Vayeira (5775) — On Veterans

10/11/2014 at 15:03 Leave a comment

“On Veterans”

 

Parashat Vayeira

Neil F. Blumofe

8 November 2014

 

On this Shabbat, as we honor our veterans, we again cultivate an appreciation for indescribable service and individual choices made in combat and in our nation’s defense, that enable all of us to gather this morning, unconcerned about an immediate threat to our life or to our way of life. As we may fret about derisive and corrosive gridlock in our political process, and as we may debate the effective deployment of our military in various theatres around the world, we recognize and honor those who put their lives in harm’s way so that we won’t have to.

When we see someone in uniform on an airplane for example, we may give them applause or siddle up to them and say thank you – or even allow them to board before us, if we are feeling generous. Still, we marvel at the suppleness of youth – the sense of confidence that exudes from a young man or woman, enchanted by ideals – we thank a returning soldier or sailor or airman for their work in battle – which we don’t want to know too much about, and then after a while, we expect them to transition right back to a regular rhythm of life, to find their way again in the advantages of living our democracy.

We don’t have time or even patience for the real effects that may occur in a battle-hardened psyche – in a young mind that witnesses or enacts the awful details of war – the grim choices that are made in the heat of conflict, and the real suffering that instantly occurs, everywhere, puncturing the bravado or the dreams of remote leaders or the expectations of a nation. We look to bury the blood. If one has the blessing to survive this, or variations of this, how does one truly transition back to a normal life, engaged in the tedious details of living our part, of upholding our tacit understanding of the fabric of civilization? We seek to sanitize that which protects us – to put it out of our mind and not look too closely at the effects or the damage or the real cost of that protection.

In our Torah, we find Abraham veering between his responsibilities at home and the comfort and attention that he receives when he is out in the world. It seems that he has difficulty engaging in deepening his relationships with his family. At the beginning of our portion, we find Abraham outside of the tent, k’chom hayomin the heat of the day. Our traditional commentators speculate that this is because Abraham was recovering from his recent covenant-making – his circumcision – and he was simply convalescing. And yet, this detachment is part of a larger pattern – a sense of skimming the service and not taking a firm stand for his family – think back when he left Canaan to Egypt, and willingly assented that his wife go in with Pharaoh. Think back to the fractured relationship that he had with his nephew Lot – and the splitting up of his family – granted, our tradition presents Lot in unfavorable and immature light – and while that is readily supported by our sacred text, we know that Abraham was the one who ultimately disengaged, and sought the divorce.

His difficulty in his travels is exacerbated after his war with the kings, and his rescue of Lot. He returns home after the battle, and seems to live separate and apart from his family. He finds more satisfaction away from home, arguing for the welfare of the nameless, implicated residents of Sodom and Gemorah; he repeats his pattern of behavior, offering his wife to Avimelech the king of Gerar, without prompting; he expels Hagar and Ishamel out into the wilderness; and without telling his wife, he takes his son Isaac to be sacrificed in a remote location – now, he would rather suffer his recovery in the heat of day, rather than being inside of the cool, with his family – a curious choice, to say the least. As our tradition bestows the mitzvah of radical hospitality on Abraham – praising his unhesitating service to the wayfarer – his family unravels and burns.

One can make a convincing case that Abraham is suffering from PTSD – from post-traumatic stress disorder – from shell shock – and as a veteran of war, he never adjusts – he never finds his way towards a settled, dependable life. Although victorious, he suffers the horrors of war and without a safe outlet, he brings his fears and broken experiences into his home.

Let us not think that it is only the most battle-hardened soldiers that suffer from PTSD. When we endure a constant threat to life – a constant negative stimulus, when we find ourselves trapped in a place with difficult and negative personalities that cause pain and trauma, over time our interior plates, shift – or our coping mechanisms snap, and we become undone. Our ideas are undermined and the truths that we tell ourselves to get by, fly away.

Hear how a survivor, a veteran of World War I, Siegfried Sassoon, describes it in his poem, “How to Die,” which was published in 1918:

Dark clouds are smouldering into red

While down the craters morning burns.

The dying soldier shifts his head

To watch the glory that returns;

He lifts his fingers towards the skies

Where holy brightness breaks in flame;

Radiance reflected in his eyes,

And on his lips a whispered name.

 

You’d think, to hear some people talk

That lads go West with sobs and curses,

And sullen faces white as chalk,

Hankering for wreaths and tombs and hearses.

But they’ve been taught the way to do it

Like Christian soldiers; not with haste

And shuddering groans; but passing through it

With due regard for decent taste.

 

Each of us, in our own way, has fought our battles, and now must contend with our form of PTSD. To survive is to be a veteran of our previous life. Think of societies that are vulnerable to the outbreak of war – or to roving militias that kidnap and enslave your daughters, or the sudden appearance of militarized bands entering a village, seeking to exterminate – or a civilian population that endures the piercing red alert sirens, always having one eye on the miklat – the bomb shelter.

One may say that after fighting in war, Abraham never adjusted, sabotaging his family and taking out his pent up trauma on his closest relations. He tries to come to terms with witnessing death, by taking his son out for sacrifice. He lives perpetually out of the tent, looking for ways to stay out, inventing reasons not to go home. He is a shadow a temporary resident of his own life, not struggling to inhabit his good and to moderate his imperfect ones. It is as if Abraham has given up somehow – and is just living out his days, with an impairing numbness.

For me, one of the saddest days of this past summer, after all of the difficulties in Israel, was reading about the three boys. Not the three kidnapped boys, who were later found dead in a field near Hebron – rather the three boys, members of the Israel Defense Force (IDF) Givati brigade, who committed suicide after fighting in Gaza.

A first rule for pastoral work is to never, ever assume that you know what happens with someone behind their closed doors – to never assume anything about a person, despite what you see – we all seek to contain our demons – and war is a terror tunnel that allows this monstrousness into the bright of day. Today we honor our veterans for their service, for us – – and beyond any conversation that we could have about the responsibility our society has to care for our veterans during and after their return from service, we offer compassion and gratitude today, with the realization of how hard it must be, to not go through the motions with nightmare – of how hard it must be, rather to just show up, looking to thrive and to make and strengthen meaningful attachments.

For all of us who are wounded within, we offer respect, faithfulness, and love. We thank you, as we see ourselves but for the grace of your service, in you.

Shabbat Shalom.

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