America’s War, Military Sacrifice

Sermon given on Yom Kippur Day, 5765, September 25, 2004, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

The Bar and Bat Mitzvah preparation process at Temple Beth-El is grueling. The sacrifices required are herculean. Not only the young person, but also the entire family, gives itself over to the journey to the special Shabbat celebration. Families report that they end up spending exponentially more time than they expected on the preparation for the service itself. Bar and Bat Mitzvah candidates give up almost all their free time, and often an extra-curricular activity or two. Parents spend endless hours in the car, driving the student to and from appointments with the tutor, the Hazzan, two Rabbis, the Education Director, the Music Director, and more. Siblings get less time and attention from their parents, and can’t be driven to all their usual activities. The entire family makes significant sacrifices for the Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

The result we see is uniformly positive, and I’m not referring to the fact that visitors always marvel at the “great job” our students do on the bimah. The young person comes away with a deeper and more positive connection to Judaism. Equally important, he or she develops a greater sense of personal self-confidence, having achieved a magnificent public success. Frequently, whole families dedicate themselves more fully to the Temple and to Jewish observance.

The great achievements and deepened commitment we see in post-Bar and Bat Mitzvah families is directly related to the rigor of our preparation program. The old cliche, “no pain, no gain,” doesn’t just apply to athletic teams. We tell our young people, not only in Bar or Bat Mitzvah preparation, but in every endeavor of their young lives: They must put in a significant effort if they wish to make something of themselves, if they plan to succeed.

Ancient Israelites understood this principle as well as we do today. Perhaps their ways were more primitive, but the basis was the same. On Yom Kippur, our ancestors fasted and engaged in other forms of self-affliction. They prayed for forgiveness. Central to the atonement rituals, though, was sacrifice. The people brought the best of what they had, their livestock and their choice grain, to the Temple. What they sought was forgiveness. The way they achieved it was by giving up items truly valuable to them. If they would not sacrifice, they would not return to God’s good graces.

The Hebrew word for sacrifice is korban, based on a root meaning, “to bring near.” The function of the offerings was to bring the people nearer to God. The concept is still key to Judaism, even though we no longer bring offerings of grain or live animals. We give up what is most dear to us – our time, our resources – to bring ourselves closer to our faith and our God. The process worked for our ancestors, and it is effective for our Bar and Bat Mitzvah families today.

Religion, though, is not the only arena in which sacrifice can be transformative. When a man forgoes a promotion at work, in order to spend more time with his family, he draws nearer to those he most loves. When a softball player hits a sacrifice bunt, forgoing the opportunity to increase her batting average, but advancing her teammate on base, she gives up recognition for herself, drawing nearer to the team.

Our national life need be no different. When Americans pay taxes, we could look at that act as one that unifies us with our fellow citizens, each of us giving up something of ourselves for the good of the entire country. When we volunteer our precious time to work on a political campaign or a civic cause, or even just to vote, for the good of our country, we may be drawn closer to America and all for which it stands.

Today, our nation is at war. Our military remains in Iraq, desperately trying to bring peace and democracy to a deeply troubled part of the world.

Let us put aside our differences for the moment, questions of whether the war was right or wrong from the start. Even if we can all be irritated about way the war began, with incorrect intelligence about weapons of mass destruction, we should all be grateful that the wicked Saddam has been deposed and that his depraved sons can menace the Iraqi people no more. They murdered and robbed their people every day of their rule. Saddam and sons were among the most heinous villains the world has ever known.

Moreover, we all pray for an early end to the conflict, while we wonder whether such a goal can be achieved. Violence and anarchy continue to reign in Iraq; indeed, reports are that even American military personnel do not enter some areas, for they can not be controlled.

Yes, our nation is at war. For good cause or ill, with great opportunity for success or very little, America is engaged in conflict. Our military men and women, and their families, are making monumental sacrifice on behalf of all of us. True, we have an all-voluntary army. Our servicemen and women signed up for the duty they discharge as a credit to us all. No wonder that patriotism runs so high in military families; they sacrifice for America every day. They give so much of themselves, they are drawn nearer and dearer to the land we all love as their gifts to the United States multiply.

We are all bereft, when we hear of each American military death. At this point, more than 1000 have lost their precious and irreplaceable lives in Iraq. Tragically, we know there will be more. Countless others have been injured. Sadly, we know they will not be the last. We were all touched by the supreme sacrifice of professional football player Pat Tillman, who first gave up millions, and then laid down his life, to serve our country.

Other sacrifices, while less dramatic, have been equally real. We have all read of the man who signed up for the National Guard, imagining weekend duty, but ending up in Iraq for a year or more, with no end in sight, at substantial financial and personal cost to his family. We have all heard about the woman who thought she was about to retire from the Army, to continue her education or enter the civilian work-force, only to be pressed into continued service by a stop-loss order. We know that some military families are at wit’s end; we are aware that some who sacrifice the most for our country are having trouble even making ends meet.

And yet, my own experience with folks who have been deployed to Iraq has been that these military personnel are honored to serve. Granted, the members of our congregation who have been deployed are officers, professional people whose families are much more secure than those of young enlisted personnel. Nevertheless, I have been inspired, as we all can be, by the service of Dr. Scott McLean, a Temple member and Army geneticist, who finds himself in the war zone today, preserving the health of our troops. We were moved in July, when Captain Jeffrey Goodie, an Air Force psychologist, told us, at Armed Forces Shabbat, of the dangers he faced while serving his mission during the most active phase of the war in Iraq. We are all buoyed by the endless service of life-long Temple member, COL David Cohen, M.D., who has now practiced medicine in the combat zone during both Iraq wars. Their offerings of service, and the sacrifices of their wives and children, touch us all and make us all proud to be their fellow congregants.

Impressed as I am by their gifts to America, though, I wonder about the rest of us. What have we given up to make the war in Iraq a success? This year, NFL players are all wearing the number 40 on their helmets. Many wear American flags or put ribbons on their cars. The gestures are appropriate and they are supportive, but they are not enough.

The last time that the United States won, really won, a war, was World War II. Then, our entire nation heeded the wisdom that we learn from our Temple’s Bar and Bat Mitzvah students and from the ancient observance of Yom Kippur: Sacrifice is what draws people closer to a goal. During World War II, every family was touched, as young men and many women of all walks of life went off to war. Every American was involved, purchasing war bonds, living with rationing, enduring hardship, as a nation drawn together in sacrifice with a great and noble purpose.

If today’s conflict in Iraq really is America’s war, then our military men and women should not be the only ones sacrificing in the cause of victory. Not only is their solitary sacrifice unfair, it is doomed to failure, for only if we will all join in this war effort can we expect America and its worthy goals to prevail.

Let us demand that every American, beginning with the wealthiest among us, share the cost of the war in Iraq. Tax cuts may well have their own economic justification; surely, we can not all agree about that. And yet, can we not unite in demanding a tax that forces us all to share the financial burden of this military effort? Let us show our armed forces that we are prepared to share some of this war’s costs with them.

Let us join the call for national service for all young Americans. Some will choose the military, which might become even more socio-economically diverse than it is today. Others will serve the country in a variety of capacities. All would join in making America stronger, giving of themselves to unite, to vanquish every foe, from foreign enemy to the poverty, disease and ignorance that plague us from within.

Perhaps most urgently, let us call for the immediate inauguration of a new American energy policy, designed to decrease dramatically our dependance on Middle Eastern oil. Such a policy will require sacrifice. Our gasoline would become much more expensive. We might have to drive different kinds of cars, drive less, and rely more on public transportation. Some would argue that environmental sacrifices must be made. The fix would not be quick; our need for Middle Eastern oil would not dry up before the end of the current conflict. Collectively, though, we would be taking a sacrificial step, drawing us closer together as a nation. We would also begin the critical process of emptying the coffers of the despots in Saudi Arabia and much of the Middle East, who fund and encourage the perversion of Islam that terrorizes America, Israel, and the entire civilized world today.

Analogies to Vietnam often hover over discussions of the conflict in Iraq. Liberals argue there was no cause worth dying for in Southeast Asia. Conservatives contend that dissent in America, a lack of support for our troops, led to our disgrace there. Neither theory is without merit. America was not united in making the sacrifice necessary to win the Vietnam War. If any war is worth the blood of our military men and women, we must all be prepared to engage in the battle.

One of the Yom Kippur rituals of ancient Israel doesn’t strike me as ever having been effective, even to the primitive mind. The sins of all the people were symbolically placed upon two goats. One was killed. The other, the scape-goat, was sent out into the wilderness, to a far away place beyond places, called Azazel. These goats were not sacrifices of the people. Only the goats gave up anything.

Let us not permit our military to become our surrogate sacrificers. True, we no longer torment our military men and women, as they often were harassed during the Vietnam era. Today, thank God, we revere and appreciate our armed forces personnel. And yet, for all our cheering and for all the ribbons, we still leave them to fight our nation’s battles alone.

Let the military’s sacrifice be solitary no more. Let us all join the battle. If the cause be just, then let us all give up some of what is precious to us as individuals, that we may join as a nation, to achieve the goals of America, with God’s blessing, together.