I had the privilege of teaching in Miami Beach, Florida, this week, as part of the annual Jewish Welfare Board (JWB) Chaplain and Lay Leader Training Course. This training event wasn’t just for Jewish chaplains who serve the US military, but also for lay leaders – individuals like you and me who aren’t enlisted but play a crucial role in supporting and leading Jewish communities of soldiers and sailors. These lay leaders, though they might have professions unrelated to the military, volunteer to offer essential spiritual support to those who safeguard our nation. There are over a hundred such lay leaders across the country, but the demand exceeds the supply, highlighting the significance of their service. They work hand in hand with chaplains to fill the gaps and provide the necessary spiritual guidance for service members. These remarkable individuals who epitomize the concept of sacred service.
A particular moment during the Training resonated deeply.
Alongside my sister, Lieutenant Commander Rabbi Yonina Creditor, Chaplain, United States Navy, I helped lead a prayer service using a small Torah that has traveled around the world wherever Jews have served. The Torah is carried within a specially fitted case with wheels, the same olive green container that transports weaponry. This juxtaposition of a Torah container that could easily be mistaken for a weapon container stirred emotions within me and called to mind the words chanted when the Torah is taken out of the ark in civilian Jewish ritual settings, verses whose original military context is often forgotten by contemporary worshippers:
וַיְהִ֛י בִּנְסֹ֥עַ הָאָרֹ֖ן וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֑ה קוּמָ֣ה ׀ יְהוָ֗ה וְיָפֻ֙צוּ֙ אֹֽיְבֶ֔יךָ וְיָנֻ֥סוּ מְשַׂנְאֶ֖יךָ מִפָּנֶֽיךָ׃
When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say: ‘Advance, O God! May Your enemies be scattered, and may Your foes flee before You!’ (Num. 10:35)
The ancient Ark containing the Torah was brought out during times of war or crucial moments of reconnecting with the Divine. Joshua’s time, after Moses, saw the Torah read publicly after long periods of neglect (Josh. 8:34-35), only to be forgotten once Joshua died (Judges 2:10). A parallel of public reacquaintance with Torah occurs during the time of King Josiah (2 Kings 23:1-3) and then again upon return from the first Exile, with Ezra reading the Torah to a community who, for generations, have forgotten its content (Neh. 8:8). These stories remind us that in times of loss, of conflict, of religious reformation, Torah has served as a reclamation of humanity and reconnection to community.
This moment highlighted the role of chaplains and lay leaders in reminding service members of their humanity, particularly in environments where humanity may sometimes feel secondary to the demands of conflict.
In essence, the work of chaplains and lay leaders aligns perfectly with this spiritual underpinning. They serve as a conduit for individuals to retain their humanity when confronted with the harsh realities of war. In contrast to a weapon, the Torah becomes a source of morality and guidance on how to fight with integrity and spirit. The presence of a Torah scroll on the battlefield should not be misconstrued as the rationale for a holy war, but rather as a potent reminder that even amidst challenges, we must not lose sight of our core values and principles.
I’m deeply moved by the dedication of my sister and other military chaplains, as well as the lay leaders who stand by them. Their work is invaluable in preserving the humanity of those who serve and ensuring that the ethical core of the Torah remains intact even in challenging situations. Organizations like the Jewish Welfare Board (JWB) play a vital role in supporting chaplains and lay leaders in their mission, showing that spirituality can thrive even in the midst of conflict.
I offer a blessing for our Military Chaplains and Lay Leaders, that they themselves be blessed for serving those who serve. May our world be blessed by peace.