As holy days approach many of us think back to special observances we’ve experienced. With almost 30 years of active duty in the US military, I have many unusual memories, including the seders I led on a ship off the coast of Beirut while US military personnel were part of the Multinational Peacekeeping Force — ritual dinners we jokingly referred to as the “Seders of Lebanon.” We chose to use the ship because it gave us a better chance of finishing without the interruption of attacks that we might have experienced on the ground.
I remember Hanukkah services on the ground in Beirut in 1982, where we fashioned used shell casings into candle holders for a makeshift chanukiyah/menorah — an action that recalled for us the Biblical image of beating swords into plowshares. In this case, we beat our shells into candle-holders to display flames that would remind us of the miracles of unquenchable faith.
But my strongest holiday memory is being sent to Iceland in 1986 because the Gorbachev-Reagan pre-summit meetings were scheduled for the High Holy Days, and there was no rabbi — military or civilian — in the country at that time. The thought was that some Jewish staffers or reporters might want to attend services. I ended up leading one shabbat service (on my birthday!) and then one on Yom Kippur.
The White House had asked the Navy if a rabbi could be sent during the historic meetings, since we still had a Naval Air Station there, but one without a Jewish chaplain — and I was the rabbi selected. The opportunity was especially important to me because my father was born in Russia, where both my grandfather and great-grandfathers had been rabbis. My grandfather and his family made it to America when my father was 3, which made me the first native-born American in my father’s line.
This was a time when we were urging the Soviet Union to allow citizens, including many Jews, to leave the country. But the “refuseniks,” whose attempts to emigrate had been denied, faced discrimination following their failed attempts. With this situation in mind, and remembering how much it meant for my family to be able to escape to freedom in the United States, I knew my ancestors would be proud of any support I could give to this meeting.
My memories of this trip are also linked to a series of books. In 1964 the first book of the “Rabbi David Small” series was published, written by Harry Kemelman. I remember that some announcements of the first book printing got the name wrong, using “rabbit” instead of rabbi — but as the series became more successful and better-known, articles never made that mistake again!
The first book in the series was “Friday the Rabbi Slept Late,” and the first seven books used each of the days of the week in their titles, with follow-up books continuing to use the word “day” in some way: “One day the rabbi…,” “Some day the rabbi…,” and so on.
The idea behind the books was that since Rabbi Small was Talmudically-trained, he could use his sharply honed intellectual skills to aid the local police chief when it came to solving crimes. A short-lived series of TV movies based on the books was called “Lanigan’s Rabbi,” with Art Carney playing the chief, stressing the friendship between the staunchly Catholic police chief and the rabbi he would turn to when sharp rabbinic thinking could make a difference. He came to value the town’s rabbi who could not only unravel the mysteries behind crimes, but also understand the intricacies of human emotions and relationships behind the actions.
I mention this series because when I was sent to Iceland in 1986, many of my friends — and a number of reporters for the press — introduced the news with a line like “On Yom Kippur, the rabbi went to Iceland.” For example, Washington Post article used the headline: “Friday, the Rabbi Was in Reykavik.”
The link between my Russian heritage and the the president’s meeting with Gorbachev was not lost on reporters. One asked me what I would say to Gorbachev if I had the chance to speak with him directly (a chance I did not have). My answer was that I would not have to say anything. I would just stand before him in my Navy uniform, with the Ten Commandments, part of the insignia for military Jewish chaplains, on my sleeve. My uniform would do the speaking, displaying the value the United States placed on religious freedom, and on the contributions of Jews.
I should note that the tablets of the Jewish chaplain insignia had originally used Roman numerals to indicate commandments However, in 1981 I was on the panel convened by the Navy Chief of Chaplains to consider changing the numerals to Hebrew letters. (It was referred to as a “blue ribbon panel,” but the other members and I liked to call it the “blue tzitsis (fringes) panel.” We officially recommended the change, noting that the idea of Roman numerals had probably come from the the movies, not from Jewish history. In fact, we thought our many of our rabbinic ancestors, sorely mistreated by Roman authorities, might be turning over in their graves to think we were using Roman symbols to represent our faith! Our recommendation for the change was approved.
So, had Gorbachev met me, he would have seen the tablets emblazened with Hebrew letters on my sleeve. I am proud that the Providence Journal article that included my statement about the Ten Commandments on my uniform was read into the Senate Congressional Record.
Some Jewish groups objected to the idea that the summit was scheduled for the High Holy Days, and might run into Yom Kippur, and at least one Jewish White House staff member decided not to attend. However, when one reporter asked me what I thought about the timing of the meeting, I decided to give the decision a positive spin. I said that if an average American were asked to fill in the blank for “The Yom Kippur ____,” the recommended word would probably be “war.” Wouldn’t it be wonderful, I asked, if this meeting could be so successful that we could begin using the expression, “The Yom Kippur Peace”?
Sadly, the meeting did not lead to peace, but my words at the service — a dvar torah(sermonette) that I called “Small Step Toward Big Dreams” — stressed the importance of trying. I think most of my words from that service still ring true today, for any leader struggling with decisions of war and peace, and the tension between reality and dreams. This is what I said, almost four decades ago:
Small Step Toward Big Dreams
For individuals and for peoples. Yom Kippur brings a message, a challenge, and a warning.
The message is that we can change–and, through our actions, we can affect and change the world. The challenge is that we must change; break free from the past, and build a better future. The warning is that change will not be easy: the world is not perfect, and we cannot act as if it is. It is filled with the bad, along with the good. And so our goals–and our resolutions–must be touched not only by dreams of what might be, but also by an awareness of how things are.
The Biblical prophets teach of this tension between dream and reality. They speak of swords changed to ploughshares, and spears to pruning hooks. [Isaiah, Micah] But they also teach the time will come when we must beat our plowshares into swords, and our pruning hooks into spears. [Joel]
The challenge before us is to hold onto tomorrow’s dreams, but to struggle with today’s reality: to learn from faith that dreams must give plans and actions direction; but to learn from life that reality must give them foundation.
The challenge is to hold onto world dreams, but not to live in dream worlds.
There is a story about a zookeeper who opened a cage where a lion and lamb were lying down together, true to the Biblical promise. After some days, a reporter pressed him for his secret. “It’s easy,” he answered: ”Every morning we put in a new lamb.”
We cannot make peace with the lions of the world, or the bears, if the price of that peace is sacrificing lamb after lamb; if the cost is abandoning nations threatened by aggression from other powers, or peoples deprived of freedoms and human rights within their own lands.
We cannot think the world is so good that our strength no longer matters. And yet we must hope that nations see that terrible strength brings its own terrible danger. From Samson, we learn that power which might destroy an enemy may mean our own death, as well. “Mutual destruction” is not a modern idea.
And so we must strive, as individuals and as nations, to be strong enough to keep our dreams, and brave enough to take those first small steps, so that the long and difficult journey might still remain a possibility.
It is appropriate—indeed, perhaps providential – that the US-USSR meeting was scheduled for these Jewish “High Holy Days.” For Jewish dreams are in the air, and the Jewish challenge of Yom Kippur is on our minds
May the prayers and dreams of Yom Kippur touch us all, so that we each might take some small step in our own lives: so that we make some contribution in the year ahead to
goodness and righteousness in our communities.
And may our prayers and dream touch world leaders, as well: so that, with no wishful thinking, their thinking might nonetheless be filled with wishes – and with vision: wishes for freedom; visions of peace.
May the world remember Iceland as the place, and Yom Kippur as the time, when we took one small step toward the biggest dream of all.