Ki Tisa: To Serve


The Disciplined Life: Lessons from the Military

Scott Air Force Base, Illinois – March 4, 2010.

I had a remarkable experience today at Scott Air Force Base.

I was invited to the base to deliver the keynote address at their annual National Prayer Luncheon. The topic was “The Power of Prayer in these Turbulent Times.” Among other ideas, I discussed the importance of remembering the fundamentals, including: the selfless service of the military in defending our freedoms and protecting others; the core values that drive this country in the first place – preserving the sacred rights of each individual crated in the Divine Image; the partnership we have with G-d in transforming this world into a garden of peace; the vital importance of connecting, emoting and bonding with G-d through prayer; seeing it as a force that counters our mortal fears, loneliness and other challenges every serviceperson faces from time to time. My talk was very well received by the several hundred military personnel that attended, but I am not writing now to describe what I taught them, but rather what they taught me.

Living in our undisciplined world – where most people just do whatever suits their fancy – it was quite surreal entering into this “city within a city,” where everything is driven by profound discipline.

Here I was sitting between Lieutenant General Vern “Rusty” Findley and Colonel Gary Goldstone. General Findley is the vice commander of Air Mobility Command, which is responsible for the US Air Force’s global mobility all around the world. He makes daily life and death decisions that affect thousands of people. Colonel Goldstone is the Commander of the entire Scott Air Force Base, where more than 17,000 active-duty, Guard, Reserve, Department of Defense civilians, and contract personnel are assigned.

The manners, decorum and utmost respect that they – and everyone present – displayed were beautiful to behold. I am not naïve in thinking that these people are beyond politics, infighting and all the other maladies that plague human interactions. But what was amazing was that despite the human frailties, these officers do not allow them to affect their overall cause and driving mission. And that cause, without any question, is the underlying force that defines the community at the air base – quite a contrast to most of our communities and institutions, where politics and bureaucracy are far more dominant than any cause.

As I was taken on a tour of the base – from the two gyms to a complete mall (with the lowest prices you’ll ever find), a running track to the chapels, an air strip and railroad tracks, housing, offices, you name it – I was struck by something that I could not quite put my finger on. Honor, reverence, cordiality, a sense of unity permeates the entire base. But there was something deeper. Nestled in western Illinois, just a few miles out of St. Louis, this base was its own “universe” – very different than anything I have ever quite seen.

As we were driving away from the base back “home,” it came to me: What made this place so very different than any other is the sense of duty that permeates every detail of the Air Base. Every individual, every protocol, every move is driven by the imperative to serve: No one and no action on the base ever forgets that they are serving a cause beyond themselves. Sure they have their “time off” and are not immune to the frivolities and pettiness of all humans, but the driving engine of the base is never frivolous or lethargic – it always has a sense of urgency and higher purpose.

Perhaps this is why the military has no conniptions about religious influences in their ranks. Quite the contrary, the chaplaincy plays a prominent role and is seen as a vital component in providing the personnel with spiritual resilience.

The contrast with our regular world is startling. This powerful sense of service coupled with the deep sense of urgency – the core of military discipline – simply does not exist in the outside world. Sure there are disciplined and cordial people everywhere; but our systems and institutions do not have duty and service as their bedrock. How many of us see ourselves primarily as servicemen and women – serving a cause higher than ourselves? When was the last time that we unconditionally accepted an order from a superior authority?

Take our schools for instance. As students we may have had some fear of our authorities, but it hardly makes a dent in our personalities and our disciplines. Even if we attended excellent private schools that trained us with a strong sense of etiquette and life skills, most of us (at least in our personal and moral choices) do not live our lives answering to a higher moral calling and to a higher authority.

Don’t get me wrong. As a rebel myself, I’m the last one to preach about submission to authority. G-d knows how I have challenged the authorities in my life. Yes, despite the merit in defying the establishment (especially when it may be corrupt), there is without doubt an intensely resonating beauty in total acceptance of a higher order (when one can be found).

