truth is I didn't think it had anything to do with me. For about six months they sat in the house. But as the reverberations from the affair grew stronger it began to awaken within me. I asked HaRav Chaim Kanievsky, as I said, and after he told me to take the tests I began to fill out the forms. And suddenly, following the questions I realized I had a considerable number of the symptoms. Suddenly I felt a numbness in my lips and other symptoms, so I went to get checked.


"I went to the tests but I didn't meet those who had dived in the Kishon. It was simply a scheme to avoid taking responsibility. The total number of frogmen ever in the IDF is very low but 20,000 people were summoned for tests. I won't specify the number of frogmen for security reasons, but the huge number of people summoned made it clear beyond any doubt that the idea was simply to dilute the number of victims to an extremely small percentage, a marginal and insignificant percentage, thereby taking the affair off the agenda. The tests themselves were at a very low level as if their intention was not to find anything. Actually I only received a spoken recommendation to continue the testing. I never received a copy of the results in writing.

You were raised a kibbutznik on Chatzerim and as a member of the commando. Were you lied to? Did they pull the wool over your eyes with the Zionist myth?

Look, they really did sell us lies. They told us it was good to die and they didn't tell us it was good to live, and they didn't explain to us what truly living is.

During my youth they activated an apparatus that denied Judaism and banished it from memory. It was extremely sophisticated. They didn't say there was no such thing as Judaism. The opposite, they said, "You're a Jew." They observed the holidays, but it was a sham--"contents and meaning." They distorted the real reasons for the mitzvas with false explanations and vilified the traditional Jew as obsolete.

Because they did not turn their backs on Judaism but distorted it, it was much worse. Had they told us there was no Judaism, when we encountered it we would invariably have been captivated by it. But they did not deny, they distorted. It was simply like an inoculation--injecting weakened microbes so that when we encountered real Judaism we would be inoculated against, have resistance to it.

We began to sober up in the army when we saw what they do with the it's-good-to- die-for-our-country value, that in essence they meant, "Go die for our country"-- and the rest I'd prefer not to repeat. When I worked in flight security I saw the ministers' conduct, it was a real awakening for me. I realized it's all just words the establishment invented for its own benefit.


The difficult questions I raise for discussion tire me as well. Listening to this fascinating man leaves dry tears in your eyes, tears of silence. What a man of steel. What emunah. And he constantly says he must prepare an umbrella for the coming downpour, because life is not a Monopoly game and there is no going back to the previous square. There is no "Go Back to Start" card.

"Time presses forward so you have to be sure every moment is a moment," he says. "Every once in a while the internal fading comes in waves. There are times when it is hard to lie down and hard to sit. It takes great mental and spiritual strength. The feeling is that there is not enough time and therefore one needs to work slowly. It is impossible to get much done [during one's lifetime], therefore what you do every moment must be done with vigor and intensity. Tefilloh is tefilloh. Tehillim is Tehillim.

Nir, do you speak with HaKodosh Boruch Hu?

I feel much closer. I connect more to the tefilloh, it's clearer to me that a mitzvah must be done beshleimus in order to complete the tower. Today I do not close the gemora in the middle of a sugya, or at least I try not to. There's no such thing as running out of time, because time is liable to run out on you.

Are you afraid?

If R' Yochonon Ben Zakai asked, "Be'eizo molichim osi," if HaRav Shach was afraid and asked, "What will I come to Shomayim with?" how can you ask me if I'm afraid? I see the two paths too clearly and there is no escape.

Actually I see this whole disease as a gift, because like I said, a person's time [in This World] is determined in advance. The hourglass is running and there are no extensions. But in this case at least there is a reminder to take advantage [of every moment]...This is a tremendous gift...For me every day is like Rosh Hashana...

Nir, besiyata deShmaya you will win this battle as well. But before we conclude this stage of the conversation, what would you say to Am Yisroel and to Yated Ne'eman readers?

"Sof dovor hakol nishmoh es Ho'elokim yeroh ve'es mitzvosov shemor ki zeh kol ho'odom." Today, who better than me can tell you "ki zeh kol ho'odom?" And I mean every word. Write it down, "ki zeh kol ho'odom." This must be understood, without having to face a major blow, chas vesholom, in order to understand.

Nir, refuah shleimoh.


R' Nir Malchi (Zaltzman) has come a long way since his return to a life of Torah and mitzvas as a part of the chareidi community. His path began at Kibbutz Chatzerim and was followed by several years in the 31st Flotilla, a stint in the security forces and a journey to Japan, where he studied martial arts and later taught them. Now Nir is fighting the most important battle of his life.

He was once interviewed for the book, Siach Shavim, a compilation of conversations with young Israelis talking about roots and growth, profound and fascinating interviews edited by Rabbi Moshe Grilak. In it he recounts his awakenings before he knew anything about Yiddishkeit. In Japan he discovered he was Jewish. "This revelation stunned me because I was very far from such a strange idea. But it was a clear feeling that emerged from inside and there was no denying it."

At first Nir did not take any action. And this was not the first awakening. Upon discovering that the values he had been taught proved empty he began to challenge several fundamental beliefs. From time to time he would encounter further signals. In Japan, while studying a martial arts book he discovered that much of the thinking was taken from the world of Jewish Kabboloh. When he inquired into these matters he was told, "This is as much as we know. To find out more you'll have to search Kabboloh. We are at the peak, but it is the peak of a hill," his teachers admitted. "Judaism, however, is the high mountain whose pinnacle is out of sight. If you want to learn from us, fine, but at some point you should go study Torah." This is what they would tell all of the students.

"One of our friends there in Japan heard the great karate master, Nakiama, speak clearly on the subject. Almost all schools of karate branched off from his teachings. "Among the Jews are the highest and most effective techniques in this field. If I could I would go to study them from you [Jews], but they are beyond me and I am afraid."

For Nir this came as a dramatic wake-up call. As a martial arts student he knew that learning was something that came from within. In contrast with Western thinking, which is external, in the East practice and repetition cause inner stirring. Understanding comes through doing, and through repetition one begins to comprehend. "When a motion is not performed well they say, `This is not accurate,' without explaining further."

A yearning for Judaism burned within him and continued to perturb him in his daily affairs so that the transition to keeping mitzvas became unavoidable. "All of a sudden you realize you must do in order to understand, and the more you practice the better you understand what you're doing." Naaseh venishma.

He had an inner resistance that prevented him from making the big change and tried to escape it, but the truth closed in around him. Feeling he had no other choice Nir began studying gemora while still in Japan. With his light spiritual charge he returned to Israel, where he was referred to Yeshivat Netivot Olam.

Years later I find myself sitting with Nir Malchi on the lawn of his home in Beit Chilkiya. A pleasant breeze blows. From the spiritual pinnacle where he sits today I hear a voice of past generations issuing from his throat. I came to interview him and instead found myself listening to a lesson in mussar.


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