By Shmuel Leib Abrahamson
The summer is a particularly special time to remember one of the first Orthodox members of Israel’s most elite military unit, the Sayeret Matkal, which carries out the most secretive and spectacular missions. Emmanuel Moreno was born to an Orthodox Jewish family that made aliyah when Emmanuel was a toddler. He was considered the best soldier in that unit. As one commander said of him, “The IDF is the best army in the world, Sayeret Matkal is the best unit in the IDF, and Emmanuel Moreno was the best soldier in Sayeret Matkal. Hence, he was the best soldier in the world.”
Emmanuel was not only potentially the best uniformed soldier in the world. Emmanuel engaged in highly secret missions in enemy countries, and was said to be responsible for saving thousands of Jewish lives. As a result, and for other reasons, even his photo cannot be published, and most of his exploits remain top secret and will remain so for many decades, if not forever.
Let me then paint a picture, from what has been written and said by those who knew him. In an azkarah (memorial), Emmanuel’s rav told the audience that Emmanuel was always seen with his Mesillas Yesharim (Ramchal) and Shemiras Halashon (Chofetz Chaim), the famous ethical works, in his hand, always learning and trying to better his stellar middos. The rav disclosed that Emmanuel spent many long hours discussing with him halacha l’ma’aseh, such as hilchos kashrus and shemiras Shabbos b’seseir when on secret missions. As part of his training, he was once left in an area of Eretz Yisrael with no food, drink, or money, and told to fend for himself, without being discovered, for one week, then somehow return to base. Emmanuel returned emaciated, having fasted for days, as he decided he would not resort to stealing, even under such dire circumstances.
When called for an emergency mission on Shabbos, he always insisted on leaving his home wearing his bigdei Shabbos (special Shabbos clothes), and would not even open the window of his car despite the heat, so as to minimize chillul Shabbos and to display to his children how special Shabbos is for a Jew.
After sizing up the “anything goes” situation in his unit’s kitchen, the then “rookie” Emmanuel volunteered to clean and maintain the kitchen, and quickly made the kitchen a glatt kosher one.
He was so charismatic that every member of the unit had fond memories of him. One recalled that he volunteered to call a unit member whose wife wanted him to stay home instead of going on a vital mission. As soon as the fellow picked up the phone, Emmanuel said only a few words: “Am Yisrael needs you.” The fellow immediately replied, “I’m coming.” End of discussion.
“D,” a member of one of the elite units who knew Emmanuel, recalled that he decided to take off his yarmulke to help his career in the IDF. From across a large military base, Emmanuel somehow saw “D” without his yarmulke and within seconds was walking alongside him. “Know,” Emmanuel said, “that wearing a kippah is important. We symbolize something in these units.” “D” put his yarmulke back on, and never took it off again.
On another occasion, Emmanuel returned from a mission around midnight. His wife heard Emmanuel enter the house and into the children’s room to kiss his sleeping children, and then he suddenly disappeared. Where was he? His wife looked out the window and sure enough the light went on in the beis midrash, down the road, as Emmanuel began his daily three-hour seder of learning, only to leave early the next morning to be at his base for the next mission.
Five Seconds To Live
When Emmanuel’s wife and children were sitting shivah for him, a non-religious IDF officer came and recounted a conversation he’d had with Emmanuel just before they embarked on the helicopter that took them into the war zone, toward the end of the last Lebanon War.
The two officers were sitting and discussing all the possible eventualities that might occur during the imminent battle, and how they would respond to them. Two weeks before, a Hezbollah missile had hit an IDF helicopter and killed the five soldiers in it.
As the officer recounted the conversation:
Emmanuel asked me, “What would you do if, G‑d forbid, our helicopter is hit by a missile and you have only five seconds left to live before it explodes?”
I answered him, “I don’t know. I guess I’d be very sad and scared. I would close my eyes and wait for it all to be over as fast as possible, with the least pain.”
Emmanuel thought a moment and said: “What I would do, and that’s also what you should do, is say Shema Yisrael.”
I looked at him and said, “Okay, say Shema Yisrael, but what good does that do you? Anyway a moment later the helicopter will explode and we’ll all die.”
Then he answered with a statement that has stayed with me until now, and I believe that it will stay with me my whole life: “If a person has five seconds to live and he believes there’s still purpose to his life and is driven by the eternal consequences in the World to Come, then it means that his life has meaning. But if a person has five seconds left to live and he doesn’t understand the importance of those last five seconds, then it appears that his entire life had no meaning, because we don’t live only to fulfill our physical desires or to just have a good time. Rather, life is one stage on the way to the next.” (Source: Aish.com and family members.)
