Remembering Our Soldiers

As we prepare to mark Memorial Day, I want to share this moving obituary with you:


Major John Alexander Hottell, III graduated from West Point in 1964, tenth in a class of 564. He was a Rhodes scholar in 1965. In Vietnam he earned two Silver Stars as a company commander. He later became aide to the First Cavalry Division commander, Major General George W. Casey. Both were killed in the crash of a helicopter on July 7, 1970. He was 27 years old at the time of his death, which occurred about one year after he wrote his own obituary and sent it in a sealed envelope to his wife, Linda. It was published in The New York Times and reads as follows:


“I am writing my own obituary for several reasons, and I hope none of them are too trite. First, I would like to spare my friends, who may happen to read this, the usual clichés about being a good soldier. They were all kind enough to me, and I not enough to them. Second, I would not want to be a party to perpetuation of an image that is harmful and inaccurate; “glory” is the most meaningless of concepts, and I feel that in some cases it is doubly damaging. And third, I am quite simply the last authority on my own death.


“I loved the Army; it reared me, it nurtured me, and it gave me the most satisfying years of my life. Thanks to it I have lived an entire lifetime in 26 years. It is only fitting that I should die in its service. We all have but one death to spend, and insofar as it can have any meaning, it finds it in the service of comrades in arms.


“And yet, I deny that I died FOR anything – not my country, not my Army, not my fellow man, none of these things. I LIVED for these things, and the manner in which I chose to do it involved the very real chance that I would die in the execution of my duties. I knew this, and accepted it, but my love for West Point and the Army was great enough – and the promise that I would some day be able to serve all the ideals that meant anything to me through it was great enough – for me to accept this possibility as a part of a price which must be paid for all things of great value. If there is nothing worth dying for – in this sense – there is nothing worth living for.


“The Army let me live in Japan, Germany and England with experiences in all of these places that others only dream about. I have skied in the Alps, killed a scorpion in my tent camping in Turkey, climbed Mount Fuji, visited the ruins of Athens, Ephesus and Rome, seen the town of Gordium where another Alexander challenged his destiny, gone to the opera in Munich, plays in the West End of London, seen the Oxford-Cambridge rugby match, gone for pub crawls through the Cotswolds, seen the night-life in Hamburg, danced to the Rolling Stones, and earned a master’s degree in a foreign university.


“I have known what it is like to be married to a fine and wonderful woman and to love her beyond bearing with the sure knowledge that she loves me; I have commanded a company and been a father, priest, income-tax adviser, confessor, and judge for 200 men at one time; I have played college football and rugby, won the British national diving championship two years in a row, boxed for Oxford against Cambridge only to be knocked out in the first round, and played handball to distraction – and all of these sports I loved, I learned at West Point. They gave me hours of intense happiness.


“I have been an exchange student at the German Military Academy, and gone to the German Jumpmaster school. I have made thirty parachute jumps from everything from a balloon in England to a jet at Fort Bragg. I have written an article that was published in Army magazine, and I have studied philosophy.


“I have experienced all these things because I was in the Army and because I was an Army brat. The Army is my life, it is such a part of what I was that what happened is the logical outcome of the life I loved. I never knew what it is to fail. I never knew what it is to be too old or too tired to do anything. I lived a full life in the Army, and it has exacted the price. It is only just.”


May the memory of all of our fallen soldiers only serve as a blessing.


President Obama and the “1967 Border”

Yesterday, President Obama dramatically altered longstanding U.S. policy regarding Israel’s borders and her security by calling upon Israel to pull back to the “1967 borders”.  Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who is set to meet with President Obama today, quickly rejected the President’s call, asserting that such a withdrawal would jeopardize Israel’s security and wellbeing.  In addition, the Prime Minister stated that he expected to hear the President reaffirm commitments made to Israel in 2004 by President George W. Bush and the Congress which made it clear that Israel would not have to withdraw to the “1967 borders.”  President Bush’s commitments reaffirmed U.S. foreign policy that dates back to 1967 and President Johnson.  At that time, it was widely understood that there would be no return the “1967 borders” as they were incapable of providing Israel with adequate defense.

It must be pointed out that there is no such thing as “1967 borders” between the Jewish State of Israel and the Palestinian State.  Firstly, there was no Palestinian State at that time. Secondly, given that there was no Palestinian State, there was no official border.  There was and is the “Green Line” which runs through the West Bank.  This “line” is the 1949 Armistice Line that marked where Israeli and Arab forces stopped fighting at the end of the War of Independence (1947-1949).  The War of Independence was a result of Israel’s Arab neighbors attacking the newly created Jewish State in an effort to destroy her.  The Armistice Line is what people refer to as the “1967 border” since it served as the unofficial border between the Jewish State and Jordan until the Six Day War in 1967.

