Of Navy SEALs and Tea
Parshat Korach 5779
About seventy five percent of the trainees who start the Navy SEALs training program, drop out before it’s done. And it’s not like anyone can get into this program, one must first excel in the regular Navy and then successfully finish a grueling three-week SEAL Officer and Assessment and Selection program which weeds out anyone unlikely to succeed. When someone graduates as a Navy SEAL, it is fair to say that they are one of the most highly trained military personnel in the world.
The SEALs, a covert operations team started in 1962 to operate on SEa, Air, Land has been the team sent into many of the most dangerous missions our military faces. Taking out Osama Bin Laden from within a highly guarded compound, releasing hostages from a pirate ship bobbing in the ocean by taking out all three pirates simultaneously from a hundred feet away, going in behind enemy lines in the beginning of a war to make sure the enemy doesn’t blow up a strategic hydroelectric dam, these are the types of jobs given to Navy SEALs, and we sure are happy to have them on our side.
Despite their incredible training and technological advantages, the SEALs are not always successful. There were two different botched missions during their work orchestrating regime change in Panama, and while ultimately the dictator Manuel Noriega was removed from power, there were many SEAL casualties. Recently, a failed mission in Yemen caused the death of SEALs Team Six member Ryan Owens. But the most famous disaster in the history of the SEALS became known as the Black Hawk Down battle of 1993, in Mogadishu, Somalia.
Somalia was a war-torn country, with no functional government and constant fighting between fourteen warlords causing incredible destruction. The warlord’s soldiers were usually teenagers from a warlord’s clan who would drive through the city in pickup trucks with a machine gun loaded on the back and fire at will, killing and maiming simply to sow fear. Hundreds of thousands of people were starving to death in the streets, and tens of thousands were being killed or horrifically wounded. Many warlords would try to bomb or mine schools because if they killed or wounded the children they wouldn’t have to fight them later as adults. The Army Rangers and Navy SEALs were sent in to provide emergency food to the starving locals, and to remove the warlords from their war of terror. Prime on their list was Mohammed Farrah Aidid, the most vicious of the warlords, who was working closely with Al Qaeda.
The Black Hawk Down event ended with eighteen Army Rangers and Navy SEALs dead, and likely over 1,000 Somali fighters dead as well. Dr. Howard Wasdin was part of the Navy SEALs Team Six that was in the thick of the battle and was shot three times in the same leg over the course of the battle. He was medevacked out of Somalia and managed to recover, but he would never be able to serve in the military again, and describes the whole ordeal as one in which he went from “rock-start status to rock-bottom status all at once.”
But when asked about his time in Mogadishu, the most meaningful moment to him took place many weeks before the Black Hawk Down event. His team had set up a safe house, codenamed “Pasha” in advance of the US troop’s presence in the area. Every night, soon after sunset they would start to smell this horrific smell, and after a few days figured out why. There was a twelve-year-old boy in a nearby house who had stepped on a mine near his school. One foot was blown off entirely, and the other one was seriously wounded, and both legs were gangrenous and rotting because the family had no access to proper medical care and antibiotics. The family would send the boy out onto the porch each night because they couldn’t fall asleep with him in the house due to the stench.
Howard and his SEAL friends decided to go in and save the boy’s life. One night just past midnight, they stormed into the house guns fully cocked and ready. They didn’t know if there were enemies in the house, as the enemy was everywhere and they couldn’t take any chances. They bundled everyone into one room where they held them under the watchful guns of the team, while Dr. Wasdin patched up the boy and left his family with anti-biotics and instructions for further care.
This style of raid repeated itself often over the next few weeks. Every time the SEALs team came into the home, they had to treat it like they were walking into an ambush, because they had no idea if the warlord’s militia had found out about them and were hiding in the house. This meant that every time they came into the house, they came in with guns drawn, they had to search through the whole house, under every bed and in every closet, to make sure no one was hiding and there were no booby traps. They had to keep all the members of the household under gunpoint while they administered medical care to the boy. It was a strange but successful way of practicing medicine in a chaotic warzone.
