One of the more obscure tourist sites for American Jews is the Museum of American Jewish Military History, an interesting – if relatively small – historical attraction located in the nation’s capital. There, the stories of generations of American Jewish soldiers are told, from the Revolutionary War through the liberators of the concentration camps until today – each fascinating and illuminating vignettes of courage, heroism and self-sacrifice.
Of the millions of Americans and thousands of American Jews who have borne arms in defense of the United States, 14 identified Jews have won the military’s highest award, the Congressional Medal of Honor. The last, in 1969, was John Levitas, an Air Force officer in Vietnam whose transport plane was struck by a mortar shell. Injured in one leg, and bleeding from other wounds, he grabbed from the backpack of another injured soldier an activated, smoking flare that was in danger of exploding. Hugging the device, and crawling to the rear of this wobbly plane, Levitas threw the smoking flare outside the cargo door. Five seconds later, the device exploded free and clear of the plane. Levitas survived, having saved the entire crew from certain death.
Another Medal of Honor was awarded posthumously to Captain Ben Solomon, a World War II medic in the Pacific theatre. Solomon’s clinic was attacked by Japanese infantrymen on one of the Pacific islands. Solomon, who was usually unarmed, grabbed a machine gun, and began mowing down the enemy. By the time the fog of war was lifted, Solomon was dead, surrounded by the 98 Japanese soldiers whom he had slain. Most of the wounded in his clinic were safely evacuated.
These vignettes, and many others, raise the question: what induces man to make the ultimate sacrifice ? What cause is so just and so noble that it is worth risking or terminating one’s earthly existence in its furtherance ? Granted that some acts of courage are coerced by circumstances, and others arise out of a simple, selfish will to live. But many others – some depicted in the Museum – are of the “falling-on-the-grenade-to-save-one’s-comrades” variety. If life is the paramount value, how could one sacrifice one’s life to save another, or to advance a cause, or to gain a temporary and temporal edge ?
It must be noted that dying for a cause is not inherently virtuous. Indeed, the world today is populated by countless Moslems who are willing and eager to kill themselves, as long as they can kill others in the process. Untold millions of soldiers have been killed in history’s wars, often fighting for causes they did not believe in or even fully understand. So what is self-sacrifice ? How do we distinguish the honorable self-sacrifice from the dishonorable ?
Certainly, part of the answer will focus on the justness of the cause. There are causes which are innately just, and others which are patently preposterous or immoral. But this is too subjective to be a proper guide, as many iniquitous, ignominious causes have avid supporters and self-immolators. Having a moral compass is essential, but are there objective criteria which distinguish admirable from pointless sacrifice ? Since effective soldiering requires not only physical training but also proper indoctrination as to the rightness of the mission or struggle, how can we assess which causes are worthwhile ?
Perhaps the true definition of self-sacrifice is “living beyond the self”, i.e., perceiving events not in terms of their benefit to the individual but only in terms of their benefit to the community at large and its permanent set of values and ideals. The suicide bomber who anticipates an eternity of bliss in the company of virgins (what’s in it for the virgins anyway ?) cannot be said to be sacrificing himself for a greater cause, but exchanging one “pleasure” for another “pleasure”. It is not a selfless act, but a selfish (not to mention despicably cruel) one.
Those who fight for freedom (theirs or others), who risk their lives for the welfare of others, or who struggle for Torah or for the settlement of the land of Israel are living beyond themselves. Many residents of YESHA have told me that they are living for future generations, not for themselves; just like prior generations sacrificed for the Galil or Tel Aviv, they are sacrificing for the heartland of Israel.
Living beyond oneself is not only the task of the soldier or pioneer, but indeed of every Jew. Every person should have at least one area of life in which pure altruism, with no expectation of return or reward, governs one’s conduct. Helping the downtrodden or needy, assisting in shidduchim for marriages or jobs, or even dispensing baseless friendship on another all define the person as selfless and considerate, and enables him to partake of eternity. Eternal life is attained primarily by those who live on that plane, where their own needs are secondary to those of the community.
Certainly, this attitude was exemplified by Esther, who risked her life, her home, and her family by approaching Achashveirosh unasked and uninvited, “and if I perish, I perish” (Esther 5:16). Life, in fact, is not our paramount value. Service of G-d and the promotion of His will and value system on earth transcends even life, and renders our lives meaningful and complete.
Virtuous causes abound, and our history is replete with examples of such altruists on whose shoulders we stand to this day. They are found on the walls of a Jewish military museum in Washington DC, in Har Herzl in the Holy City, in homes in Judea, Samaria and elsewhere in Israel, in our Tanach and Talmud, and in the annals of our people.
They are all forever close to our hearts, and we are as close to them as we wish to be.