In 1972 I was part of a group of young internationals who travelled to Israel to help defend our land and our people. Communication was rough; we were from South Africa, Britain, Australia, Poland, Argentina, America, France and Russia, and most of us could hardly speak or read Hebrew.

The IDF (Israeli Defense Force) designated me a Nahal soldier – a sort of part pioneer and part fighter farmer. Our base was located halfway between the yellow-bricked, fly-infested Egyptian town of El-Arish and the Suez Canal.

We tramped through sand and desert scrub, looking for any signs of landmines or intruders. I liked to be assigned to the watchtower. No one would bother me up there and I loved to look at the mountains and wonder which one was Mt. Sinai.

For the most part it was blessedly quiet. Our biggest excitement involved a Phantom jet roaring 100 feet above us heading to the Canal.

Our abode in the Sinai Desert.
Our abode in the Sinai Desert.

During basic training I obtained a small prayer shawl, tallit, and a prayer book in Hebrew and English. On Shabbat I would go off on my own to pray.

I wanted a set of tefillin, the black ritual boxes (containing the holy shema prayer) donned on weekdays. , the black ritual boxes donned on weekdays. I wanted to feel the binding on my arm and the weight of the tefillin on my head. I wanted to be reminded that G‑d is above me. But at Nahal Yam there were no tefillin.

Once in a while the Corporal would choose a soldier for regular patrol. That soldier carried the heavy field radio strapped to his back as well as his own rifle.

One day it was my turn.

As we trudged, we sweated and we talked. The Corporal led the way.

We stopped to rest on a sand dune, miles away from anything or anyone. Right there we saw a hollow metal tube, very strangely out of place. Where had it come from? Who put it there? We had no idea. But for me that tube was an absolutely wonderful place to rest.

As we rested, I asked the Corporal if he could contact someone to help me get a set of tefillin. He looked at me as if I had fallen off planet Mars. Whatever it was about tefillin that set him off, I still don’t know, but within a minute he was calling me every vicious name he could come up with.

So I did what I always did when I did not want to hear anymore. I turned off the Hebrew translator.

The booklet I found.
The booklet I found.

As I stood next to the pole, I happened to look inside the top of the hollowed out tube. I thought I saw something. The Corporal was still screaming at me as I reached inside and pulled out a tightly rolled booklet of light green papers.

I looked at it. I handed it to my enraged superior.

The pamphlet was titled “The Meaning and Significance of Tefillin,” published by Chabad in Israel.

The Corporal stopped his tirade. His face turned deathly white and he handed the pamphlet back to me. We walked back to base in silence.

Which Chabad guy placed the pamphlet in that pipe? Why did I look inside the tube at that exact moment? Perhaps I will never know. When I needed a little help, G‑d came through via a Chabad brochure.

I never did get my tefillin while in the IDF, but I still have that little pamphlet from nowhere. When I returned to the United States I obtained a pair of tefillin which I have been putting on daily ever since.