Army Values and Jewish Values- Yom Kippur 5773

One hundred fifty years ago, almost to the day, the first Rabbi was commissioned as a chaplain in the United States Army.  Last year, a memorial was dedicated at Arlington National Cemetery to the 13 Jewish chaplains who have died during active duty service to our beloved country.  Their sacrifice is a tribute to the seven Army values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage.  I have had the amazing privilege of serving as an Army Reserve chaplain for over thirty-four years and am inspired by my colleague’s commitment to live these values every day.  On these High Holidays, when we renew our own devotion to living lives of holiness, the Army values offer guidance along the way.

During these Days of Awe, we imagine God as the ultimate Commander in Chief, evaluating us and our efforts in the past year.  According to our prayers, God “writes and seals, inscribes and takes account.”  Like a shepherd caring for the flock, God “passes and records, counts and visits every living soul, appointing the measure of every creature’s life and decreeing its destiny.”

Each year, my military commander prepares an OER, an Officer Evaluation Report.  The DA Form 67-8 includes a description of duties, an evaluation of professional competence, specific aspects of performance as well as potential.  It also contains a section that assesses whether or not I am meeting the standard(s) regarding loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage.

1.  Honor– The first quality listed is Honor, which is defined as adherence to the Army’s publicly declared code of values.  We can translate this into more familiar terms- have we lived lives of Kiddush HaShem?  Do our actions bring honor to the Jewish people?  In the 10 Commandments, there is only one commandment which the Torah says is unforgiveable.  You’d think that it would be the prohibition of murder, or stealing.  Surprisingly, we read that God will not forgive those who carry God’s name in vain.  If we claim to be religious people, then we need to remember at all times that people will judge Judaism by our behavior.  This should be an incentive for us to behave in ways that will bring honor to God and the Jewish people.

The Talmud relates that Shimon ben Shetach once purchased a donkey. The original owner had neglected to check the saddlebag before he made the sale, and inadvertently left diamonds in the bag. When they discovered the treasure, Shimon ben Shetach’s students were exuberant, for now, they were certain, their teacher would be able to teach Torah without the constant financial worries that had been plaguing him. Shimon ben Shetach did not join in their excitement though. “Do you think I am a barbarian?” he exclaimed “I bought a donkey, not diamonds!” He promptly returned the diamonds. When the owner received them he cried out, “Blessed is the God of Shimon ben Shetach!”  Shimon ben Shetach exemplified the principle of Kiddush HaShem, bringing honor to God’s name by his actions.

2.Integrity– Next is a word we don’t hear enough these days- integrity, defined as possessing high moral standards and being honest in word and deed.  Simply put, integrity means doing the right thing even when no one else is watching.  Even when you could get away with doing the wrong thing and no one would ever know.  Integrity means being consistent- saying the same thing to anyone who asks.  It means saying, “I don’t know” when you don’t, not trying to guess or fake it.   Integrity means applying the code of ethics by which you live in school, at work, with your family, in the synagogue- being faithful to your own ultimate values.

Integrity is an essential component of leadership.  Effective leadership is dependent upon trust and respect.  Without faith in each other’s integrity we cannot rely on the information we receive and crucial decisions may be undermined.

In Hebrew the word “Shalom- Peace” comes from a root meaning “Shalem- to be whole.”  When we have integrity we feel a sense of complete-ness and we are able to be at peace.  This thought is beautifully expressed in this prayer, “Grant us the peace that comes from honest dealing, so that no fear of discovery will haunt our sleep. . . May we so live that we can face the whole world with serenity.”

This new year brings us the opportunity to begin again, to return to that bedrock of integrity which makes us proud of who we are.

3. Courage– Third is courage.  To have courage does not mean to be reckless or careless.  The book of Proverbs teaches us that the beginning of wisdom is fear of God.  Fear is important and healthy in certain contexts.  But in the moral realm, we must fearlessly do what is right, even when it is not popular and even, in a military environment, if it conflicts with an illegal order.

