Today I received a phone call from an 18-year-old named Steven. Steven and I were scheduled to meet at Starbucks in a few days, prior to his leaving for U.S. military service. He called to let me know that he could not keep our appointment as the Marine Corps insisted that he report for duty that very evening, two weeks ahead of schedule. I asked him for his Hebrew name (Shlomo Yakar ben Nechama) to add his name to our prayers recited each Shabbos on behalf of the entire American and Israeli Defense Forces.
Steven, I will devote this column to the message I want to share with you. Please read it over again and again till you are home and we can keep our appointment.
This week's parsha, Vayishlach, opens with Jacob facing an adversary of long ago, his brother Esau. The Torah describes Jacob's apprehension at meeting this brother, who comes to greet him with 400 armed men ready to battle.
" And Jacob became very frightened and it distressed him."
This fright, says the Midrash, was his fear of being killed. The distress he felt was that he might be compelled to slay others. It was obvious to Jacob that if a battle would ensue, it would be to the death. Jacob faced the tragic dilemma of kill or be killed. He was living The Most Dangerous Game. The great medieval commentator, the Ralbag (Rabbi Levy Ben Gershom), writes that the term "distress" expresses a greater sense of emotion than it does fear. To Jacob, the thought of needing to kill pained him more than the thought of being killed.
This no-win predicament is the sad circumstance our people face whenever we need to raise our weapons in self-defense. Golda Meir summed it up so poignantly when she said, "We can forgive our Arab neighbors for killing our sons, but we can never forgive them for making our sons killers."
This conflict of emotion did not deter Jacob from preparing for the battle at hand, and it should not deter you, Steven. War may be necessary, but it is still war. Killing a sworn enemy may be essential, but it is still killing. This realization, however uncomfortable and paradoxical it may be, must both plague and steel the conscience of your soul.
Steven, if you are sent to defend our country, go forth as Jacob did. Jacob understood that it was his duty to protect his family against all enemies, whoever they may be, and he was prepared to do so. To quote G.K. Chesterton, "The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him." Steven, let the special love of your mother and father be engraved upon your heart as you face the battles being waged against the freedoms we hold so dear. Each day in Afghanistan, we read of reports of gross abuses by soldiers, both Taliban and Northern Alliance. Each side boasts of their atrocities, holding up artifacts and booty as if they are badges of honor. These men have allowed their souls to be corrupted by the devil called war. It is understandable and at times justified to fight for what one believes in; it is never permitted to be gleeful about it.
Steven, I am proud to know you. I express to you my gratitude for your service, and I offer my prayers for your well-being. May God guard you from all physical danger and return you safely and speedily home. But always remember, Steven, it is your job to guard your soul, that it remain forever fresh and untainted. Like our forefather Jacob, may you be steeled for your mission even as your soul remains forever distressed at the need.