As a senior at Yeshiva University in the ’60s, I solicited ads for the annual yearbook. Since I had recently purchased a Volkswagen, I asked the dealership for an ad, and they readily agreed. I sent in the ad with the check, and a few days later received a letter from the yearbook editor informing me that he had to return the check and could not include the ad. Why? Because there were many Holocaust survivors who would be upset that Yeshiva University would run an advertisement for a German company.
The incident was eye-opening. I simply was getting an ad, but in the eyes of others who had suffered at the hands of the Germans, my innocent act was perceived as ignorant and insensitive. I quickly became aware that there was a vast gap between my perception of Germany and others who had been victims of German cruelty. Someone who has suffered and endured unspeakable horrors responds differently than someone who has not. The tourist sees tragedy one way, the resident another. For the resident, it is real, not theoretical.
Those different perceptions inform First Blood, the movie that introduced John Rambo to film audiences. His story begins after the Vietnam War as he journeys to the American Northwest in search of an Army buddy. His unscrubbed appearance makes him look like a drifter and he is arrested by the local sheriff as a vagrant, who judges only by appearances. The long-term effects of the Vietnam War are not on the sheriff’s radar screen. To him, it is ancient history. But to Rambo, it is not. At the jail he is harassed and brutalized. The sight of a razor about to shave him while he is being restrained evokes a memory of his torture at the hands of the North Vietnamese. He responds by bolting from his captors and escaping to the mountains on a stolen motorcycle. Only later does the sheriff learn that Rambo is a former Green Beret, an elite Special Forces soldier, who was awarded the Medal of Honor.
What makes First Blood special is its portrayal of the aftermath of war, the emotional scars that remain on a person after the battles are over. In a touching scene in which Rambo shares his pain with his former commander, he agonizingly laments about the dissonance between now and then: “Back there I could fly a gunship, I could drive a tank, I was in charge of million dollar equipment, back here I can’t even hold a job parking cars!” He cries over the loss of a close friend who was blown up by shoe-shine box that was wired with explosives: “The box blew his body all over the place. There were pieces of him all over me. I couldn’t find his legs.” These experiences remain with Rambo long after the guns have been silenced. The memories are part of his DNA for the rest of his life.
Three lessons clearly emerge from Rambo’s trial by ordeal. First, the experience of war is a game-changer in the psyche of man. It leaves wounds that are not always visible, but nonetheless inform a person’s behavior and thinking. We need to understand this when relating to people who have endured such adversity. Second, never judge a person by appearances alone, the way the sheriff judged Rambo. Jewish wisdom literature reminds us: do not look at the bottle but at what is inside of it. Third, judge every man favorably, say our Sages. When we assume the best about others, our own lives will be enriched.