On the 25th of Av, 5766 (August 19, 2006), at the end of the Second Lebanon War, Lt.-Col. Emmanuel Yehuda Moreno fell in combat in the Baalbek Valley of Lebanon. On the holy Shabbos, Emmanuel gave up his life in the name of his people, land, and Creator; may G‑d avenge his death.
Emmanuel was a man of truth and modesty, a man of many deeds and few words, a true friend and human being, a man of faith tied to the people of Israel and Torah of Israel in all its layers and complexities.
It is said that Emmanuel was one of the greatest fighters to have emerged in our time. This greatness surely derived from the exceptional harmony he held between a life of action and deeds, and a life of spirituality.
As one of his comrades in arms put it: “You are no longer Emmanuel of the family, nor Emmanuel of Maya and the children, not even Emmanuel of the unit. From now on, as we already see from this funeral, you are Emmanuel of Klal Yisrael (all of Israel); and as such, despite your protests, you have lost the right to remain modest and humble, and, as for us, your friends, the obligation has fallen upon us to ensure that the people of Israel indeed know who you are and how great a loss your death was for the people.”
In Emmanuel’s Way
Following the fall of Emmanuel, friends and family took upon themselves the obligation to convey to the people of Israel just who was that hero who crossed our path, and not to simply tell a heroic tale, but in order for every one of us to take from the special qualities and moral compass that Emmanuel held in his dedication to the people and land of Israel and to the Creator of our world.
In addition to a memorial site, friends and family established the nonprofit organization B’darkei Emmanuel (“In Emmanuel’s Way”). It has set upon itself the obligation to convey the message of Emmanuel: “Love the people of Israel, the land of Israel, the Torah of Israel.” And “Give out of the will to give and not out of the desire to receive.” In this spirit, the organization spearheads a number of educational initiatives for the youth of Israel. The programs are multifaceted and reach out to a variety of populations—youth-at-risk, new immigrants, those returning to religion, pre-army youth, as well as those leaving the army and looking for spiritual direction.
The objective of all their activities is to connect youth to their roots and to the land of Israel, and in so doing to educate them towards a life of giving, each one in his or her way and abilities. This may be in the form of army service, studying Torah, or contributing to society through positive, social deeds.
And Youth Groups
The foundation’s Torah programs are offered by “Derech AMI,” or the Institute for Jewish Studies in Emmanuel’s honor.
Led by Emmanuel’s brother, Rabbi Shmuel Moreno, the Institute is based in Jerusalem, in the neighborhood of Nof Zion which overlooks the Temple Mount from its southern façade. There are currently ten post-army students at the Institute involved in character-building and the study of Jewish law as a way of life.
Derech Ami (“AMI’s Way”) has taken the initiative to lead a process of returning to the Torah roots of ancient Israel, the basis upon which Israeli culture is built. The deepening of these roots creates a fertile ground for the generation of creative and leadership-oriented individuals in Israeli society, driven by modesty and integrity in all aspects of social, cultural, and economic activity.
The Institute’s latest project is called “Safra Vesefya,” which assists IDF combat units by reinstating Torah scrolls that have been deemed unfit or invalidated by halacha to units and army bases in which they are needed.
Emmanuel Moreno Community Centers are geared towards the after-school youth in less developed peripheral areas of the country, and help to build the next generation of leadership via an intimate understanding of the legacy of Emmanuel as one who held in exceptional harmony the love for the people of Israel, the land of Israel, and the Torah of Israel. The program provides a framework for after-school studies as a supplement to the school day, focused on traditional Jewish studies. The objectives of the program are to impart Jewish values, develop leadership qualities amongst the youth, teach acts of kindness and assistance to others, and impart knowledge and love of Eretz Yisrael.
Another important program of the foundation is Aharai! Emmanuel (“Follow me!” in English). The “Aharai!” goal is to develop and cultivate a young leadership cadre among youth from underprivileged communities. The program aims to educate and motivate young adults to be involved in society in general, and in their communities in particular, by encouraging them to help themselves on a personal level, while being involved in the community as a whole.
To support the foundation’s activities or sponsor a program, e‑mail email@example.com or visit www.emmanuelmoreno.org. v