Today, November 11th, we honor our Veterans. We might wear patriotic clothes, some sing military anthems, perhaps we even fly the flag of the United States of America. We pay tribute to the great sacrifice these brave men and women made, and continue to make for our country, for our freedoms, and for our democracy – each and every day. But when the parades are over and the flag has been carefully folded, we might recognize our veterans, but do we really see them?
Last Friday night at the Glazer campus, I invited my friend and former classmate, Rabbi Michael Salonius, to speak with our community about his work with veterans. His chaplaincy work uses mythopoetry about warriors and human resilience to transform post traumatic stress into posttraumatic growth – allowing for these heroes to be rehabilitated back into society.
During the talk, he revealed that much of the veteran experience is both unseen and misunderstood. Narratives of gun-loving, war mongering individuals, often cloud our minds, when in reality, these are human beings willing to sacrifice it all, so we can sleep easy at night. This disconnect of what he calls civil society and the world of war, results in some staggering statistics:
- Twenty-two Veterans a day commit suicide
- 31% of the unhoused in CA are veterans
- In 2022, nearly 38,000 veterans experienced homelessness in the USA
- 75% of veterans and active duty members suffer from PTSD
So I ask again, do we really see our veterans?
At the start of this week’s Torah portion Vayera, Abraham recovers in his tent from a late-in-life circumcision. Suddenly, he sees three strangers in the distance and rushes to greet the weary and disheveled travelers. He brings them food. He gives them water. He even offers to wash their feet.
The specific language of the Torah hints at what lies underneath each of Abraham’s gestures. The first word of this week’s parsha is “vayera”—“God appeared”—The Hebrew root (vav, yud, resh) appears twice in the second verse, almost back-to-back.
“Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked (vayar), and behold, three men stood over him. And when he saw (vayar) them, he ran to meet them…” (18:2).
So, why is this word repeated? Isn’t it obvious that when Abraham looked at the men, that he SAW the men?
Rashi, a French Medieval commentator, states that in the passage, the first use of the word “see” is a literal one; Abraham saw with his eyes, but I argue not with his heart. But then, perhaps because Abraham had endured his own trauma, Abraham took a second look, and really “saw” the men. He saw tired humans, weary from their travels, who just needed a little bit of help.
At the end of the Shabbat service, I overheard a man approach Michael. He thanked him for his talk, and revealed he had served in Vietnam. I had SEEN this gentleman at services countless times before. We had talked casually, but I didn’t know much about him. He told Michael he had been a paratrooper, and with eyes full of sadness, said he still woke up every night with flashbacks of his time in the jungle. The two men shared a knowing glance. Michael thanked him for his service, and asked if he could give him a hug. The two embraced and parted ways.
In that brief moment, a veteran was not just recognized, but a veteran was seen.
At the end of the Shabbat service, Rabbi Nickerson asked what the collective “we” could do to ensure that Veterans were seen on this holiday. His answer was simple:
- Thank a veteran for their service.
- Give to organizations that help to rehabilitate and care for veterans
- Connect and engage in difficult conversations and statistics about the veteran experience and with veterans
At the oneg, a young girl walked up to Michael and asked him if his job was hard. He got down to her level, and said: “Yes, but I know that I can help people. Shouldn’t we always offer help to someone in need?”
O beautiful for heroes proved, In liberating strife
Who more than self their country love And mercy more than life…
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Veterans Day,
Cantor Lisa Peicott