Not for Self but…: Sacred Service Meets Military Service

In most cases, we describe our jobs beginning with the sentence, “I work at…” For those of us who are clergy, we often describe our jobs beginning with the sentence, “I serve at…” For me, when I became a Naval chaplain after ordination, the verb became a noun and the sentence became, “I entered military service…”  There is work, and there is service, and I learned the difference during those few years in the United States military. I had understood that the rabbinate was a vocation, a weaving together of my life and my rabbinic leadership. Being a rabbi was a way of life and not a way to earn a living. Being a Naval chaplain was not merely a way of life but a giving over of my life to the service of my country. That sounds dramatic, but until I recognized the truth of that statement, I could not appreciate the limitless commitment and sacrifice that our military members face each and every day. Military service demands that one give up most individual rights and freedoms. Military service demands that one place the needs of country before all other entities. One cannot simply quit the service should orders or expectations come in conflict with personal needs or even safety. There is a legal oath, a signed contract, and a promise before God and comrades that I am at the service of the commander in chief.  I have pledged to give my complete compliance and, unless an order is unlawful, I have no personal authority to decide anything differently.

Three years of service in the Navy chaplaincy then prepared me to see my service as a rabbi with different eyes. Promises to a congregation or a contract with an organization do not usually carry the full weight and power of the federal government. However, I have come to understand that rabbinic service, service to that which is holy, means that I am subservient to something that transcends mere human authority. Because of this, my actions as a rabbi hold more meaning and are more potent than I may realize or may desire. Certainly rabbis can quit or shirk responsibilities, or act in ways that bring dishonor to our title. However when rabbis do not fulfill their responsibilities as holy service, then they diminish the presence of holiness in our world.

Service in the rabbinate means always going beyond that which is expected because we cannot measure God’s expectations of us. Holy service demands that a rabbi gives up her right to come first and must allow the needs of the Jewish people to be primary. Holy service inspires us to see that while we may be paid to do a job, we cannot be compensated for actions which are rooted in a belief of eternality.

Does that mean that we cannot set boundaries to this holy service? Are we expected to give ourselves over completely to the needs of others? Shall we simply ignore our needs and the needs of our loved ones? I do not hesitate in answering “no” to all of these questions. Even while on duty in the military, even exigent times when it might seem that there are no boundaries to one’s service, even then one is required to carve out time to meet one’s individual needs and care for one’s welfare. But in the rabbinate, as in the military, there is no such thing as a balance between the commitment to holy service and the rabbi’s personal time. Boundaries are necessary to prevent others from trampling our feelings, and boundaries are necessary so that we have perspective on our power and functioning. Boundaries are necessary so that we do know how to give ourselves space for renewal and relationships. However service to the holy will always calls us back as we remember “before whom we stand.”

That is why one should not enter into holy service unless one feels compelled, called to do so. There will be times when the service itself provides us with immeasurable satisfaction and meaning. There will be times when service to the Jewish people will wholly deplete us. One experience will provide the energy for the other. A sense of faith and purpose gives us the ability to see beyond the need for this to ultimately be even or fair. Rather we see our service as a precious opportunity. We are vessels which will not be emptied unless we forget the source of our fulfillment.

Rabbi Julie S. Schwartz is a board certified Jewish chaplain and certified supervisor of Clinical Pastoral Education, and she was the first woman rabbi to serve as chaplain in the United States military. She established and continues to teach in the program of Clinical Pastoral Education at HUC-JIR.

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