With the observance of Veterans Day earlier this week, perhaps it’s time to ask three pertinent questions that in all likelihood should have been asked years ago:
What’s the difference between serving your country and serving your G-d? Serving your country is usually time-bound. For most, there is a tour of duty. Even those who make a career out of serving their country, there are options as well as retirement benefits. Unlike the aftermath of Vietnam, those who serve our country, are generally looked up to and respected. Anyone in the boarding lounge of an airport is reminded that the courtesy of early boarding of the aircraft is extended to U.S. military personnel. Serving your G-d, on the other hand, is a life- long endeavor and undertaking – at least from the age of Bar and Bat Mitzvah. Rather than looking forward to a pension, Jews ought to be looking forward to the challenge. Just as a well-disciplined soldier always sets self-improvement as the goal, so too ought self-improvement be the case of a well-disciplined Jew. As Jews, there are no tours of duty. Rather than signing up, Jews are inscribed. As a result, each of us breathes our last breath, while serving our maker.
What is the difference between a decorated soldier and a decorated Jew? Succinctly stated, the difference lies in medal and mettle. A decorated soldier is one who associated with medal. The uniform says it all. Whether it be the number of stars on the epaulet or the rows of awards over the chest, a quick glimpse quickly indicates to the casual observer whether the one serving our country is a person of rank. A decorated Jew, however, is one who is associated with mettle. While bereft of any visual reminders of achievements and accomplishments, the Jew has every reason to believe that the decorations that await him or her are out of this world, in the most literal sense. Typically, the decorated Jew is one who has succeeded in braving the enemy of indifference, the adversary of assimilation and the foe of capitulation. Like the decorated soldier, the decorated Jew is constantly aware of traps and pitfalls. Like the decorated soldier, the decorated Jew is not only alert to external enemies, but to threats that come from within as well.
What is the difference between a Jewish veteran and a veteran Jew? A Jewish veteran is one who has fulfilled his or her patriotic chore in serving this country. Particularly when it comes to World War II. In actual numbers, well over half a million Jews put their lives on the line for the war effort. Given the fact that there were a little over 4 million Jews in this country at the time, we have much of which to be proud. In fact participation of Jews in the American Forces was exemplary when one takes into account pockets of anti-Semitism existent in the army, the Army Air Corps (later to be known as the USAF) and the navy at that time, especially when there were more than a few in the country filled with resentment, that this country should have to stick its neck out for Jews in Europe. A Veteran Jew on the other hand simply does not exist. It can’t. As far as Judaism is concerned, “ a Jew, even though he has sinned, is still a Jew ” (Sanhedrin 44a).
By definition, a Jew cannot abandon Judaism. Unlike the army, in Judaism, there is no highest office or status to achieve. Unlike the army, one is not honorably (or dishonorably) discharged from Judaism. Unlike the army, one does not receive a pension for the remainder of one’s life. What one does ultimately receive, however, is a heavenly reward for living a life of commitment and study which typically leads to a life of mitzvot. Rather than attaining the rank of Corporal or Sergeant or Colonel, the highest rank one can attain in Judaism is Talmid Chacham (a wise student) or Ben Torah (son of Torah).
The closest (but in no way similar) that Judaism comes to Veteran’s Day is the commemoration of a yahrzeit. Whereas Veteran’s Day reminds us that they served, a Yahrzeit reminds us that they lived. Whereas commemorating a Yahrzeit brings with it the message “May their memory be a blessing”, commemorating Veteran’s Day brings with it the message “Veterans are a blessing to this country”.