The root of the word courage is “cor,” meaning heart.  The original meaning of courage had to do with speaking the truth from the heart.  When we choose to speak and act courageously, we inspire others to do the same- as Napoleon put it, “Morale is to courage as ten is to one.”  This is why the generation of the spies needed to die off in the wilderness- their negative attitude- “we looked like grasshoppers in our own eyes and so we must have appeared to them”- was demoralizing to the community. We all need to find the courage to cling to the path of righteousness and to uphold the values we affirm together as a community.

A controversial note on courage and forgiveness- last week, the Phoenix community was shaken by the tragic loss of Andrew Murphy, who was shot and killed at Marivue Park protecting his 14 year old sister.  The AZ Republic lauded his courage in an editorial a few days ago, appropriately noting his extraordinary courage.  The newspaper continued by quoting the words of Andrew’s father to his children, “We must not only forgive the young man who took Andrew’s life, we must love him, too.”[1]  With all due respect to the grieving father and his religious beliefs, I would never advocate preemptive love and forgiveness for a murderer and I do not find this courageous.

4.Loyalty– Andrew certainly exhibited exceptional loyalty, the fourth quality.  Our loyalties are excellent indications of who we are on the deepest level.  Loyalty means affirming our commitments even in times of trial and temptation.  The loyalty of which we speak is that of our Biblical ancestor Joseph, whose loyalty to his employer and to his own code of ethics, enabled him to resist the seductive overtures of his employer’s wife, and remain loyal to the ethical principles with which he was raised.

Loyalty to our loved ones is primary.  There is a very moving story in Chicken Soup for the Soul, about an earthquake in Armenia in 1989.  Over 30,000 people were killed in less than 4 minutes.  As one dad rushed to the rubble that had been his son’s school, bystanders told him that all the students had died.  “Go home, face reality,” they told him.  The father dug at the rubble for 38 hours before he heard his son respond to his call, “Dad?  It’s me, Dad.  I told the other kids not to worry.  I told ‘em that if you were alive, you’d save me and when you saved me, they’d be saved.  You promised, “No matter what, I’ll always be there for you!”  You did it, Dad!”  The son then allowed the 14 other survivors to be rescued first, because he knew that “No matter what, you’ll always be there for me!”

Are we loyal to our family?  Our community?  Our synagogue?  Our country?  To what do we pledge our allegiance?  On whom can we depend? These are the hard questions we must ask ourselves today.

5.Respect– The Army defines respect as promoting dignity, consideration, and fairness.  The Torah begins with the creation of one person, a reminder that each of us is made in the image of God and therefore deserving of the highest respect.  The famous Mishna speaks of the uniqueness of each person, evoking the principle that if we destroy one person, it is as if we destroyed the whole world.[2]  Destruction does not necessarily imply physical harm. Our words can leave scars which are carried for a lifetime.  How many of the sins we confess on Yom Kippur have to do with the misuse of speech and the ways that we use our words to destroy?

The ability to control what we say, especially when we are angry, is a prerequisite for lasting and loving relationships.  “Before bandying about words that can destroy another person’s reputation,” Rabbi JosephTelushkin warns, “be as careful as if you were holding a loaded gun.”  His conclusion?  “Unless you, or someone dear to you, have been the victims of terrible physical violence, chances are the worst pains you have suffered in life have come from words used cruelly- from ego-destroying criticism, excessive anger, sarcasm, public and private humiliation, hurtful nicknames, betrayal of secrets, rumors and malicious gossip.”[3]

Our tradition teaches us that, “The honor of each person should be as dear to you as your own honor.”[4] We show respect for others by listening with our whole hearts.  Respect for parents is a special aspect of this value.

6.Selfless Service– We live in a culture of individualism and looking out for number one- the idea of selflessness does not come naturally.  Yet, part of growing up and maturing is learning to set aside our own needs for those of another.  Selflessness, the sixth criterion on our OER, means not reverting to the premise of “What’s in it for me?,” but being able to see things from a different perspective.

As Jews we are responsible to care for each other and to support the community, even when we disagree.  There is a higher goal than our own happiness and fulfillment, a common good toward which we all strive.  If each individual operates from a place of selflessness it inspires us all to work together.  Imagine an army trying to complete a mission with each person looking out only for themselves.  Only by acting as a unit can we achieve.

