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‘Open when I die’: My in-progress ethical will

I started a final letter to my daughter with life lessons and a last word of love after the Beirut barracks bombing in 1983
Sharing lessons of the Holocaust in the Capitol Rotunda, 1987. (courtesy)
Sharing lessons of the Holocaust in the Capitol Rotunda, 1987. (courtesy)

In October 1983, in the rubble after the Beirut barracks bombing terrorist attack, after we had tried to help the wounded and dying, we began to collect personal belongings strewn throughout the site. A birthday card here, a family photograph there, all reminded us that we were not only dealing with a tragedy of 241 lives lost in our American compound (and 58 lost in the French compound, after a second attack, minutes later). This was the story of individuals, one after another, after another, after another. As Judaism teaches, each person we saved was a world, and so was each person we lost. Each had a story, each had (or might have had) a family, and each was cheated of the chance to touch the lives of others during a future that now would never be.

Every found object – relics now, really – touched our hearts and minds as we wondered about the human beings who once owned them, and now might never reclaim them.

And then, here and there, the most powerful reminders of individual lives: envelopes marked “To be opened in case of death.”

Those envelopes stopped me in my tracks, as I wondered what final thoughts, what final goodbyes, what last words of love were written on the letters inside. These envelopes would eventually be opened only if it were determined that the writers had in fact perished in the blast. In the meantime, as we collected them, each envelope reminded me of the beautiful Jewish tradition of leaving behind an “ethical will.”

The military encourages its personnel to prepare standard wills – physical wills – that outline how belongings are to be distributed if death does come to pass. However, drawing on Jewish tradition, I encourage men and women in uniform to consider writing a final letter, an ethical will of sorts, to share not only a final goodbye and a last word of love, but also to pass on lessons to others that they hoped would not be forgotten.

Many years ago, I started writing one of my own, after my daughter Malka (now 44) was born in a Navy hospital in Yokosuka, Japan. Throughout her life, she has heard my stories and sermons, and always makes me proud when she unexpectedly quotes my words after years have passed. Still, the idea of putting together a short list of ideas that have given me strength, of lessons I’ve drawn from good times and bad –– some original, and some I’ve learned from the words of others, or the lives of others — seems to me the best final gift I could pass on.

My hope is that my ethical will is not complete, because I’ll have some more years to continue to learn. But in the meantime, my still-in-progress ethical will includes the following thoughts:

You be humanity. When Moses saw a slave being beaten to the point of death, he looked around, but saw no other man coming to help – so he intervened to save a life. The traditional Jewish teaching from this story is: “Where there is no man, you be a man.” But a more poetic translation is: “Where there is no humanity, you be humanity.” This is advice I have given to military men and women again and again.

Good enough is good enough. If you aim to be perfect at any one thing, besides never succeeding with that goal, the rest of your life will suffer incredibly. We all must juggle multiple roles and responsibilities, from parent to partner, from worker to sibling to child to friend. The goal is to be good enough so that you don’t feel ashamed when you look at yourself in the mirror.

Listen. Rabbi David Wolpe, one of the most respected rabbis in the country, noted that one of the biggest lessons he learned throughout his career is that we must develop the ability to become better listeners. I once read that we rarely witness dialogue any longer – just two monologues with a pause to reload. Each person focuses on what he or she will rebut, rather than questioning their own assumptions and beliefs based on what they might learn. If we engage in discussion just to teach someone else rather than to give ourselves a chance to learn or grow from another’s opinion or point-of-view, we miss the point of discussion, and perhaps the point of life.

Put first things first. In the book, First Things First, which was famous when I was in college, the author notes that very few people on their deathbeds think back on their lives with regret that they did not spend enough time in the office. Decide what you would regret, and then live life with that “first thing first.”

Treasure outrage but guard against rage. In Vietnam, when shipmates of mine took the first step toward actions that could not be accepted, my commanding officer taught them a lesson I have never forgotten. He said that every time we put on a uniform, we fight two enemies, not one. The first is the external enemy — at that time, it was the Viet Cong. We would fight them hard and we would fight them smart. However, we could never forget that we were also fighting the internal enemy, the animal within us that lusted for blood. If we forgot that, he said, we would remember how to fight, but forget whatever it was that we thought was worth fighting for.

In the same vein, an Army colonel in Bosnia once said to me that the Army taught him two things, how to kill people and how to blow things up. Chaplain, he said, it’s your job to help me so that I never enjoy either — and help me learn to pray for the day that neither will be necessary. For me the lesson is that we must treasure our sense of outrage, which shows there is cruelty, atrocity, and even evil itself that we must never accept, must never take for granted. But we must guard against rage, when emotions take over our heart and soul, and eventually our bodies themselves, beyond any thought of right and wrong.

Perception does matter. I’ve heard many people say that perceptions don’t matter: just do what is right. Without going into the question of how hard it is in so many situations to know what is right, I have come to learn more and more how much perceptions do matter. There are many theories about leadership, but one thing they have in common is the importance of leading by example. To understand our example, perceptions are all that count.

Moral muscle. I’ve heard so many times from others that we shouldn’t sweat the small things. But I’ve learned that the smallest things both lay the foundation and set the direction for bigger things, for all that will come. I think of this fact when I misbutton one button on my shirt, and then need to unbutton completely and start over. I remember an early case of police corruption when an officer said if he had the chance to do his life over, he would not have accepted the first free piece of pizza. He explained that it was a small jump from accepting one slice to a whole pie, and so on.