It soon got to the point that the family was so appreciative to the SEAL team that when they would rush in, guns drawn and all, the family would immediately assume their proper positions, in a circle in the living room with their hands over their heads. But now one family member would be holding up a tray of glasses with tea, a luxury they could barely afford, for all the members of the SEAL unit.
One good deed begets more good deeds. The locals who were in on the secret would indicate their appreciation when passing a SEAL member by touching their hearts, touching their heads, or bowing slightly. The SEALs, feeling appreciated, started providing additional medical help to other locals, and taught them how to purify their water because many were suffering from cholera. Even when Wasdin was lying on the tarmac on a stretcher, about to get shipped back stateside to get his badly wounded leg patched up, that boy was on his mind and he spoke to a local CIA officer imploring him that the care of the boy continue, and even requesting that they get him a wheelchair.
A few weeks later, while recuperating at Walter Reed Naval Hospital in Bethesda, MD, he got a message, “the boy is doing fine, and he loves his new wheelchair!” Mission Accomplished.
My good friend Noach Klein, an avid reader of these Shabbos emails, pointed me to this story, and he even provided me with a fascinating insight that is so relevant to us, here in bucolic Michigan.
Imagine being the family of that boy. A few nights a week, these soldiers burst into your home, armed to the teeth, guns drawn, and barking orders. They round you all up in the middle of the living room and make you sit there with your hands over your head. They rifle through all your belongings, giving you no sense of privacy. Yet, instead of being angry with them, you welcome them in, and even offer them tea, a luxury you barely ever partake in yourself! Why? Because you know that they are not there to hurt you, they are not there to harass you, they are there risking their lives, to take care of your boy, to heal him, to keep him alive.
Many times, G-d puts us through the ringer. Nothing goes right in our lives. We lose jobs, we break an arm, our child is diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder but we didn’t need the diagnoses because we’ve known it for years, or we have just gone through a painful broken shidduch. When this happens, we have a temptation to be angry at Ha-shem, why are You putting me through this? Why do you keep sending adversity my way, when all around me, everyone seems to be moving through life with comfort and ease? Why are You banging down my door, guns ablazing, and leaving everyone else to sleep peacefully. But of course, Ha-shem is our Father in Heaven. If he’s giving us trouble, it’s not because He gets a kick our of harassing us, He’s doing it because he’s healing a defect of ours, or paving the way for us to develop strengths we never knew we had, and only discovered when challenged.
When we recognize this, not only would we not mind what Ha-shem is sending our way, we would be setting out tea for Him! We would be saying prayers that sound like this, “I don’t know why You’re putting me through this, but I know You’re doing it for my best. Please give me the strength to get through this challenge properly, and please help me be able to look back at it with appreciation one day.”
Verbalizing that idea out loud, while we’re in the midst of the challenge is a powerful tool, because the anguish we feel is usually in our head, and the verbalizations, being that they are in speech which is more powerful than thought, can literally calm us down and empower us further. We see this being done by Rabbi Akiva, who when beset by difficulties, wouldn’t simply think thoughts of faith, but would say aloud “Kal mad di’avid rachmana l’tav avid, whatever G-d does is for the best.” Even Rabbi Akiva, the greatest of sages in his generation, knew that verbalizing that mantra would give him the strength he needed to accept his challenges with love.
May G-d give us the strength to see His loving hand in our troubles. May He give us the strength to recognize that “Kal mad di’avid rachmana l’tav avid, whatever G-d does is for the best,” and may He give us the strength to even leave Him some tea, some charity, while we feel afflicted, to show that we know it comes in love. Mission Accomplished.
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s Parsha we read of the rebellion of Korach, a man driven by his blind desire for honor. We read of the terrible fate that befell him and his cohorts for bringing divisiveness to the Jewish people. Let us focus on the ketores, the incense that twice plays a vital role in our parsha.
