The Greatest Gift This Side of Heaven
Parashat Yitro 5778
3 February 2018
It was the early morning of February 3, 1943, exactly 75 years ago today. The U.S.A.T. Dorchester was crowded to capacity, carrying 902 service men, merchant seamen and civilian workers. Once a luxury coastal liner, the 5,600-ton vessel had been converted into an Army transport ship. The Dorchester, one of three ships in a convoy, was moving steadily across the icy waters from Newfoundland toward an American base in Greenland. Hans J. Danielsen, the ship's captain, was concerned and cautious, knowing that German U-boats were constantly prowling these vital sea lanes. The Dorchester was now only 150 miles from its destination, but the captain ordered the men to sleep in their clothing and keep their life jackets on. Many ignored the order. On February 3, at 12:55 am, a periscope broke the chilly Atlantic waters. Through the cross hairs, an officer aboard a German submarine spotted the Dorchester. He gave orders to fire the torpedoes. A fan of three were fired; the one that hit was deadly, striking the starboard side, amid ship, far below the water line. Danielsen, alerted that the Dorchester was taking on water rapidly and sinking, gave the order to abandon ship. In less than 30 minutes, the Dorchester would slip beneath the Atlantic's icy waters.
Aboard the Dorchester, panic and chaos had set in. The blast had killed scores of men, and many more were seriously wounded. Those sleeping without heavy clothing rushed topside, where they were confronted first by a blast of icy Arctic air and then by the knowledge that death awaited. Men jumped from the ship into lifeboats, over-crowding them to the point of capsizing; other rafts, tossed into the Atlantic, drifted away before soldiers could get into them. Through the pandemonium, four Army chaplains brought hope in despair and light in darkness. Those chaplains were Lt. George Fox, Methodist; Lt. Alexander Goode, Jewish and a Washingtonian; Lt. John Washington, Roman Catholic; and Lt. Clark Poling, Dutch Reformed. Quickly and quietly, the four chaplains spread out among the soldiers. By this time most of the men were on deck and the chaplains began distributing extra life jackets, but there were not enough. When there were no more lifejackets in the storage room, the chaplains removed theirs and gave them to four frightened young men. When giving his life jacket, Rabbi Goode did not call out for a Jew; Father Washington did not call out for a Catholic; nor did the Reverends Fox and Poling call out for Protestants. Each man simply gave his life jacket to the next man in line. There are many values embedded in this remarkable story: valor, altruism, diversity, and pluralism. There is also another narrative, one that is not as obvious, but perhaps most relevant in our current social and political climate: how is it that four individuals unique in conviction joined hands as one? As Americans, we are raised in a culture of individuality. We generally find unity frightening. We often wonder what happens when we simply become part of a group. Do we lose our own unique voice, our own identity?
Three months after leaving Egypt, the Israelites entered the wilderness of Sinai – vayihan sham Yisrael neged ha-har, and Israel encamped there in front of the mountain. (Exodus 19:2) Grammatically, this clause is a bit peculiar, as the verb va-yihan is singular. The great medieval commentator Rashi suggests that the Israelites encamped k’ish ehad b’lev ehad. Unlike previous encampments, this one was done with a single heart, a singular voice. Is it possible that this is the ideal? Are we meant as a community to speak b’lev ehad – with one heart? When the Ten Commandments are given to Moses, God begins anokhi Adonai elohekha, I am the Lord your God (20:2). Once again here, the word “your” – elohekha – is singular. Here the Midrash takes a very different approach from Rashi, indicating that God spoke to each individual according to his or her individual ability and personality. In the words of the Sefat Emet, all of Israel saw “with their very own eyes the part of the divine soul above that lives within.” It is from within this revelatory moment that we feel the tension of our unity at odds with our incessant individuality. As the great Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik once asked: “Is the individual an independent free entity; or is the reverse true: we are born into a community which, in turn, invests us with certain rights?”