The Armistice Line, which cut Jerusalem in half and put the Western Wall under Jordanian control, was never intended to serve as an official international border.  As was specified as early as the 1949 General Armistice Agreement between Jordan and Israel: “the line that was designated did not compromise any future territorial claims of the two parties, since it had been dictated by exclusively by military considerations.”

During the Six Day War in 1967, Israel was attacked by Jordan and other Arab neighbors.  In self-defense, Israel pushed the Jordanians out of Jerusalem and all regions that lay to the west of the bank of the Jordan River – gaining possession of the region (now referred to as the West Bank) that lies on the east side of the “Green Line”.

In response to the Six Day War, the United Nations Security Council issued Resolution 242 which expressed concern with “the grave situation in the Middle East”.  In addition, the resolution called for the “withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.” The Resolution states that the U.N. must “promote agreement and assist efforts to achieve a peaceful and accepted settlement” between the involved parties.  The Resolution does not call for Israel to withdraw from the entire West Bank and, thus, return to the “1967 borders”.  Some have tried to twist the wording of Resolution 242 by asserting that it calls for the withdrawal of Israel armed forced from THE territories.  But this is not the case.  It has been widely documented by those involved in crafting the Resolution that the language used was intentional.  There was never the expectation that Israel would return to the “1967 borders”.  They were an artificial armistice line that provided no security to Israel.

The idea that, through negotiations, Israel would withdraw from PARTS of the West Bank and, in turn, define her eastern border was embraced by President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush.   In 2005, President Bush stated that “any final status agreement must be reached between the two parties, and changes to the (“1967 borders”) must be mutually agreed to.”

Yesterday, President Obama changed U.S. foreign policy by stating that the United States believes that “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps”  These words legitimize an artificial line that was never intended to define a border.  While the President acknowledged the need for “mutually agreed swaps” of land, his words put “the 1967 lines” at the foundation of any future discussions between Israel and Palestine.  This is not what the statesmen who crafted U.N. Resolution 242 intended years ago.  This is not what previous Presidents demanded of Israel.  And withdrawing to the “1967 borders” is not Israel’s idea of peace and security.

While on the surface President Obama’s words might seem like nothing new, they are. They give legitimacy to a border that endangers the Jewish State, cuts through the heart of Jerusalem – the capital of Israel and Judaism’s holiest city, and simply defines where a war stopped in 1949 – but never defined where the sovereign nation of Israel ended and where the sovereign nation of Palestine began.  The President appears to be reinterpreting the purpose of the “1967 border”. Given that the President’s “reinterpretation” came hours before Prime Minister Netanyahu was set to arrive in the United States to meet with the President and speak before Congress, it appears that his words were meant to dictate what Israel’s borders will look like.  The President’s timing suggests that he wants to undermine the Prime Minister’s vision and set preconditions for future peace talks.  Israel, a friend and an ally who already has the challenge of negotiating peace with a “partner” that refuses to recognize her very right to exist and now includes Hamas, deserves to be treated better.

Sadly, the President seems to be following in the footsteps of other world leaders who have attempted to rewrite or tinker with the complexities surrounding Israel and her neighbors.  It is time for those of us who love Israel to reach out of our President and let him know that his words are putting Israel in danger, delaying the possibility of a negotiated two-state solution and leading us all away from a true and lasting peace.

Paraskavedekatriaphobics Need A Good Dose of Judaism

Today is not a good day for paraskavedekatriaphobics – that is those who are afraid of Friday the 13th.  Toda is Friday the 13th and many believe that this is a very unlucky day.  Most paraskavedekatriaphobics don’t really know why they are afraid of this day.  They are simply the victims of well-known superstitions.  These superstitions are most likely based partially upon teachings that assert that the number 13 is an incomplete number.  There are 12 tribes of Israel, 12 hours on a clocks, 12 months in a year, 12 Olympic gods…13 is incomplete.  In addition, Christian sources teach that Jesus was crucified on a Friday.  Furthermore, at the last supper, it is taught that 13 people were seated at the table.  As a result, some believe that it is dangerous to have 13 people at a table.  In the 14th century, Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales taught “on a Friday fell all this misfortune”.  By the 1800’s, it was widely believed that it was unlucky to begin a new adventure, give birth, get married, etc on a Friday.

To all you paraskavedekatriaphobics out there, I have good news for you: for Jews, Friday and the number 13 are far from “unlucky”!  Friday is the day we prepare for Shabbat – our day of rest and joy.  Friday is a busy day, one filled with shopping, cooking and putting together other things that we will need to enjoy Shabbat.  Friday is the 6th day of the week.  The number 7 is considered a complete number in Judaism as it is the last day of the week – our Shabbat.  Judaism, interestingly enough, does not teach that 6 is an incomplete number.  Rather, it teaches us that 6 is the “lead-in” day – the day we get ready for greatness!  Friday, the 6th day, is our wonderful “lead-in” day.

