Life on the frontlines takes me to interesting places, gifting me fascinating experiences.
Last week, I flew to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, as a Bozeman woman had asked me to officiate at her dad’s funeral there. When I arrived in Iowa, I was told that in addition to the Jewish aspect — the taharah (purification and prepping of the body), the family asking for mechilah (forgiveness) from the deceased, the kriah (rending of the mourners’ garments), the eulogies, and, of course, the tefillos (prayers) of Tehillim — there would also be a military honor service at the burial in the local Jewish cemetery.
In this week’s Torah portion, Beshalach, we are told that “G-d led the people around by way of the desert to the Red Sea, and the children of Israel were armed when they went up out of Egypt.” Simply speaking, being that they weren’t enslaved anymore, they were free, they were able to protect and defend themselves with weaponry. Slaves lack independence and are beholden to their masters; a liberated people can, and should, take care of themselves. Yes, we all wait for the day that Isaiah’s prophecy (Isaiah 2:4) will be fulfilled, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war anymore.” And on some level, we’ve seen a lot of that already over the past 30 years, but until it’s in full fruition, weaponry is, occasionally, the only way to go.
While we can nitpick about the meaning of the Second Amendment (though I am certainly no constitutional scholar), it is clear that some level of self-defense is included in our Bill of Rights. Whether individual protection or governmental protection (military, police, etc.) is your thing, a nation needs to be armed so its citizenry doesn’t fall prey to bandits, invaders, or enemies.
I live in Montana, a place that is heavily armed and yet super-safe. There are different reports out there as to how many guns there are in our state and what the percentage of gun ownership is per capita, but no matter what’s reported, I assure you that gun ownership is extremely high with both Republicans and Democrats in Big Sky Country. The average Montanan enjoys the gun shows, family hunting expeditions, hanging out and practicing at the range, and, most importantly, protecting his or her family. Like the Jews in the Sinai Desert, they consider their gun ownership a sign of their personal liberty.
I share this because in the frum community we are quite distant from guns and war. When I was a kid, the only people I knew who were armed were the NYPD officers and criminals, and the only time I saw a gun was when I passed a beat cop roaming the neighborhood. The only war vets I knew were U.S. Colonel Rabbi Jacob Goldstein who lived in Crown Heights and my grandfather, who was a sniper in the Israeli Army. War was something we heard about, talked about, and debated, but we rarely interacted directly with those who served our country and gave their all in defense of our liberty.
Sadly, the Jewish world has had close interactions with survivors of the Holocaust and Israeli soldiers who fight for Israel’s endurance. Maybe we’ve even had an occasional chat with a soldier on the Intrepid in Manhattan, but those bravest of the brave who stormed Normandy or bombed Dresden, who were sent to Iraq, Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, and Afghanistan, who have wives, husbands, children, siblings, and parents praying for their safety and awaiting their return every day … we simply don’t know many of them, and they each have a story that needs to be heard by us.
Standing at Bert’s funeral and hearing about how, as captain, he led his all-black platoon onto Omaha Beach, losing most of his men and returning home with a lifelong injury, hit it home for me. Montana has the highest per-capita veteran population in the country, with 100,000 of our one million citizens having served our country. These are real people, hardworking and devoted to family, who are loyal to the flag and would die for our freedom. Yes, these churchgoing Christians would die fighting the enemies of freedom, just so we can daven in shul, learn in yeshiva, and build mikvaos and Jewish schools, worry-free.
They earned our respect with their blood.
Perhaps this is why every Friday night after Aleinu, in our Bozeman Shul, we pray for “our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land, the men and women in the IDF, and the men and women serving in our armed forces, along with the law-enforcement officers here in Montana.” We don’t pray for them because I need to or because I have vets in shul I want to impress; we do it because I want our community, and my children, to know that freedom isn’t free, not in Israel and not in the United States. Bert believed in everything America, as it allowed his Russian parents an opportunity to live as free Jews in Eastern Iowa; he wanted to do his part to ensure its continuity. It’s easy to be anti-war while being protected by those who are at war to defend you; it’s harder to pray for a time of peace while honoring those soldiers with every fiber of your being.
As the honor guard and the local chapter of the American Legion honored Bert with a gun salute and later presented the flag to his two daughters, thanking them for their father’s service, I choked up and so did everyone else. It was moving and it hit me right at the core. It reminded me that my comfortable life in Bozeman was a blessing from Hashem, gifted to me, Chavie, and our children through His agents of freedom in the various branches of the military. I admit, war is ugly and guns are horrendous, but they are a necessary evil that we need until Mashiach comes, and it takes courageous people to serve selflessly.
May we merit to experience the words of Maimonides in his Code of Jewish Law: “In that era, there will be neither famine nor war, envy nor competition, for good will flow in abundance and all the delights will be freely available as dust. The occupation of the entire world will be solely to know G-d. Therefore, the Jews will be great sages and know the hidden matters, grasping the knowledge of their Creator according to the full extent of human potential, as Isaiah states: ‘The world will be filled with the knowledge of G-d as the waters cover the ocean bed.’”
Rabbi Chaim Bruk is co-CEO of Chabad Lubavitch of Montana and spiritual leader of The Shul of Bozeman. For comments or to partner in our holy work, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit JewishMontana.com/Donate.