The sun slowly creeps up from behind the canyon. It’s a comforting sight on this frigid desert morning — bringing the promise of warmth. I see everyone struggling to hide the shared expression of relief. We all feel a minor victory for making it through the night, but our march isn’t over, by any means. It’s cold and I want to stop, but my feet won’t let me. Every little pebble in the rough desert sand is a dagger stabbing through my army boots. We all feel it but nobody says anything, probably because we’re not allowed to talk; but I like to think it’s because we’re stronger than that, so I keep moving.
The first rays shining down on the desert give the land a heavenly look. It must be delirium playing a sick joke, because there is nothing divine at this moment. No one ever told me this would be fun, and there was a reason for that. The icy desert air stings my lungs with every deep breath. In my right hand my fingers remain numb, molded to my M16.
Five and a half hours have passed since we started; my left hand still powerfully grips my Israeli flag. Nineteen kilometers are behind me, but the longest, grueling kilometer is still ahead. I urge myself to keep walking, keep walking. I tell myself I’m almost there. Don’t stop, I encourage myself. At six o’clock the sun is up, and strangely I feel alive. The desert is awakening. I’m almost there. The guard opens the gates: on “shalosh” (three) we run full speed. On shalosh we scream “KAVOD!” (respect). Ehad. Shteim. Shalosh! We run. We scream. We make it.
The best way to understand a culture is through shared experience; so, I began my trip to Israel with simulated basic training with the Israeli Defense Force. Everyone said “it is what you make of it,” so I did my best to make it the real thing; living how a real soldier lives, eating what they eat, acting how they act. I volunteered for everything. They needed someone for guard duty? I was suited up and ready to go. Kitchen Duty? My hand was reluctantly raised, but raised nonetheless.
Nine long, hard weeks finally came to an end with a surprise twenty kilometer march through the desert. At 11:30 at night, all one-hundred and twenty of us were woken up to yelling and screaming from our commanders who were running in and out of our tents. After being allowed seven minutes to suit up, each of us stood bewildered and disoriented in formation in front of our sub-base camp. One by one, a handful of the best soldiers were recognized for their hard work and volunteering by receiving the honor of carrying awkwardly sized stretchers, heavy radios or leaking jerry cans on our march. I had finally come to terms with the fact that I would remain unnoticed, when my name was called. And it wasn’t called for just anything, but for the highest honor of carrying the Israeli flag! I proudly took the massive flag in my hand and I was suddenly more awake and eager at midnight than I had been for the past nine weeks. We formed two lines to leave the base; one line was led by none other than myself and the Israeli flag waving admirably in the icy desert breeze.
Six exhausting hours later we found ourselves back at the gates of the base. My flag was still waving brilliantly above all our heads, and on the horizon was the most vibrant sunrise I had ever seen in my humble 19 years. There was nothing more exhilarating than sprinting through the gates of our base after our final twenty kilometer march through the desert; I felt an undeniable surge of pure joy from our success. And in that second I understood. I had conquered the Negev, I had experienced her beauty, and I had felt a connection with her land. In that moment I created a powerful bond with Eretz Israel, the Land of Israel.
Basic training tore me down and rebuilt me as a new person; in my weak physical and emotional state I recognized my limits and exceeded far beyond them. I felt a sense of euphoria from the success of completing the march. That moment marked much more than the conclusion of basic training; it also redefined the six months ahead of me in Israel. I entered the country as a tourist observing a new culture; through this shared experience I was accepted as a genuine part of the people I was now living amongst.
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