Then the officials shall address the troops, as follows: . . . "Is there anyone who has planted a vineyard but has never harvested it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another harvest it. Is there anyone who has paid the bride-price for a wife, but who has not yet married her? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another marry her." (Deuteronomy 20:5–7)
When I read these verses of this week's Torah portion, I immediately think of our longtime congregant whose young cousin, Noam Mayerson, was a soldier killed in Lebanon this past summer. Because Noam was to be married three months later, in biblical times he would have been one who "has paid the bride-price for a wife, but who has not yet married her."
There are times when I stand under a chuppah to officiate a wedding when a wave of melancholy washes over me, a feeling quite out of place when surrounded by lilies and lace. The ceremony is so hopeful, iced with rich-cream blessings, Austrian crystals, and amorous teardrops winking in the sun or starlight. It is the future and it is beautiful. But I still can't help thinking the future is unscripted, and there are so many troublesome variables. I pray with all my might for the couple that the raisins outnumber the almonds on their path. But often I look around and see the silently warring in-laws or the empty chair where a parent should be—the glimmer of sadness just under the glisten of platinum—and I wonder what will unfold far down the petal-strewn aisle. Where will the long recessional lead?
In an interview with Bill Moyers (PBS's NOW , "Bill Moyers Interviews David Grossman," March 15, 2002), Israeli author David Grossman said, "The future is very dubious. We have, as Jewish people in Israel, we have an enormous past and a very strong and vital presence. But there is not a real inherent sense of having a future . . . no sane Israeli will make plans for ten years ahead from now. When I even say it I feel that kind of pang in my heart as if I violated a taboo by allowing myself too much quantities of future."
I think of Noam Mayerson and his grieving fiancée and of David Grossman's twenty-year-old son Uri, a soldier killed in Lebanon in just one year ago. I think of all the soldiers. Is any one of them exempt from the categories listed in Shof'tim ? Has any one of them not planted a vineyard that is yet to be harvested?
Suddenly, I realize this passage is not only about soldiers going to war, but it is also about each and every one of us. We each have a vineyard. We've all planted seedlings of an idea, a dream once had. Maybe it's a book we've wanted to write, a painting we can see in our mind's eye. Maybe it's a plan we've made or an idea sparked by a brochure we've picked up. Maybe there's a friend we've been meaning to call or a reconciliation we are mustering the courage to make. Every day, we initiate plantings but postpone the harvest for another day, sometime in the dubious future.
How do we honor the soldiers and the civilians who have perished? How do we embrace the memory of the American soldiers who are dying in Iraq every week, whose pictures no longer appear in the papers?
Last summer, standing at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, I looked at the words of the song that had been folded neatly in Rabin's pocket when he was assassinated, his own blood seeping through the page . . . "Nobody will return us from the dead and darkened pit. Here, neither the joy of victory nor songs of praise will help. . . . Sing a song for peace with a giant shout! . . . Don't say ‘the day will come,' bring the day . . ." (translation of Shir L'Shalom , lyrics by Yaakov Rotblit, music by Yair Rosenblum).
We honor them by bringing the day . Bringing the day when the future is secure, when the vineyard is free of weeds and little foxes, when the future is fruitful and firm.
Bill Moyers asked David Grossman, "How can you imagine a better future?"
The author answered, "The first thing that we should do when we have this peace treaty between us and the Palestinians is to change the study programs, is to change the textbooks, is to teach both peoples from childhood to live in life of mutuality, of respecting the other. . . . We have only the emotional dictionary of hatred. And this must be changed. . . ."
Begin harvesting the vineyard today. Pick up the phone. Write the first word. Take the first step. Join. Belong. Bring the day. We don't know what there will be in time. But we do know what we have for the time being.