It started with a dream. A young Austrian with a full black beard was daring enough to set the wheels in motion for what would eventually become the Jewish State. His vision: Jewish sovereignty for the first time since the destruction of the Second Temple. He famously stated, “If you will it, it is no dream.” But his will wasn’t comparable to the will of others. In fact, I often question whether I’m worthy of applying such a statement to my own life. His will transcended all logical explanation. He refused to be deterred by rejection. He devoted his life to ensuring that there would one day be a place where no Jew felt ostracized or alien.
Perhaps it would have been more fitting for Theodor Herzl, the father of Modern Zionism and my personal hero, to have stated, “If you’re as crazy and relentless as I am, it is no dream.” Such passion, the driving force in his unyielding efforts to achieve his life’s dream, comes along only once every several years. To draw from a religious phrase, he was a true Godolei Hador, only secular.
Herzl sacrificed his personal sanity, his life’s savings, and his promising career as a journalist to set out on a far nobler, far more respectable mission. He left everything, all that he knew, in hopes that he’d find something better, something of greater meaning.
A hero in his own way, Max Steinberg embodied many of the traits that allowed Herzl to change the world. All it took was a Taglit-Birthright trip to connect Max to his ancestral homeland. Previously uninvolved and relatively uninformed, Max discovered an ineffable connection to Israel upon his first visit there. Feeling he owed his life to the force that was tasked with protecting and perpetuating the Jewish State, Max enlisted in the IDF, accepting upon himself great responsibility, and similarly great risks. Much like Herzl, he left all that he’d known, all that he was comfortable with, for a far nobler life.
It seemed only fitting that Max, someone I’d never met nor heard of before his death, was buried just a short distance away from Herzl. Max was a pioneer in his own sense, and was well deserving of the distinct honor of being laid to rest in the same vicinity as the man who made his life so meaningful.
As a Chayal Boded (Lone Soldier), it wasn’t expected that 15, let alone 30,000, people would attend Max’s funeral. His family spoke about how he had come to Israel with almost no family and friends in the country. But, with all due respect to the grieving, I can’t help but firmly disagree. Any soldier, any Jew, is a member of the extended family of Am Yisrael.
As a Lone Soldier, however, Max assumed a role of, in my opinion, greater importance than that of a traditional soldier. Max, though perhaps unaware, inspired those around him, even the 30,000 who had never spoken a word to him, by leading by example in the process of the ingathering of the exiles. He left the diaspora to come home, where his family and friends were waiting. His sacrifice will forever be appreciated, and his death will certainly not be in vain.
Though it’s difficult to imagine that there is any type of consolation that will ease the pain of Max’s friends and family, I find comfort in the fact that he died for the country he loved enough to leave his past life for. No peoples knows the importance of sacrifice like the Jewish people. As has been made clear by the outpouring of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments following the onset of Operation Protective Edge, the Jew will forever, even in the progressive world in which we currently live, need to sacrifice himself for the whole of the nation. Max made the ultimate sacrifice.
One of the persistent and tragic themes in Jewish history is unity brought by pain. Jews of all religious factions, and surely all political beliefs, gathered to honor the dead at Har Herzl on Wednesday. It’s a shame, however, that such unity is elusive in times of relative calm. Such a relationship among the opposing sectors of Judaism is certainly not the most efficient and effective form of cohesiveness.
We should not only mourn Max Steinberg’s death, but we should celebrate his life. We should celebrate the life of each and every chayal (soldier). We shouldn’t depend on tragedy to bring us together; we should be preemptively united, putting us in a better position to face those who wish to see our demise.
To see my brother and sister Jews cry for a brave young man from California whom they’d never met was truly awe-inspiring. To track the steady stream of funeral goers entering the gates of Har Herzl was mind boggling, as they seemed to never stop pouring in.
When people ask what it means to be a Jew, I’m unsure of if there’s a better response than to point them to an event like the funeral of Max Steinberg. To be a Jew is to be a member of a family in which each brother is accountable for each sister, and visa versa.
My heart is heavy with sorrow as my family members continue to die on the front lines of war. But to know that they passed while giving the ultimate sacrifice is somewhat consoling. To know that their deaths have contributed to the eternalization of the Jewish nation elicits both comfort and respect.
Max Steinberg deserves to rest for eternity beside the man who made his sacrifice possible. He deserves to be regarded as as much of a hero. He, along with anyone who defends the State of Israel from its enemies, holds a special place in olam haba (heaven).
Like Herzl, Max was crazy enough to pursue his dreams. For that, we should forever admire him.
Baruch Dayan Ha’emet.