If you’ve been following my story, you now have the basic outline, so from this point I’m switching gears. What follows is the perspective on my life decisions gained from learning Torah, as when you’re going through life you don’t always understand why you’re doing what you do, and when consequences—good or bad—happen, you don’t always know why, but hopefully you learn from experience. So I learned, some of it through hard knocks, hard enough to suck the life almost completely out of me. Unfortunately, there was a lot of that type of learning. That kind leaves scars on both the outside and the inside, and what’s worse, leaves scars on others as well, especially those you love the most.
I was fortunate to get a second chance. Not a do-over, as you can never erase the past nor eliminate the consequences of your actions, yet I’ll do my best to explain with my limited resources. I’m not a rabbi, nor a learned scholar, just a simple Jew, so I won’t try and teach you Torah, but I can tell you how Torah illuminated my life. If you can learn from it, good, and if not, well, it’s still a good story.
My military experience didn’t end with discharge from the hospital. It was with me every day, in the beginning every hour. While my experience eventually faded enough for me to focus on getting on with life, it left me with unanswerable questions, like why was I alive?
“I can comfort the living and the wounded but I can do nothing for the dead,” I remember writing in my journal in Vietnam. “Nothing at all for the dead. I cannot even keep them from dying. But if I did not know them, if they were not dear to me, then their dying would be as the falling of autumn leaves.”
Yet I did know them, and somehow, I had to make sense of their dying and of my own mortality.
I needed to put myself back together, and I ended up in the Brandeis University Graduate Department of Sociology in Waltham, Massachusetts. My advisor was Morrie Schwartz of Tuesdays with Morrie fame (more on him later). It was an extraordinary place of liberating ideas and mind-blowing concepts that helped me understand life. My wife and I were living in Framingham, and I used to pass the town of Concord on my way to Brandeis.
I had to see where the American experiment began, so I went to that bridge and read from the plaque with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s immortal words: “By the rude bridge that arched the flood/ Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled/ Here once the embattled farmers stood/ And fired the shot heard round the world.” I could still hear echoes of that shot. I was that soldier. It was my blood that painted those stripes red, it was the purity of our ideals that formed those white stripes and those stars on the dark blue background. Those stars were my friends, my fellow soldiers throughout the ages who stood in the breach when our country called.
We soldiers hadn’t really come home yet, as it was the early seventies and our country was deeply divided and dispirited — sort of like today. Coming home took many more years and didn’t occur until they inaugurated the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., in 1982, that black scar of rock erupting from the ground with more than fifty-eight-thousand names of sons and fathers, husbands, soldiers all. A lot of us drifted into Washington and somehow found each other, formed up in our old units, and then…in bits and pieces of uniforms. On crutches and in wheelchairs, with canes and prosthetic legs, we soldiers stood tall. One of our guys grabbed a flag and we marched around the White House. We came home.
No one understands America better than those who have sacrificed for her. I became a patriot, and I salute the flag and those who stand in her stead.
In Israel, we fight wars because we have to: to defend family and home. America seems to have found itself fighting on distant shores for causes that we seem never to hold to as they are based on political decisions, and politics always changes.
Secular society believes in superheroes with their special powers, but we don’t believe much in regular heroes, those of flesh and blood, as we’ve discovered they have feet of clay. I didn’t find any heroes in Vietnam, though many acts of extreme heroism took place. Mostly we soldiers just believed we were doing our job, what needed to be done. A moral person isn’t proud of killing people.
The Torah teaches, “Eizeh hu gibor — who is a strong hero? One who conquers ‘yitzro.’” Now that’s a word that requires a lot of explanation. It refers to the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. What makes that inclination evil, however, is when we allow it to lead us to do something contrary to what the Torah dictates. But inclination itself isn’t evil! In fact, Hashem (G_d) put that inclination in us, yet the inclination doesn’t have a moral compass. Hashem gave us the Torah to teach us how to act, and sometimes, when we’re in the midst of making a difficult choice, it requires a very strong person – a gibor – to make the right one.
Now that kind of hero doesn’t get medals, at least not in this World. I saw those kind of heroes not only in Vietnam but in many times and places in life. Most recently during Covid, I saw the staff of our nursing homes and psychiatric hospitals continue to come to work every day, knowing their lives were in danger. That took a lot of courage, especially in the early days when there were so many deaths.
Another thing I learned is that there is no separate morality between the state and the individual. When our forefather Jacob’s two sons Shimon and Levy killed the entire community of Shechem after their sister was raped, Jacob cursed their anger. On his deathbed, when he blessed all of his sons, he reiterated that this behavior, even in the interest of your own people, is not the Torah way: the ends doesn’t justify the means. That’s something our American government could stand to learn.
What I learned most is to appreciate the sanctity of life, a lesson that has stayed with me forever. That said, when the walls of civil society are torn down and the beast is loosed, moral men must put their faith in Hashem and join the battle.
I also learned that most people can choose between black and white, but shades of gray can throw us for a loop. At my son’s engagement party, his new father-in-law cited a passage from the Torah about how, when Moses descended from the mountaintop after receiving the Torah, his face emitted a glow, and he touched his hair. My son’s father-in-law said he wanted a talmid chacham, a learned Talmud scholar, for his daughter, one who could see the difference between right and wrong to the thinness of a hair. The Talmud explains that the Torah was given to us not only to set forth general principles of morality but to distinguish between the many shades of gray, which is most of life.
As for the great questions of life, why I survived and my friends perished, I found an answer to only one part of the question. It took a while, but I discovered why I survived, and it became my mission in life – but that’s another story.
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