To Serve – Lessons from the Military
Scott Air Force Base, Illinois – March 4, 2010.
I had a remarkable experience today at Scott Air Force Base.
I was invited to the base to deliver the keynote address at their annual National Prayer Luncheon. The topic was “The Power of Prayer in these Turbulent Times.” Among other ideas, I discussed the importance of remembering the fundamentals, including: the selfless service of the military in defending our freedoms and protecting others; the core values that drive this country in the first place – preserving the sacred rights of each individual crated in the Divine Image; the partnership we have with G-d in transforming this world into a garden of peace; the vital importance of connecting, emoting and bonding with G-d through prayer; seeing it as a force that counters our mortal fears, loneliness and other challenges every serviceperson faces from time to time. My talk was very well received by the several hundred military personnel that attended, but I am not writing now to describe what I taught them, but rather what they taught me.
Living in our undisciplined world – where most people just do whatever suits their fancy – it was quite surreal entering into this “city within a city,” where everything is driven by profound discipline.
Here I was sitting between Lieutenant General Vern “Rusty” Findley and Colonel Gary Goldstone. General Findley is the vice commander of Air Mobility Command, which is responsible for the US Air Force’s global mobility all around the world. He makes daily life and death decisions that affect thousands of people. Colonel Goldstone is the Commander of the entire Scott Air Force Base, where more than 17,000 active-duty, Guard, Reserve, Department of Defense civilians, and contract personnel are assigned.
The manners, decorum and utmost respect that they – and everyone present – displayed were beautiful to behold. I am not naÃ¯ve in thinking that these people are beyond politics, infighting and all the other maladies that plague human interactions. But what was amazing was that despite the human frailties, these officers do not allow them to affect their overall cause and driving mission. And that cause, without any question, is the underlying force that defines the community at the air base – quite a contrast to most of our communities and institutions, where politics and bureaucracy are far more dominant than any cause.
As I was taken on a tour of the base – from the two gyms to a complete mall (with the lowest prices you’ll ever find), a running track to the chapels, an air strip and railroad tracks, housing, offices, you name it – I was struck by something that I could not quite put my finger on. Honor, reverence, cordiality, a sense of unity permeates the entire base. But there was something deeper. Nestled in western Illinois, just a few miles out of St. Louis, this base was its own “universe” – very different than anything I have ever quite seen.
As we were driving away from the base back “home,” it came to me: What made this place so very different than any other is the sense of duty that permeates every detail of the Air Base. Every individual, every protocol, every move is driven by the imperative to serve: No one and no action on the base ever forgets that they are serving a cause beyond themselves. Sure they have their “time off” and are not immune to the frivolities and pettiness of all humans, but the driving engine of the base is never frivolous or lethargic – it always has a sense of urgency and higher purpose.
Perhaps this is why the military has no conniptions about religious influences in their ranks. Quite the contrary, the chaplaincy plays a prominent role and is seen as a vital component in providing the personnel with spiritual resilience.
The contrast with our regular world is startling. This powerful sense of service coupled with the deep sense of urgency – the core of military discipline – simply does not exist in the outside world. Sure there are disciplined and cordial people everywhere; but our systems and institutions do not have duty and service as their bedrock. How many of us see ourselves primarily as servicemen and women – serving a cause higher than ourselves? When was the last time that we unconditionally accepted an order from a superior authority?
Take our schools for instance. As students we may have had some fear of our authorities, but it hardly makes a dent in our personalities and our disciplines. Even if we attended excellent private schools that trained us with a strong sense of etiquette and life skills, most of us (at least in our personal and moral choices) do not live our lives answering to a higher moral calling and to a higher authority.
Don’t get me wrong. As a rebel myself, I’m the last one to preach about submission to authority. G-d knows how I have challenged the authorities in my life. Yes, despite the merit in defying the establishment (especially when it may be corrupt), there is without doubt an intensely resonating beauty in total acceptance of a higher order (when one can be found).
And I remind myself of the Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak’s words: A soldier, even when he sleeps, remains a soldier. The military is the ultimate symbol of what is called “kabolat ol,” literally “accepting the yoke,” the absolute acceptance of authority and orders, without which the entire military command would fall apart. When a superior issues an order to a subordinate there are no ifs and buts; you must follow the order without any question or hesitation. Not doing so – on the battlefield – can be the difference between life and death. Imagine every person in the military deciding on their own when or when not to follow orders?
How ironic it is that only war – the need to defend against an enemy – elicits the profound duty, service and discipline of the military. Perhaps this is the secret way of the tzaddik (the righteous person) – the path of the true servant: He or she always sees life as a battlefield. The enemy – whether it is selfishness, greed or other self-serving forces – is always distinct and clear, lurking in every corner, impacting our every move. We are always on duty and must always be vigilant. And we always have the choice: to do what is right or to do what is wrong; to serve the greater good or to only serve ourselves; to live a life dedicated to a higher cause or to indulge in our own immediate pleasures.
These weekly Torah portions address the building of and the service in the Temple – a central theme in all of Judaism: That we were created not to serve ourselves or others, but to serve a Higher Reality – G-d. Avodah is the Hebrew word for service. It means to toil, to transform, to reshape our raw personality and untamed universe into a refined gem. This requires nothing less than total dedication – absolute submission to the higher cause.
If you need a strong wake-up call (and who of us does not?) visit a military base. It will teach you the dramatic difference between a life of duty and one of no duty. And the choice you make – will make all the difference of how your life is lived. Or not lived.