And I remind myself of the Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak’s words: A soldier, even when he sleeps, remains a soldier. The military is the ultimate symbol of what is called “kabolat ol,” literally “accepting the yoke,” the absolute acceptance of authority and orders, without which the entire military command would fall apart. When a superior issues an order to a subordinate there are no ifs and buts; you must follow the order without any question or hesitation. Not doing so – on the battlefield – can be the difference between life and death. Imagine every person in the military deciding on their own when or when not to follow orders?

How ironic it is that only war – the need to defend against an enemy – elicits the profound duty, service and discipline of the military. Perhaps this is the secret way of the tzaddik (the righteous person) – the path of the true servant: He or she always sees life as a battlefield. The enemy – whether it is selfishness, greed or other self-serving forces – is always distinct and clear, lurking in every corner, impacting our every move. We are always on duty and must always be vigilant. And we always have the choice: to do what is right or to do what is wrong; to serve the greater good or to only serve ourselves; to live a life dedicated to a higher cause or to indulge in our own immediate pleasures.

These weekly Torah portions address the building of and the service in the Temple – a central theme in all of Judaism: That we were created not to serve ourselves or others, but to serve a Higher Reality – G-d. Avodah is the Hebrew word for service. It means to toil, to transform, to reshape our raw personality and untamed universe into a refined gem. This requires nothing less than total dedication – absolute submission to the higher cause.

If you need a strong wake-up call (and who of us does not?) visit a military base. It will teach you the dramatic difference between a life of duty and one of no duty. And the choice you make – will make all the difference of how your life is lived. Or not lived.


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Disciplined Life
14 years ago

With all due respect,Rabbi, as someone who grew up moving from base to town to base in a Naval Officers family, I beg to differ with the views youve developed after your guided tour. It is unfortunate, but true that military life all to often attracts those who are immature and unable to discipline themselves or take responsibility for the consequences of their own actions. The rate of alcohol and drug abuse among military personnel as well as spousal and child abuse are shockingly high. Part of this is because of the naive belief, fostered by such films as An Officer and a Gentleman that discipline imposed from the outside, often by means of bullying and brute force will cure the character flaws and addictive tendencies. This is rarely the case.

Moreover, another serious problem is that even people, like my father and many other fine people in the military I have known and loved, who do not have such weaknesses,are damaged by spending their lives surrounded only by people who think and feel as they do. Dissent and freedom of speech, even in the context of private conversations are not permitted except on a limited basis and where exercised can destroy a career. As one novelist put it, they are like raisins in a slice of pie, you can move the slice from plate to plate, but the raisins remain surrounded by the same companions with the same characteristics and opinions.

(This led to my fathers professed opposition to big government and socialized medicine when as a member of the military he had been provided with free medical care through the militarys socialized system, medical care that was excellent and enabled him to have the finest treatment available without bankruptcy or a moments concern about the financial impact of his cancer on my mother who was left comfortably provided for by an excellent big government pension system.

One of the obvious effects of insularity is the terrible consequences of soldiers, including officers, being totally uneducated about the cultures and customs of the people in the nations where they are stationed in war and in peace. This is finally being recognized, but we are a long way from solving the problem of cultural insensitivity and the (natural) point of view that the life of ones own comrades is more valuable than that of an innocent civilian.
Finally, in view of the continuing problem of right wing Christian activists seeking to mold the military in general, and the Air Force in particular, into a pro-Christian evangelical force by indoctrination of cadets (including Jewish cadets) and group pressure, I would hope that you would have a more skeptical view of the presentation of military culture as benign and beneficial. Indoctrinating people to believe that they must trust and obey and submit to Authority is a dangerous practice. Its all to easy for those in power to use convince groups so indoctrinated to follow foolish or even evil paths. A prime example of this was Nazi Germany where respect for authority led to the I was just following orders defense during the Nuremberg trials.
Yes, there are fine and honorable people in the military, but their characters were not formed by their military experience or training. Their characters were formed by their parents who transmitted values (including the need to question authority) and the ability to discipline themselves.

