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The God Squad: Thank you for your service

Rabbi Marc Gellman, Tribune Content Agency on

November 11 is Veterans Day and it is high up on my list of American secular holidays that have spiritual undertones. We just brought to mind Halloween, and we can add Valentine’s Day, Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, but this week it is time to pause and thank the men and women who have chosen to serve our country in our armed forces. There are many ways to serve America, but this choice is supreme because it also entails the willingness to lay down one’s life for our nation. To choose to do that is a sacred choice.

The spiritual issue that undergirds Veterans Day is the choice to believe that there are things beyond and above our own career pursuits and personal needs and something bigger than ourselves to which we owe a debt of gratitude and service. This is the primary claim of all religions. Patriotism is not faith. A nation is not God. Read Isaiah chapter 40,

All nations before him are as nothing and they are counted to him less than nothing and vanity. It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers. It is he that bringeth the princes to nothing; he maketh the judges of the earth as vanity. Hast thou not known? Hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the Lord, the creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is he weary? There is no searching of his understanding. He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall: But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint. (Isaiah 40: 17, 22-23, 28-31)

God always deserves our sacrifice. Nations can deserve it if they are nations that seek freedom and the common good. President Woodrow Wilson, in an address one year after the end of World War I, aptly described this sacrificial impulse we honor on this and on all Veterans Days as a “splendid forgetfulness of mere personal concerns.” Veterans Day (Yes, there is no apostrophe!) used to be called Armistice Day because the end of World War I occurred at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.

I am thinking now about how that generation of WWI veterans are all gone now, but I am also thinking about how the clock is ticking down for the veterans of World War II now. According to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, only 240,329 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II are alive in 2021. That is less than 2 percent. Soon, very soon, there will be none of them left to tell their stories. We will have to tell their stories, but to tell them we must know them. It is stories that hold us together. It is stories that frame their courage and sacrifice. It is stories that remind us that America is not just a postal address but an idea — a soaring transformative idea.

So let me tell you the story of how a rabbi won WWII. He was my rabbi — my teacher — and his name was Nelson Glueck. Nelson was a biblical archeologist and a spy. He was the head of the OSS (the precursor of the CIA) in the Middle East during the war (and he was the model for Indiana Jones!). Under the guise of looking for King Solomon’s mines, Nelson set up a network of Bedouins that tracked German troupe movements. At the battle of El Alamein he provided the British army with detailed maps of the water holes in the area so they had water while the German army led by Rommel did not. Because of this intelligence, the weakened Germany Panzer Afrika Corps under Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was defeated by General Montgomery and the British Eighth army at El Alamein on November 11, 1942. Had the Germans won, they would have been able to push their way along the Mediterranean coast up into the Balkans and into Russia thus forcing Stalin to fight them on two fronts instead of just at Stalingrad. This would most certainly have led to a German victory in the war. As Churchill wrote in his memoirs, “It may almost be said, before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat.”

 

And so, the tide of the war was turned, and it all happened because a rabbi helped the allies win the war. Thank you, Nelson Glueck!

Happy Veterans Day

(Send ALL QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad via email at godsquadquestion@aol.com. Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including “Religion for Dummies,” co-written with Fr. Tom Hartman.)

©2021 The God Squad. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

(c) 2021 THE GOD SQUAD DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.
 

 

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