In this week’s parasha, B’ha-alot’kha we learn that once the Tabernacle is set up, a cloud covers the sanctuary during the day and a cloud of fire covers it at night. When the cloud lifts, the Israelites break camp and journey onward through the wilderness. The Holy One instructs Moses to create silver trumpets to be blown by Aaron’s sons, the priests, on four occasions: 1) signaling the beginning of a journey; 2) gathering the people; 3) calling them to battle; and 4) announcing the celebration of a sacrifice, a festival or a joyous occasion.
Today, when we send our sons and daughters to battle, we do so without a visible Divine intervention system. And yet, avodat ha-kodesh – God’s sacred work – still takes place in the unlikeliest places. Several years ago, I was reminded of this while leading services at the Great Lakes Recruit Training Center. That night, over thirty-five young men and women, self-identified as Jews, non-Jews and seekers, gathered together for worship. Most striking, beyond how young they are, is their openness and lack of apologetics for openly seeking a spiritual connection and a living God.
It so happened that one of the eight Jewish Navy chaplains came to services. Chaplain Cutler, who also served a congregation in Philadelphia, was a reservist who just three months prior had returned from a fifteen-month tour of duty in Iraq. Yes, that meant that he had left his family and his congregation for 1¼ years to serve as the only Jewish chaplain for western Iraq – a personal sacrifice he made in service to Jews serving in the armed forces and to our country. He shared with the recruits what lays ahead – a loneliness of faith. They will find no community such as the one in which they grew up or the one they help create during their time in recruit training. Rather, they should expect to be the only or one of a couple of Jews in a unit. That’s it. And, there is no way the limited number of Jewish chaplains can personally serve them all. He challenged these recruits to accept responsibility for seeking out other Jews, which is not easy, and with becoming “lay leaders” in order to provide some connection to Jewish life for one another.
How do these “lay” servicemen and women become trained? There is no Hillel as in the lofty setting of a university or seminar offered in the comfort of a hotel conference center. And, to complicate further, those they are charged with serving represent a spectrum of religious practice from secular to orthodox. Rabbi Cutler and those like him, identify Jews, one by one, and then travel through the war-torn country to meet and train these volunteers in person. This sounds simpler than it is.
When Chaplain Cutler traveled across western Iraq to train one Jew, he arrived as a woman suicide bomber had just blown herself up in the effort to kill Iraqi police. Instead, she killed three civilians and injured a young boy. The boy’s father was among the victims. The scene was typical – and grotesque, for the Iraqis only remove the bodies of the victims, leaving the scattered human remains of the suicide bombers to be eaten by the dogs. Leaving the horror of this war outside, the Chaplain entered to train his lay leader. The goal was to prepare this young man to lead services, Jewish rituals such as Seder, etc., while keeping in mind that a minyan of Jews (men only or egalitarian) would never be likely. While they conversed in Hebrew, also inside were a number of Iraqi police, speaking to one another in Arabic. Sound surreal?
Everything about Jewish life, whether or not we are “believers,” is intended to build and sustain life through learning(Torah), establishing intimate and meaningful relationships(Chuppah) and acts of goodness(Ma’am tovim). Beautiful sentiments, but there is war going on in the battlefront of the Jewish people, as well as within our great nation. No one is listening to one another. Prophetic voices are being drowned out by the masses raging over disruptive religious, social political and economic change. Where can we look for order and purpose?
Ironically, by looking to those serving in the armed forces who, though often off our radar, find the discipline and courage to bring their faith, values and commitment to the battlefield. Grateful, those from the Jewish community nourish themselves through what little access they have to Jewish life. And, speaking directly about the Navy, feel comfortable with themselves and proud of their heritage within an exceptionally culturally, racially and religiously diverse community. Would that each of us sought out and experienced such connection and meaning.
As we enter Shabbat, may we stop long enough to listen to the world around and within us. Are we open to the call to engage fully in the battle for human rights and, in the midst of turmoil, act courageously to use this disruption in service of the greater good and not just ourselves? Will we open ourselves to inspiration from our ancient tradition, which survived the destruction of the Temple as its central institution because the rabbis recreated Jewish life with openness to on-going interpretation as an ever-changing world unfolds?
These ancient blasts still echo within us, awakening those in despair and calling for all to journey toward overcoming what separates. To embrace what unites, using personal and communal sacrifice as an offering for our future. And ,with gratitude, to speak these words:
Blessed is the One, eternally of and beyond time and space, for enlivening us, for helping us endure, and for this very moment, which compels our minds, hearts and bodies to respond to this calling with courage, discipline, and cooperation.
Rabbi Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi
24 June 2016/ 18 Sivan 5776