14 years ago

What do you think the term mamleches kohanim means, if it is not to be enrolled in a disciplined life that produces a respectful and conscious human being.
I came across an interesting distinction
between the American approach to being human and that of the Jewish one. In the first the emphasis is on individual rights, whereas in Judaism its about
obligations. The first is I centered,
the second is other centered.

marvin etzioni
14 years ago

visiting a military base in the u.s. is one thing. yet, the same advice would not hold true for many other countries. soldiers who are willing to blow themselves up for a higher cause, disprove a theory of blind servitude. the extreme example of soldiers in service, believed they were working towards a high goal, was not that long ago in nazi germany. we must always be mindful of soldiers not having a mind of their own, and to know that a goverment can and if left to its own devices, take a soldier and use him for destruction, rather than enlightenment.

Chaya Gross
14 years ago

I too recently visited a military base in which my son is a soldier. He did not choose this path it is an obligation of birth since he was born in Jerusalem. It is one thing to see the power of discipline in a voluntary army and its necessity for the military to function. It makes perfect sense in theory, however it is a completely different reality when you need to question the real motives and higher purpose of the military of which you are a part, by necessity, not by choice. In Israel unlike America, our wars are fought on our land, in our communities. The fight is existential and therefore one of survival. The stakes are much higher, and the need to question implicit. True, for the military to function there must be absolute discipline, but what happens when following orders comes into conflict with an even higher source of authority?
In Israel that is the debate at the moment. What if the powers that be go against the Ultimate Power? At what point does ones consience need to come into play? In todays yom yom, the Rebbe explains that avoda/service is for the purpose of serving the truth, not any byproduct. And so too in the military, we must be certain that our service is truly to bring a better world order, not partisan political interests.It is a very sensitive subject, and discipline without the authorities being truly elevated spirits can be extremely dangerous, because the first phase of any military training is to break the soldier so that he can ONLY do what he is told. Discipline yes, but Ultimate Authority/conscience must remain intact! A very delicate balance.

emanuel gruss
14 years ago

ki li bnei jisrael avadim. avadim heim vlo avadim lavadim. The city within the city that you describe is a slave colony where (Gen Findley) makes daily life and death decisions). Our overall cause, sense of dury and driving mission is reishit chochma jir-at hashem.To answer your question when was the last time that we unconditionally accepted and order from a superior authority is: every morning when we say reishit chochma jirat hashem. Paraphrase your sentences and you will end with a manifesto for the german SS. For example when you wrote: Every individual every protocol etc is driven by the imperative to serve The Reich. We need an Army. And an Army must impose discipline, otherwise it becomes a mob. 40,000 students of Rabbi Akiva lost their lives between Pesach and Shvuoth. These were Hesder Yeshiva students, vlo natnu kavod ze la ze, they did not respect their fellow students officers who may have been poorer lomdim but better leaders and motivators and qualified for officers commissions. We study their conduct and what should it be every year during the days of the Sfira. Kabalat ol malchut shamaim cannot be learned from a proffessional military organization. It has to be taught at home myirat hashem and mahavt hashem. Bibracha.

Steve Zipkin
14 years ago

My Dear Rabbi Jacobson,

Ill be 66 in June, if this winter ever ends. I can read in your remarks, that you are writing to a generation that is younger than my own. If you were writing to me, or those older than myself, the most obvious example of this lesson would be the young Nation of Israel. 55 years ago Israel was an entire nation where the feeling of service was so obvious that every Jewish visitor was inspired and infused by it from the moment they set foot on the land!! It was expressed by every citizen and every branch of its government. A short visit to Israel could fill a young person with a unique feeling of purpose to the point of directing his entire life choices into the path of service to G_d, country and others around him. Not a fleeting moment, but entire life choices!! The value of such an experience, or even that there was such a place and time is enough to make the current Torah lessons real and personal. Many people my age have already come to realize the great value of spiritual awareness as opposed to the flashing-fleeting material values we are tempted by on a dailey basis. I am happy that you have pointed out this beautiful reality in our countrys military; but Im a little sad that it is not as easy as it once was to see a similar reality in the entire State of Israel.

Karsten Bannier
14 years ago

Dear Simon,just wanted to say thanks for all the interesting essays.After working for over five years on a main airbase here in South Africa during the early 80s,I can relate to what you are saying.There certainly are a lot of people over here in South Africa that need a wake-up call,in more ways than one!

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