I’m very proud to share my contribution to a new book, On Sacred Ground: Jewish and Christian Clergy Reflect on Transformative Passages From The Five Books of Moses, edited by Jeff Bernhardt and published by Blackbird Books.
“And it shall be, when you come close to war, the priest shall approach and speak to the people.”- Deuteronomy 20:2
Having served as a Chaplain in the United States Army Reserve for over 32 years, this verse has always been near and dear to my heart. I appreciate the recognition, even thousands of years ago, that Soldiers preparing to go into battle need and deserve religious support. Chaplains today, just like priests in the Tanach, offer comfort, encouragement, a listening ear and a caring presence.
Judaism is not a pacifist tradition. We believe not only in the right, but the obligation to self-defense. If someone is seeking to kill you, we read in the Talmud, “rise up earlier and kill him first” (Sanhdedrin 72a). We hope and pray and work for a Messianic age, a time of universal peace and well-being, but, until that blessed day arrives, we must also recognize the importance of a well-trained Army to defend our people and our way of life.
We are adjured in Psalms (34:14) to seek peace and pursue it, and prayers for peace are a major focus of our liturgy. It was King Solomon, whose very name comes from the root shalom, meaning peace, who built the Holy Temple in Jerusalem ; this honor was denied to King David, the triumphant warrior.
While war may at times be necessary, as Jews we are taught never to rejoice in the suffering of our enemies. At the Passover Seder, we spill a drop of wine from our cups, symbol of rejoicing, as we recall the 10 plagues. The plagues were a necessary part of our journey towards liberation, yet our celebration is muted.
Chaplains are non-combatants- we do not carry weapons, we are not trained to fight. We are there to minister to the religious needs of the troops, and, as such, we are an essential part of the military force. No one likes war; no one wants war. No one prays for peace with more fervor than the Soldier who stands ready to lay down his or her life for our country. Yet I am not a pacifist. I believe that there are times when war is justified. War is always a horrible tragedy, but it is not necessarily immoral.
I am proud to consider among my many identities as wife, as mother, as rabbi, as teacher, as friend, yet another as an American Soldier. When our country determines that the time has come to take up arms and go to war, our Jewish Soldiers need to have rabbis who are trained and ready to deploy alongside them, to be there to offer spiritual direction. I am proud to be among those who have the incredible honor and privilege to be with them on their journey- when we come close to war, I pray that my words will inspire and comfort those to whom I speak.