It was on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, in 1918, that Allied and German forces set aside their arms, effectively ending what at the time was called the ‘war to end all wars,’ World War I. The Treaty of Versailles wouldn’t be signed until June of 1919, almost 8 months later, but November 11th, the day the fighting actually stopped, became the day that symbolized the end of the war. It was in 1938 that the day became an official holiday, originally called Armistice Day, and marked on November 11th. After World War II, and then the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the name of the day was changed to Veteran’s Day, which is observed on this day.
Veteran’s Day today is often largely forgotten, a side note in the relentless news cycle, and the calendar itself, caught as it is just a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving. It doesn’t help that it is observed on the 11th of November, regardless of what day that is, and it is not a legal holiday, where people are off from work. It also over time has become a sort of little brother to Memorial Day, which is now a major holiday – a legal holiday – not only remembering those who lost their lives defending this country, but also observed on a Monday, and part of the long weekend that we associate with the beginning of summer.
If Memorial Day is about loss, about the remembering of those who gave their lives in military service, Veteran’s Day is about sacrifice, about understanding that military service by definition involves the sacrifice of the service man or woman and also of their family. And it is the idea of sacrifice that I would like to spend a few moments with you thinking about this Shabbat.
Certainly the Torah is no stranger to the idea of sacrifice. We know that the entire book of Leviticus, the middle of the Torah’s five books, is dedicated to the sacrificial system that was the dominant form of Israelite religion 3000 years ago. Animals were what people sacrificed in those days, and the idea seems so strange to us today that it is hard to understand what that meant to our ancestors. But it is important to remember that the animal they brought to sacrifice was one of the most, if not the most valuable thing they owned. And that really gets to the heart of the meaning of sacrifice. It is about giving up something of great value, something that you cherish and hold dear, but giving it up because you see in the transfer of that thing some greater purpose, some greater good that you hope to achieve.
It is that kind of sacrifice – the giving up of something dear, of something cherished for a greater purpose – that is explored in this week’s Torah portion, Vayera (Genesis 18:1-22:24). It is here in the 22nd chapter of the Book of Genesis where we find the story of the Binding of Isaac. We know the story well, for two reasons. The first is because we read it on Rosh Hashanah, a day when more Jews go to Temple than just about any other day of the year. But we also know it because it is one of the most compelling stories in all of western literature, a narrative that captures both our attention and our imagination. It fills our minds with questions – how could God have asked Abraham to sacrifice his son? How is it that Abraham actually almost fulfills God’s request? Where is Sarah in the story? What is Isaac thinking as his father leads him up to the top of the mountain? And these questions remain unanswered, which is one of the reasons the story remains so powerful to this very day.
But at its core it is a story about sacrifice. The demand that God makes of Abraham is unacceptable. It is to leave behind the life that he expected to have. It is to betray his wife Sarah. It is to sacrifice – to give over – the most precious thing in Abraham’s world, his son Issac. And we might say, ‘well, that is all true, but in the end it works out OK. Abraham doesn’t sacrifice Isaac, God doesn’t follow through with the request, in fact, God provides the ram that ultimately becomes the sacrifice in Isaac’s place!’ But that is the end of the story. In the beginning of the story, when God makes the request, and Abraham rises early to begin the journey, he does not know what is going to happen, in fact if anything he must imagine that terrible things are going to happen. And yet he goes. Why?
I think the answer is Abraham sees in God’s call and in his own willingness to answer that call – in his own willingness to sacrifice – a greater purpose, which is to bring God’s presence into the world, and to become the first human being to enter into a covenantal relationship with God. So he goes, and maybe he is hoping for the best, but I think he is prepared, when he leaves, for the worst. But he sets aside his own needs, and even the needs of his family, and Abraham begins that journey.
That is not so different from the way a soldier leaves his or her family to serve our country, in times of danger of course, but even in times of peace. They leave hoping for the best, but somewhere in the back of their mind prepared for the worst. They leave knowing that sacrifices, whether great or small, will be required of them. And yet they leave. In part they do so because they feel called by a greater purpose, a greater ideal. By the patriotism they feel in their hearts, and the freedom they know they are defending, by the greatness of the country they serve, the United States of America. They somehow set aside their own needs – and the needs of their families – in the service of those greater ideals, and those cherished and guiding values. That is what Veteran’s Day is about. It is about the willing sacrifices the men and women of our armed services have made, and how those sacrifices for the greater good have made our country a great nation for all of us.
This Shabbat we honor our Veterans, thanking them for their service and their sacrifice. May their example continue to inspire our country, reminding us of the ideals that should define our nation. May their efforts enable all of us to have a true Sabbath of Peace.