13 in Judaism is far from an unlucky number.  Consider when our children become bar mitzvah – at age 13 – an age of responsibility and celebration!  God is described as having 13 merciful, caring, loving attributes.  And the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides taught that in order to be a true Jew, one must embrace 13 foundations of Judaism.  13 is a wonderful, powerful, holy and complete number in Judaism.

And, thus, I wish you a happy Friday the 13th and a Shabbat Shalom!

Don’t Forget About Alabama…

We have all been focused on the events surrounding the death of Osama bin Laden.  But, we must not forget that parts of our country have been devastated by tornadoes, floods and fires.  Via Twitter, I have been in contact with people in some of the hardest hit parts of Alabama and they are in desperate need basic supplies: clothing for adults and children including socks and underwear, non-perishable food, school supplies, bicycles and helmets for transportation…Please consider putting together a care package and mailing it to: Five Points Baptist Church 3718 36th Street Northport, AL 35473.  Let the recipients know that Ramat Shalom cares.

Do We Celebrate the Death of Osama bin Laden?

Osama bin Laden has been killed. Many are celebrating his demise.  A few are confused – asking, do we celebrate the killing of this tyrant?

The Book of Proverbs teaches us: “at your enemy’s fall, do not rejoice.” (24:17) Related to this, the Talmud explains that when the Egyptians were swallowed by the Red Sea which had parted for the Israelites, the angels wanted to sing out in joy.  God, however, intervenes, silencing the angels by saying: “My handiwork (the Egyptians) is drowning and you want to sing!?”

As G-d silences the angels, Moses and Miriam, having safely led the Israelites to the other side of the sea, lead their people in a celebration – singing the song we all know as “Mi Chamocha”.  In joy, the Israelites sing out to G-d – saying who is like you G-d who has worked wonders and redeemed us from the evil of Egypt!?  This celebration is acceptable to G-d.  This song is still sung synagogues on a regular basis.

Why were the angels silenced while the Israelites were allowed to sing?  The angels wanted to rejoice as they were watching the violent death of their enemies.  Had they been allowed to proceed, this would have reduced the destruction of the evil Egyptians to a spectator sport.  And this is not acceptable.

The Israelites, while certainly relieved that the Egyptians were killed and, thus, unable to pursue them, were celebrating the incredible fact that evil had been crushed and freedom prevailed.  The Israelites were not celebrating the actual destruction of the Egyptian soldiers – rather, they were celebrating the destruction of everything these soldiers stood for.

You might argue that there is no difference between what the Israelites were celebrating and what the angels wanted to celebrate.  However, most of us, I would argue, who feel the urge to celebrate the end of Osama bin Laden, understand that there is a difference. We are overcome with emotion today because Osama bin Laden’s death is a symbolic end of a terrible chapter in our history.  While his demise does not bring “closure”, in many respects, his death is the closest we will get to justice for the murder of our family members, friends and countless other souls.  We are in awe of the strength and fortitude of our military and our security experts who tirelessly pursued this criminal.  We are awestruck that evil has actually been quashed – good has indeed triumphed over bad!

The angels who were silenced by G-d at the Red Sea were spectators – cheering on the actual fall of the enemy.  We saw similar cheering in 2001 as people in foreign lands celebrated as they watched the graphic images of the World Trade Center being destroyed on their TV screens.  The only people who were witnesses to Osama bin Laden’s demise were our brave Navy Seals and they were not spectators.  They were pursuing an armed terrorist who was evading justice by living in a fortified mansion.  The reality is, pursuing evil often involves the use of deadly force.

Osama bin Laden’s death will not bring back those who have been murdered.  His death will not stop the violence and chaos in the world.  However, his death does insure that the horrific evil he was determined to continue bringing into this world is no more. The details of what happened, the images of the battle that will soon appear, the fact that so much violence has had to take place to get us to this moment – this is not what should be celebrated!  Knowing, however, that the demise of this wicked man has eliminated some of the evil we on this earth are charged to overcome is reason to celebrate.

May the memory of all those who we have lost at the hands of this terrorist only serve as a blessing and may G-d bless the United States of America.

UPDATE: From JTA ARCHIVE, MAY 4 1945 – “Crowds of happy Jews gathered in Moscow’s synagogues last night after the announcement by Marshal Stalin that Berlin had fallen and the report that Hitler was dead. Around the aynagogue on Moroseike Street a throng remained discussing the news long after Moscow’s usual bedtime.”