Givati Brigade commander Col. Ofer Winter, who made the claims in an interview with the ultra-Orthodox weekly Mishpacha, met with criticism recently for rallying his troops with religious messages.
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Winter lauded the importance of yeshiva students studying Torah as beneficial for the war effort. “Especially in a time of war, when there is a strong urge to join the fighting forces, we need to emphasize that what the Jewish people need is yeshiva students who will sit and study Torah with greater strength and courage,” Winter said in the interview, which is to be published this weekend and was previewed by the website NRG on Thursday. “Learning Torah protects the Jewish people more than anything else.”
Ultra-Orthodox rabbis have called off summer vacation in their yeshivas in solidarity with the soldiers fighting in Gaza.
Winter claimed to have witnessed a miraculous occurrence, the likes of which he had never seen before during his military career.
He said that a predawn raid that was intended to make use of the dark as concealment was delayed, forcing the soldiers to move toward their objective as the sun was about to rise. The soldiers were in danger of being revealed in the light but, Winter recalled, a heavy fog descended to cover their movements until the objective was achieved.
“Suddenly a cloud protected us,” he said, make a reference to the clouds that the Bible says protected the Israelites as they wandered in the desert. “Clouds of glory.”
Only when the soldiers were in a secure position did the fog dissipate, he said.
“It really was a fulfillment of the verse ‘For the Lord your God is the one who goes with you to give you victory,’” he said, quoting a passage from Deuteronomy.
Winter also hinted at popular criticism among Israelis who accuse the government of restraining the IDF from conclusively completing its mission in Gaza. He said that morale was high among the soldiers and that they were achieving all of their objectives more easily than expected, despite suffering losses.
“I am ready, the troops are ready, they have tremendous motivation, but it doesn’t depend on us — it depends on my superiors, and mostly on the political echelon, which needs to remove the restrictions and let us work,” he said.
Winter made headlines over an official dispatch he sent to battalion and company commanders on July 9, telling his subordinates that “history has chosen us to spearhead the fighting (against) the terrorist ‘Gazan’ enemy which abuses, blasphemes and curses the God of Israel’s (defense) forces.”
In the missive he also called upon “the God of Israel” to “make our path successful as we go and stand to fight for the sake of your people of Israel against a foe which curses your name.”
The letter drew harsh criticism from some because it framed Operation Protective Edge as a religious war against non-Jews. The stated aim of the campaign is to halt rocket attacks at Israel and destroying a network of tunnels dug under the border from Gaza that have been used to launch terror attacks inside Israeli territory.
In his interview with Mishpacha, Winter defended the message he sent to the troops, saying that in combat situations everyone finds God.
“Anyone who attacked me for the letter apparently has only seen weapons in pictures, was never in combat, and doesn’t know what fighting spirit is,” he said and revealed that before going into action his custom was to recite the blessing with which the ancient Israelite priests would bless the army before it went to war.
“When a person is in a life-threatening situation he connects with his deepest internal truths, and when that happens, even the biggest atheist meets God,” he said, claiming that soldiers see so many miracles that “it is hard not to believe [in God].
Winter revealed that before heading to the combat zone he met with yeshiva leaders and Kabbalists and asked that they pray for the success of the mission.
He said the rabbis instructed him to take upon himself further religious obligations and that he chose to infuse his morning prayers with more concentration and thought. “It is difficult,” he said, “but I know that it is for the soldiers and I try to keep it up, to extend the prayers and have better concentration.”