Shema b’ni mussar avicha v’al titosh Torat imecha – Listen my son to the rebuke of your father and do not forsake the Torah (teachings) of your mother (Mishlei/Proverbs, 1:8)
Moments before the start of my second Shabbat in the army, my mother closed our phone conversation with the request that I share some Torah with the guys over the following day. Don’t count on it, I told her. Soldiers take the Torah at its word for the Sabbath to be a day of rest, leaving little time for other activities, be they Greek philosophy or Talmud Torah. Having landed four hours of guard duty, split evenly between Friday night and early Saturday morning, my squad was all the more eager to sleep away whatever free time was available.
I first realized something special may be in the works when a lottery determined I would be one of the four soldiers exempted from guard duty (two soldiers get a pass on each shift since our squad has more guys than necessary to man all the positions around base). As the rest of my squad trudged off for two hours of dreary sentry duty, I skipped off with another soldier to Kabbalat Shabbat, the Friday night prayers I find so necessary to appreciate the arrival of Shabbat. Despite a small minyan, the familiar Carlebach tunes had the desired effect. By the end of the prayers, it hardly mattered that I was in the army. Shabbat had arrived!
Avoiding guard duty also meant that I would not miss the company-wide Shabbat dinner. Had I been out in the cold, I would not have been present when my fellow soldier approached me, minutes before the start of dinner, and asked if I could take his place and give a d’var Torah speech to the crowd. Having previously helped him brainstorm the d’var Torah that our officer had requested he prepare, I was not caught off guard and gingerly told him I would be happy to speak instead. Moments later our company commander asked for quiet, informing the crowd of some two hundred plus soldiers that one of their own would shortly share some words on the weekly Torah portion. And then I popped up from my seat, my commander smiled in surprise, and for five minutes some of the clearest Hebrew ever to escape my lips shared the following message.
The weekly Torah portion is above all famous for the Jewish People’s reception of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Thunder and lighting, the Ten Commandments, pretty thrilling and history making stuff, to say the least. And yet this week’s Torah portion is named Parshat Yitro, after the fairly forgettable father-in-law of Moshe. Yitro finds his way into the parsha through a seemingly incongruous story that takes place before the big showdown at Mt. Sinai, when Moshe meets his father-in-law and gets schooled in a more efficient method to organize his judging of communal complaints. Why this story is placed right before the Jews receive the Torah is a question that surely must catch the attention of even the most jaded reader.
The answer I shared with my fellow soldiers last Shabbat was simple: The Torah was given to the Jewish People in order for them to follow its precepts and build a model community, to become a light unto the nations that could perfect the world. Putting those precepts into practice, building that model community, is a task that demands people to work together, orderly and as a team. It is not a job man can accomplish on his own. Even if that man is Moshe. Forgettable Yitro taught Moshe, and by extension all of us through history, that lesson, the necessity of order and teamwork in order to achieve our most cherished objectives. The army, and basic training in particular, works on the same principle. No one, no matter how strong or intelligent, can go it alone. Teamwork is everything.
Before I began speaking, I noted that this was the first time I had ever addressed such a large crowd in Hebrew. If I speak incorrectly or am not clear, I added, please find me over the course of Shabbat to correct me and give me a chance to clarify my words. Dozens of soldiers indeed approached me over Shabbat to comment on the d’var Torah. But all they wanted to share was congratulations, telling me how much they admired my speaking before everyone.
The night ended on one final high when my squad arrived at the dining hall shortly after dinner had ended. We had saved them heaps of food. Before digging in, however, religious and secular guys alike took a few minutes to welcome Shabbat by singing Shalom Aleichem and Eishet Chayil and Kiddush. The meal that followed may have lacked my five minutes of d’var Torah giving fame, yet the presence of just my core group of guys, back from two hours in the evening cold, added an intimacy that made the Shabbat night complete.
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