Selflessness doesn’t always mean risking your life.  Sometimes it’s the little ways in which we extend ourselves for others- checking the kid’s homework when we’d rather be reading, attending a minyan so that someone else can say kaddish.  To live in a community means that we can’t always have it our way.  However, as we learn in Pirke Avot, “Do not separate yourself from the community.”[5] If we each give a little we can achieve great things together.

7.  Duty– Finally, we come to duty.  Once our unit was at annual training at Ft. Lewis.  On the last day in our office space, we were all anxious to get home, so we decided to begin breaking down the equipment and packing it away.  Imagine the chagrin of our commander when he walked in to show off his space to his boss, only to find it in various stages of disarray.  What impressed me incredibly was a young captain who faced the Colonel and said, “I was the highest ranking person in the building when this decision was made; I take responsibility.”  To see this young man stand up and do his duty was remarkable.   What made his action even more admirable was that he did not confess after being caught- he openly and readily acknowledged his role.

On this holiest day of the year, we too are called upon to answer for our actions, to respond, to take responsibility for our sins and wrongdoings.  No more mitigating circumstances, no pointing the finger at others or blaming our misfortunes for our wrong choices.  We read in the machzor, “For we are neither so arrogant nor so stubborn as to declare before You, Adonai our God and God of our ancestors, ‘we are righteous and we have not sinned,’ but we have sinned.”

Our tradition teaches that we each have the freedom to choose our own actions, to do our duty or to ignore it.    “If God decreed,” asks Maimonides, “that a person should be righteous or wicked, or if there was a force in nature which irresistibly drew him to a particular course. . . What room would there be for the whole of the Torah?  By what right or justice could God punish the wicked or reward the righteous?”[6]  Because we have the ability to choose, we are responsible for our choices.

Today is the day when we must set pretense aside, stand up and be accountable for our actions.  “A weakened sense of responsibility,” it has been said,  “does not weaken the fact of responsibility.”[7] May our observance of this day strengthen our sense of duty.

Our commitment to live an honorable life is tested daily.  With every choice we make, we create personal habits, and these patterns will emerge whenever we face a tough decision.  If we wish to be more honest, more just, more charitable, more courageous, then we must discipline ourselves so that these virtues become our way of life.

Yom Kippur is a day on which we confess our wrongs.  We examine the ways we’ve missed the mark, the times we haven’t lived up to our moral standards, to our vision of who we want to be.  “We have trespassed, we have spoken slander, we have done wrong, we have spoken falsehood, we have gone astray and we have led others astray.”  We acknowledge that God knows our deepest secrets and our hidden flaws.

Yet, the message of the holiday is one of hope.  We can do teshuva, we can repent, we can change our ways, we can chart a new course and re-direct ourselves on a higher path.  As we fast and pray and study together during these 24 hours, may we seize this opportunity to influence our evaluation in a positive direction.  “If you won’t be better tomorrow than you were today,” asks Reb Nachman of Bratslav, “what need do you have for tomorrow?”  This is the ultimate question we each must ask ourselves during the course of this holiest day.

In anticipation of our annual evaluation in the Army, each officer is required to submit a DA Form 67-8-1, Officer Evaluation Support Form.  This form asks for our significant duties and responsibilities, our major performance objectives, and our significant contributions.  Our tradition provides us with our duties and responsibilities; we determine our objectives and contributions.  I encourage you to contemplate your metaphysical 67-8-1, and hope and pray that we will all receive top-block evaluations!

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell

Temple Chai

Phoenix, AZ

 

 

 

 



[1] AZ Republic, Sept. 18, 2012

[2] Sanhedrin 37a

[3]Telushkin, Joseph,  Biblical Literacy: The Most Important People, Events, and Ideas of the Hebrew Bible

[4] Pirke Avot, 2:15

[5] Pirke Avot, 2:5

[6] Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah, 5:4

[7] William Bennett, The Book of Virtues, NY:  Simon and Schuster, 1993, p. 186

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