When Korach brings 250 leaders with him, all claiming that Moshe and Aaron should step down, Moshe tells them that ketores will test them. The next day every man should bring a fire pan filled with ketores, and Aaron the High Priest will do the same. G-d will show whom He favors by sending down a fire from heaven to light the ketores of the chosen one, while everyone else will die. Sure enough, the next day the test is performed, a heavenly fire comes down and ignites Aaron’s ketores, and at the same time a fire burns the other 250 rebels to death.
Later in the Parsha, the Jewish people gather around Moshe and Aaron, accusing them of killing people from G-d’s Holy Nation. (They don’t seem to get it, do they? Moshe and Aaron clearly seem to have the winning team, but you always have people rooting for the “underdog”) A plague breaks out amongst the people, and they begin dropping like flies. Moshe tells Aaron to hurry out with the ketores as a plague has started. Aaron brings out a firepan filled with burning ketores and by this act he stops the plague.
What exactly is the nature of this ketores? Is it a killer, as it killed 250 men, or is it a savior, as it stepped into the middle of a plague and halted the dying? Why is it that the same item is used both ways in the same Parsha?
One answer is that the ketores represents the idea that no thing in this world is essentially either good or bad. Good or bad are only defined by our reaction to those things. Wealth is neither good nor bad. We all have seen people whose wealth has ruined them and their families. We have also seen people who have used their wealth properly, bringing greatness to them and their families. So what is wealth, good or bad? In that same vein, is the internet good or bad? Is free speech good or bad? Is being smart good or bad?
Even something as seemingly deleterious as cancer can’t be classified as good or bad. I worked with people suffering from cancer for years. I have seen people who have changed their entire lives for the better after living through cancer. I have seen others who unfortunately passed away, but who, during the time of their illness, reached greatness unimaginable to most people of their age or of any age, for that matter. Of course, there are also those who succumb not only to the illness, but also to despair, anger, rage and disillusionment. The message of the ketores is this duality, that every object in the world contains the possibility of bringing salvation or desolation. Our actions, and our actions alone, merit the titles Good and Bad.
But why is the ketores specifically singled out to teach us this lesson? The ketores was made of many different spices. One of them was known as chelbona, and the Sages tell us that it had an exceedingly foul odor. Yet, when mixed with the other spices, it actually benefited the overall fragrance of the ketores. The chelbona is neither good nor bad; it depends on what you do with it. The very makeup of ketores contained a proof of this concept, and hence it was used to show us this powerful message.
This week’s entire Parsha focuses primarily on one story, the story of Korach. Being from the tribe of Levi, Korach had an elevated status compared to most other Jews, but he wanted more power and honor. There are several opinions in the commentaries as to what exactly he wanted. Some say that he was a firstborn, and was angry that the Temple service had been taken from the firstborns and given to the Kohanim. Others say that he wanted to be the Kohen Gadol, or the leader of the Kehas clan, a job given to his younger cousin. Regardless of what exactly he was after, we know exactly how he went about getting it, and it is a perfect study in undermining authority.
Step #1 Gather a large group of followers (a.k.a. rabble), with as many famous people as possible (Yes, this is why you constantly find actors and musicians speaking out on areas of politics where their knowledge is nebulous). Step #2 Feed them well. Step #3 Make mockery of anything the other side holds sacred. Step #4 Publicly challenge your opponent.
Let’s see how Korach did this. Step #1 He gathers 250 leaders from his neighboring tribe, Reuben, among them some noted trouble-makers named Dasan and Aviram, who already had an entire file at central booking for their previous run-ins with authority. Step #2 He feeds them a delicious meal where the wine flows like right-wing rhetoric from the mouth of Rush Limbaugh. Step #3 He starts mocking some of the laws of the Torah which Moshe had taught, thus implying that the entire Torah could have been made up by Moshe. Lastly, step #4, Korach challenges Moshe publicly, claiming, “We are all a holy nation, so who do you think you are to exalt yourselves (Moshe and his brother Aaron) over us?