The simple answer is that both are necessary, both aloneness and togetherness. The more interesting question is how. How do we resolve this inner contradiction? To begin, the Jewish community is not just an assembly of people who gather together for mutual benefit, but an entity unto itself. We all lay claim to the Land of Israel. God granted the land to us as a gift. To whom did God give this land? Neither to an individual, nor to a partnership of millions of people. Rather, God gave the land to Knesset Yisrael – the community of Israel as an independent unity. Yet, the reality and persona of Knesset Yisrael is a result of the complementarity of the individuals that comprise the Jewish community. Each and every individual possesses unique qualities and a unique message, a special color to add to the communal spectrum. As in a marriage, we join together with members of the Jewish community to form, not a partnership, but a collective individuality, a unique persona. This process is necessary both for individuals and for the community. Just as Moses pitched his tent harhek min ha-mahaneh, at some distance from the camp, he also stood with the entire community min haboker ad ha-erev, from morning until the evening (Exodus 33:7 and 18:13). Perhaps Moses was the first to understand that in order to realize himself he must simultaneously be alone and be a member of a community. (Soloveitchik, The Community)
A Torah scroll contains 304,805 letters, each handwritten in black ink on parchment by a highly trained scribe. If a single letter is missing or deformed, the entire scroll is unfit for use. However, each letter must also be surrounded by blank parchment. Should a letter touch another even by a hair, the entire scroll is disqualified from use until the error is corrected. The Lubavitcher Rebbe once taught that every Jew is a letter in God's scroll. Our sages tell us that if a single Jewish soul had been absent from Sinai, the Torah could not have been given to us. The people of Israel comprise a single entity of interdependent individuals. The lack of a single Jewish soul would spell a lack or deformity in the collective. But equally important is the inviolable “white space” which distinguishes each and every one of us as a unique individual. Do we in fact lose our voice when we become part of a whole? The Torah responds: “No! Just as my hundreds of thousands of letters spell a single integral message, this message is comprised of hundreds of thousands of voices, each articulating this message in its own particular manner and medium. To detract from the individuality and uniqueness of one is to detract from the integrity of the collective whole. (Wisdom of the Lubavitcher Rebbe)
What is true for Torah is also true for America. In 1787, Thomas Jefferson, the chief architect of the Declaration of Independence, urged the drafters of the Constitution to clearly identify the rights of the people. Chief among those are the individual right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. To this day, we embrace the mandate to acknowledge and respect the individual ideas and identities of every American. But that is not all. America is not merely a set of coordinates plugged into a GPS or a collection of happy people. Our founders wanted for the country they envisioned a people who were united not just by mutable circumstance, but also by shared values. Together we have joint ownership and responsibility for this great American project – a responsibility that sometimes requires us to speak in one voice – placing the needs of the collective before the individual. If we can learn anything from the tragedy of February 3, 1943, it is finding that balance between the all-important “I” and the tapestry of “us.” Each thread has infinite value but only together can the threads create a beautiful masterpiece. On that fateful night in the Atlantic seventy-five years ago four individuals banded together as one with a unified calling and a singular mission. Those who had been fortunate enough to reach lifeboats struggled to distance themselves from the sinking ship, lest they be pulled beneath the ocean swells by the chasm created as the transport slipped into its watery grave. Then, amid the screams of pain and horror that permeated the cold dark night, they heard the strong voices of the Chaplains, each offering his own personal prayer. “Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai ehad.” “Our Father, Who art in Heaven, Hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.”
Looking back, the survivors saw the slanting deck of the Dorchester, its demise almost complete. Braced against the railings were the four Chaplains – praying, singing, giving strength to others by their final valiant declaration of faith. Their arms were linked together as they braced against the railing and leaned into each other for support: Reverend Fox, Rabbi Goode, Reverend Poling, and Father Washington. Said one of the survivors, “It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven.” Only twenty-seven minutes after the first torpedo struck, the last vestige of the U.S.A.T. Dorchester disappeared beneath the cold North Atlantic waters, taking with it the four ministers of different faiths who learned to find strength in their diversity by focusing on the unity they shared. And so may it be with us, each of us expressing the divine soul that rests within our individual selves while always standing together b’lev ehad, with a singular heart. For it is within this tension that we will find “the greatest gift this side of heaven.”