I was traveling on business one Friday evening. My flight was going to be late that night, near midnight, and I was in a very small town with no synagogue or havurah. So I decided to just wait at the airport. I bought a small bottle of grape juice and a roll, put on a black kippah that I always carry with me, opened a small siddur and started to recite some of the blessings. A middle-aged business man, who was very walking very determinedly to his flight suddenly stopped, changed course, and approached me. He looked down at me and said “Gut Shabbos, young man.” “Shabbat Shalom, Sir,” I responded. He smiled and walked away. If I had had my druthers I would have been at home, surrounded by my Mom, my Dad, my brother Joshua, my aunt and my uncle, and my two beagles. I didn’t want to be in that small airport. I wanted to be home. But in that moment, with those four words, he transformed that otherwise lonely Shabbat for me.
A couple of months later I was again traveling, this time on military orders. Again, I was in a small airport, the name of which I can’t remember. I was in uniform, anxiously counting down the hours until I would see my family again. Lost in my thoughts, I suddenly felt a tapping on the back of my shoulder. I turned around. It was a frail old man. He wore an oversized ball cap that said “WWII Veteran” on it. Sewn under the inscription were campaign ribbons from multiple battles in that terrible conflict. “I’m so proud of you,” he said. After seeing so much carnage, after having lost many friends who were in the prime of their lives when they died, and after he and his generation saved the world, he still said this to me. At that moment, I didn’t care about the flight anymore. I felt so undeserving. We talked about our units, where we had been, where we had trained, and of course traded a funny army story or two. We spoke until I had to board my flight. As I said goodbye and turned to walk away, he snapped to attention and saluted me. With tears in my eyes, I returned the salute.
That salute encapsulated everything it meant for me to be a solider. That “Gut Shabbos” symbolized everything it meant for me to be Jewish.
A short sentence or phrase conveys so much of what it means to be part of a specific group of people. Words like, yeshar ko-ach or kol hakavod, mazal tov, tzedakah and tikkun olam mean much more than their simple translation. For example, when we mention a person who has passed away, we say zichrono l’vracha, may his memory be a blessing. This habitual phrase sends a message about the enduring value of a life and our respect for others. These words are windows into the Jewish soul.
For the last eight years I have been honored and humbled to serve as an officer in the Army National Guard alongside our Nation’s greatest natural resource, her young men and women who have selflessly volunteered to serve in the armed forces. Just as with Jews, our fighting men and women have a distinct vocabulary: The Marines say, “Semper Fidelis” (Always Faithful). The Army Special Forces have “De Oppresso Libre” (To Free the Oppressed) while the Army Rangers proudly state “Rangers Lead the Way.” The US Coast Guard rescue swimmers and US Air Force Pararescue both share the motto “So that others may live.” And in my beloved state of Rhode Island, the 118th Military Police Battalion’s motto is “Facta Probant” (Deeds prove us). As you read this, there is a young American in the mountains of Afghanistan, in the dust of Djibouti, and in places all around the globe living, fighting, and sadly, but quite possibly dying by these words.
Words unite and words remind. On this Veterans Day, as you say Sh’ma, remember that someone else screamed “Airborne” as he jumped out of an airplane over Fort Bragg, North Carolina or Fort Benning, Georgia, so that you could utter our highest prayer. As you say Oseh shalom, someone else is shouting “Climb to Glory” (10th Mountain Division, Fort Drum, New York) in Afghanistan. While we solemnly say Yitgadal, someone else is standing over the grave of his best friend at Arlington or in front of his or her name at the Vietnam Memorial, whispering “See you on the high ground, brother.”
Words can hurt and words can heal. Thank a veteran. Ask them to tell their stories. Listen to their words. Wish someone a Shabbat Shalom, a peaceful respite, a whole and complete rest, and all that those words signify.
Aaron A. Rozovsky is a second year rabbinical student teaching a class on the connection between Judaism and warfare as well as Jewish military history at Kulanu. He plans to remain in the National Guard as a chaplain once he is ordained.