Moshe falls on his face before them in humility, and begs them to change their mind. Upon being rebuffed, he says “O.K., lets take this one outside. Tomorrow morning everyone should bring a fire pan with incense. G-d will miraculously bring down fire in just one pan, and everyone else will die. But remember, sons of Levi, you have so much already, why are you demanding more? Be happy with your lot.” (Here is an incredible lesson. All 250+ people knew that only one person was going to emerge standing, yet they all showed up in the morning, each sure that he would be the single winner. When arrogance and jealousy get the better of you, it is clear that you lose the ability to think clearly!)
That afternoon, Moshe, the paradigm of humility, attempts to end the rebellion peacefully by going personally to the tents of Dasan and Aviram to beg them to retract their evil mutiny. They reply with an emphatic “Even if someone were to gouge our eyes out, we would not make peace!” The next morning Moshe delivers the following ultimatum; “If these men die normal deaths, you will know that G-d didn’t send me, but if the earth opens its mouth and swallows these people alive, then you shall know that I did everything I did by the word of G-d!”
Moshe tells everyone to step back from the camp of Korach, in order to save themselves from sharing in his punishment. Sure enough, the earth opens wide and swallows up not only Korach, Dasan, Aviram, and their familes, but also everything they owned in this world, down to the last bobby pin. The 250 men did not fall into the earth – the same fire they were hoping was going to prove their supremacy over Moshe and Aaron comes down and enters their nostrils, and kills them instantaneously. This shows us the horrific results of machlokes, or divisiveness. It not only destroys the original antagonist, but also his family, and anyone around him. The fire pans of the 250 rebels were taken and beaten into sheets which were then placed on the altar in the Temple to remind everyone never to try to usurp the leadership positions that G-d dictates.
In response to this event, the people complained to Moshe and Aaron, saying “You killed the nation of G-d” (obviously, they hadn’t learnt the two key lessons of the story of Korach: that one is better off not rebelling against Moshe and Aaron (it does terrible things to your life expectancy), and that G-d is the one running the show here, not Moshe and Aaron.) A plague erupts in the camp, executing the people who were slandering Moshe and Aaron. Moshe tells Aaron that he should quickly bring a fire pan of incense and walk amongst the people to stop the plague. (Moshe learnt this trick from the Angel of Death when he went up to heaven to receive the Torah.) Aaron does so, and the plague stops.
G-d tells Moshe to conduct one final test to demonstrate to everyone that Aaron is the one picked by G-d to be the Kohen Gadol. Aaron and the leaders of the twelve tribes all bring their staffs. The staffs are deposited in the Temple, and everyone waits to see whose staff would blossom. Sure as turkeys hate Thanksgiving, Aaron’s staff is the one in full bloom the next morning. Now the people are shaken up, and express their fears (not complaints) to Moshe, that anyone who gets too close to the Temple will die! Moshe allays their fears by explaining that it is the Kohen’s job to ensure that people don’t go beyond their proper places. As the leaders of the Jews, their duty is to bring people as close to G-d as they can, but also to remind them that one must be careful with that which is holy. Judaism is a system of living, which expects one to understand the importantce of structure and boundaries.
The final portion of the Parsha discusses the various gifts given by the Jewish people to the Kohanim and Levi’im in return for their dedication to the Jewish people. The tribe of Levi received no portion in the Holy Land (save a few cities), in order that they devote themselves to promoting spirituality. In return, we are commanded to help support them. The Torah here lays down the idea that it is incumbent upon a society to support those charged with facilitating its spiritual growth. The same way we understand that we must pay taxes to support those who keep our streets clean and safe, we must also support those who keep our spirit alive and healthy. That’s all, Folks!
Quote of the Week: “When inspiration does not come to me, I go to meet it.”- Anonymous
Random Fact of the Week: A new shopping mall opens somewhere in the US every seven hours.
Funny Line of the Week: Despite the rapidly rising cost of living, have you noticed that it remains so popular?
Have a Marvelous Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham