Thursday, December 13, 2012

Shoftim: In the Same Boat (Rabbi Marshall Klaven)

Once upon a time, three men went fishing in a boat; not one of them could swim. Yet, the best fish were always found in the middle of the lake. So, despite their lack of aquatic training, the three men paddled out to cast their lines. Once in the middle of the lake, the man in the front of the boat cast his line forward. The man, in the rear of the boat, cast his line backward. And, the man in the middle of the boat, well, he started to drill a hole for his line beneath his seat. “Wait!” yelled the man at the front of the boat. “You can’t drill a hole!” screamed the second man. Responding to their cries, the man in the middle stated: “What concern is it of yours? The hole,” he insisted, “is underneath my seat!”

Many of us have likely come across individuals who epitomize this mentality; individuals who forget that we are all in the same boat: the business person who ruthlessly climbs the corporate ladder, the pro-athlete who boasts of his/her achievements in spite of the team effort, and even the child who has yet to learn to share his/her toys. So, rather than perpetuating this mentality through more examples, I would like to share with you a story that highlights a more constructive mentality. It is a story that reminds us – whether we are Jewish, Christian, or Muslim; whether we are Black, White, or Hispanic; whether we are Republicans, Democrats, or Independents – that we reside, at all times, in the same boat. And, because of that reality, we have a responsibility to care for one another. For, by doing so, we truly keep ourselves as well as others afloat.

It was a cold and icy winter night in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. In the black-out conditions, the once cruise-liner now transport ship, the U.S.S. Dorchester slowly made the treacherous journey through ‘torpedo alley’ loaded with its precious cargo, 900 young American soldiers and 4 chaplains: Father John Washington, Reverend Clark Poling, Reverend George Fox, and Rabbi Alexander Goode. Together, these four men of faith brought comfort and levity in a moment that was drenched with tension and fear. But, they could not prevent the inevitable.

In the early morning hours of February 3, 1943 a German U-boat made a direct hit on the Dorchester, crippling it with one massive torpedo. The ship was lost. Those that survived the initial hit frantically scurried from the lower chambers up to the main deck, struggling for their very survival. Amidst the chaotic storm of fear stood firm these four men of faith, who had, throughout the journey, provided comfort. Now, in this harrowing moment, their resolve to fulfill the mandate directed to them by the ultimate Commander-in-Chief, our God above, did not waiver.

Noticing that one young man was without gloves, a chaplain handed him his. “But Chaplain, what about you?”  Reassuring the young man, the chaplain said, “Do not worry, my son. I have another pair.” 

Another man approached, “Chaplain what am I to do? I do not have a jacket. I’m going to freeze to death.” Taking off his, a chaplain said, “Here, take this one. It’ll keep you warm, my son.” “But Chaplain,” asked the young soldier, “won’t you need it?” “Do not worry about that. Go on. I have another one.” 

Rapidly, bit by bit, the Four Chaplains were saving lives, but at the cost of their own; for there were no other jackets, no other gloves. And even after all the extra life-jackets were divvied out, the chaplains took off theirs and gave them to others who were still without one. According to the testimony of one survivor, he was saved when Rabbi Goode, bent down, took out the laces of his own boot, and secured a broken life-jacket around the frightened young man, stating, “Do not worry, my son. God is with you. Go on. Live!”

Without concern for race or religion, these four men made the ultimate sacrifice. They made the fateful decision to give up their space on a life-boat to others, choosing instead to minister to those who remained. Survivors testify to the last unforgettable image of these Four Chaplains. With unshaken faith, the Four Chaplains linked arm-to-arm, each reciting a prayer in his own liturgical tongue. Father Washington said one in Latin. Reverends Poling and Fox recited a prayer in English. And, from Rabbi Goode, the ancient call of our people rang out like a beacon of hope, “Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad / Hear O’ Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”[i]

While tragic, this inspiring story is a true example of the role of the chaplain first spoken of in this Torah portion of Shoftim. “Before you join in battle, the priest shall come forward and address the troops. He shall say to them, ‘Shema Yisrael/Hear O Israel! You, who are about to join in battle against your enemy, let not your courage falter. Do not fear, panic, or be in dread of them. For, it is the Lord your God who marches with you.’” (Deuteronomy 20:2-4).

This priestly act is nothing new. Narratives about the wars of Israel from the time of Moses to David indicate that priests often accompanied the army. For like today’s modern priest, the chaplain’s presence is understood as a physical reminder of the holy. His/her presence is, in a word, a prayer. But, not a prayer - as it may be assumed – petitioning the Holy One to be in our vessel rather than theirs, thereby securing our victory and ensuring their defeat. For, what is unique here is that the priest – unlike all other accounts in the Bible- carries no vessel with him (particularly: the Ark of the Covenant).[ii]

Therefore, it is to be understood that his prayerful presence is meant to acknowledge this difficult reality: right now we are fighting, fighting one another as if we believed we sat in separate boats. But, we pray, that this will not always be the case. We pray for a day “when swords will be turned into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks; a day when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they study war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4) For, on that day, we will have learned well – what was demonstrated by the Four Chaplains – that we all exist in the same boat. And, thus, when we help keep another afloat, we keep ourselves afloat as well.

[i] For more information on this story please read Dan Kurzman’s No Greater Glory: The Four Chaplains and the Sinking of the Dorchester in World War II. Random House: New York, 2004.
[ii] As pointed out in Jeffrey Tigay’s commentary to Deuteronomy 20:2. See Etz Chayim: Torah and Commentary. Rabbinical Assembly: New York, 2001.

No comments:

Post a Comment