Thursday, July 4, 2013

Matot-Masei

Although I am currently in Jerusalem studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute, my thoughts turn to today’s holiday of July 4th.  I have been thinking about the soldiers who over the centuries fought to gain our independence and still, continue to fight to guarantee our freedom.  I have been thinking about the pain these battles and wars continue to take on our soldiers.

This past fall there was a powerful article in The New Yorker (Dexter Filkins, “Atonement”) about one soldier’s journey to gain forgiveness from the Iraqi family he harmed.  On April 8, 2003 he and his fellow Marines had mistakenly shot twenty innocent Iraqi civilians.  That day continues to haunt many of the soldiers of Fox Company, Second Battalion, Twenty-Third Marine Regiment. 

Years later, one of its soldiers Lu Lobello sought out one of the survivors.  Margaret Kachadoorian had made her way, along with her only surviving child, to Glendale California.  She agreed to meet with Lobello.  From that meeting and their tentative and emerging friendship, he gained a measure of forgiveness.  She gained a measure of healing.

Whether or not you agree with the war in Iraq we must stand with our fellow citizens who fight in our nation’s military.  This article was a reminder that we must recognize the cost and pain to their lives, as well as to the lives of their families.

This week we read about the Israelite’s war with the Midianites.  God commands the people: “Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites…”  It is a bloody campaign.  In this war, the Israelites killed all the Midianite men, took the women and children as captive and destroyed all their towns.  The Torah offers a ritual for those returning from battle.  “You shall then stay outside the camp seven days; every one among you or among your captives who has slain a person or touched a corpse shall cleanse himself on the third and seventh days.” (Numbers 31:19)

The war with the Midianites is disturbing in its ruthlessness.  Nonetheless the ritual cleansing for Israel’s soldiers is an interesting, and perhaps almost forgotten, footnote.  Even in biblical times there was recognition of the struggle for soldiers to return from battle to home.  But we continue to focus on the horrors of the wars fought in our name.  Why would God command us to destroy the Midianites?  How could God desire vengeance?  We argue about the reasons our country went to war in Iraq.  We continue to debate whether or not it was a justified campaign.  We forget about our soldiers.

Our countries have fought many wars.  Here in Israel the reminders are inescapable.  As I wander Jerusalem’s streets, I walk among memorials: “Here fell…during the battle for Jerusalem during the Six Day War.”  The cost of America’s more recent wars is more distant and for far too many, remote.  We tend to forget about the pain that walks among our soldiers.  Our leaders offer familiar tropes about our soldiers’ sacrifices, and I am sure there will be mention of these today, but too little about their continued pain.  On this July 4th we would do well to remember their torment.

The Israeli poet, Eliaz Cohen, writes:
You hold back the stream of tears.  We go out for a breath of air on
            the porch
here I prepared a little corner to write the unfinished novel
now from the fig tree in the year the last leaf falls
everything is filled with symbols you say
you fall on my neck, weeping bitterly
my good, loyal soldier, now at long last it is permitted to cry.
On this July 4th, amidst the barbeques and celebrations, pause, if but for a moment, and remember and offer a tear for our soldiers’ pain.

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