On May 19 we began the Torah portion BaMidbar with the story of the census that counted Israelites of military age. That night we made history at the Marine Barracks in Washington DC, the oldest post in the U.S Marine Corps, with what was most likely the first Jewish service held there since its establishment in 1801.
Like the Israelites being counted, Marines are called to stand and be counted, then to make their lives count.
This was a time of a different counting as well, counting the omer, marking the days between Passover’s story of leaving slavery for freedom and the tale of Shavuot, arriving at Sinai to accept the “ten words” – the ten commandments.
Originally a counting for agricultural reasons, the linking of these holy days carries deep spiritual significance and meaning: from Passover we remember rights, from Shavuot responsibilities; from Passover what to reject, from Shavuot what to embrace; from Passover the lesson that we are not slaves, from Shavuot the truth that we are not God.
Israelite slaves leaving Egypt were joined by others – a “mixed multitude” of slaves touched and changed by the words and dreams of Moses – the vision of Moses that there was one God, part of history, part of a larger plan, part of a world where freedom was key, where the future could be better than the past. At Sinai we became a people based on dreams and united by values, not by race or blood: something new in the history of the world.
Marines are united by values, as well: core values of honor, courage, and commitment. For me three Jewish core values stand out: those celebrated on Yom Kippur, the values holy enough to change our futures, “avert the evil decree” and move us to the Book of Life. The values of teshuva/repentance, looking within ourselves, admitting mistakes, atoning, course-correcting so that we change; tefilla/prayer, looking up toward the heavens with humility, giving thanks for the good, but also seeking strength and guidance for our struggles with pain, weakness, and fear; and tzedakah/righteousness, looking around at our neighbors, and the world itself, affirming responsibilities in a world that sometimes focuses on rights alone.
The Marines held a parade that night before almost 4000 attendees – where I was proud to be the first rabbi in history to be welcomed as a Guest of Honor. The sound of the band included blasts that reminded me of the shofar, the ram’s horn. The long single blast of the tekiah is the call to attention, to heed and hearken what comes next. Three blasts, shevarim, is the call to look in, up, and around: teshuva, tefilla, tzedakah. Then seven short blasts, terua, always hits me like a call to action, a call to move: go, go, go, go, go, go, go. Thoughts and prayers are not sufficient unless they drive us to act.
Our minyan, the ten people who came to the service, welcomed shabbat that night through our songs and prayers. One Marine was in his band uniform, sheath without a bayonet for the service, but prepared to march in the parade soon thereafter. Even at this very busy post, we treasured Shabbat’s message to “slow down and smell the roses.” We know we are partners with God to make the world better, to fix what needs mending. But the danger of focusing only on what is wrong, what needs to change, is missing what is right, what we should celebrate and give us reason to rejoice. At this first Jewish service on the USMC’s oldest post, our prayers helped us slow down to give thanks for all the good we have.
That night we thanked God for the honor, courage, and commitment of the extraordinary men and women of the United States Marines. We prayed that the Jewish values of teshuva, tefilla, and tzedakah – repentance, prayer, and righteousness — could fill the world, could touch and change us all.