The lesson is that when we justify actions, we rarely justify as compared to ground zero or to perfection, but only to the last action that we convinced ourselves to accept. Eventually, we find ourselves lost with no moral compass at all. “Moral muscle” is the concept that just as we cannot develop physical muscle without the most basic of exercises and training, we cannot develop moral strength without exercising morals and ethics in our smallest decisions, again and again. Decision after decision, we are either strengthening our moral muscles — or our self-rationalization muscles.

Our overlapping faiths. Some think that all religions are the same, and others that all religions are completely different. I’ve learned as a chaplain that religions are different – especially when we compare ultimate visions of the end of days, so different that those visions are often mutually exclusive. However, when we focus not on the end of days, but rather on the end of today – to work together to make this day one with less fear, less suffering, less hunger and a bit more filled with hope, we can roll up our sleeves and work side-by-side. That’s when we understand how our different faiths can overlap. For me, that’s been the secret of the success of military chaplains.

Diversity is a strength. When I was in Beirut, there were foxholes and bunkers for many different warring factions: Christian for the Christian phalangists, Muslim for others, mostly Jewish for the Israelis. But our American foxholes were filled with men of differing faiths, including many with no specific religious faith, just struggling to keep their faith in humanity, their faith in the future. I thought then that if the world had more interfaith foxholes, we might have less need for foxholes, and more room for faith. As I grow older, I am more and more convinced of that truth.

And, as the recently retired commandant of the Marine Corps, General David Berger, taught his Marines, diversity is clearly a strength we should appreciate, and even cherish. When someone in a discussion, especially at a meeting, comes up with an insight that would never have been mine – because that person had different life experiences or different religious or cultural lessons that led to a different vision of the world – I give thanks for the power of diversity that can open my eyes and allow me to learn…and grow.

Rights vs responsibilities. Someone once said that it is human nature to focus on our rights and on our neighbor’s responsibilities. What a different world it might be if we did the reverse. The challenge is not to abandon our rights, but to balance them against our responsibilities to others, to our world, and even to ourselves

Lessons from the darkest of time. When I helped create the Department of Defense guide to observances for the Days of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust (DRVH), I came across the most chilling Nazi slogan imaginable: “Life unworthy of life.” That was their description of those who could be put to death. I realized then, and have been constantly reminded of it since, that we don’t leap to that idea immediately, but rather begin with the concept of life “less worthy than mine.” Eventually, we come to accept the unimaginable as rivals become enemies and enemies become less than human, dirt under our feet. When I had the honor of offering the prayer in one of the first DRVH ceremonies in the Capitol Rotunda, I included this line in my prayer: If the day has not yet dawned when we can see the face of God in others, then let us see, at least, a face as human as our own. That lesson must be heard, embraced, and shared — especially during today’s trying, divided times.

My Bible lesson. When I counsel others to make an ethical will, I recommend to those who value the Bible that they include at least one Bible teaching – and if that is not acceptable, then to include one lesson from a book or teacher whose words have touched their heart. For my life, one of the most important Bible verses comes from the Book of Esther, the book that we Jews read during the festival of Purim. When Esther, the secretly-Jewish queen, must make a decision for the sake of saving the Jewish people – but one that might put her life in danger — she seeks advice from her cousin Mordecai. He tells her that he has faith that God will save our people no matter what she does. But, he asks, what if it is just for this that you were brought to the kingdom? Whenever I face a hard decision, one that might endanger my life (or, more difficult for many: one that might threaten a promotion or career!), I reflect on those words. What if it were just for this moment – for this decision – that I was given life, and brought to this moment in time?

This is my will — still in progress, I hope — for my daughter.  Plus the words that I love her with all my heart.

About the Author
Rabbi Resnicoff is a retired U.S. Navy Chaplain, former National Director of Interreligious Affairs for the American Jewish Committee, Special Assistant to the Secretary and Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force for Values and Vision (with the military equivalent rank of Brigadier General), and Command Chaplain for the United States European Command -- at that time, the "top chaplain" for all U.S. forces in 83 countries, spanning 13 million square miles. His Naval career began in the rivers of Vietnam followed by Naval Intelligence in Europe before rabbinical school and ordination. Part of a small group of Vietnam veterans that worked to create the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, he delivered the closing prayer at its dedication, and personally convinced the US military to participate in the U.S. Days of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust. He was the first chaplain to teach at a U.S. military war college: "Faith and Force: Religion, War, and Peace," Naval War College, in Newport, RI, where he was also a frequent guest speaker at the annual “Ethics and Military Leadership” conference he helped create. His numerous military awards include the Defense Superior Service Medal, and besides ordination and an honorary doctorate, his academic degrees include a masters in International Relations, and another in Strategic Studies and National Security Affairs. He delivered more prayers in congress than any other rabbi, and is the only rabbi Guest of Honor at the historic USMC Marine Barracks parade. On Oct 23, 1983, he was present in Beirut, Lebanon during the 1983 terrorist attack that took the lives of 241 American military personnel. His report of the attack and its aftermath, written at the request of the White House, was read as a keynote speech by President Ronald Reagan. Click here for text. Click here for video. Click here for more background information.
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