Yes, Time Magazine, He IS “Worth It!” Bringing Sgt. Bergdahl Home…A Jewish View

The cover of this week’s Time Magazine has a drawing of US Army Sgt Bowe Bergdahl against a backdrop of a US flag.

The large caption reads: “WAS HE WORTH IT? The Cost of Bringing Sgt. Bergdahl Home”

Cover of Time Magazine, June 16, 2014 issue
Cover of Time Magazine, June 16, 2014 issue

I know that headlines sell magazines. But I find this very troubling. “Was he worth it?” Really? Aren’t we taught in our tradition that each and every one of us is made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God?

Later that same day, I was working with one of my pre-Bar Mitzvah students on his d’var Torah for the fall. His Torah portion is Noah. He chose to focus on the verse (Genesis 6:9) that states: “Noah was righteous in his generation.”

My student did a beautiful job summarizing the Torah portion, explaining its meaning and sharing what commentators have to say about it.

Then the discussion became interesting when it was time to relate it to modern times. What does it mean to be “righteous in one’s time?” What does it mean to expend one’s effort on behalf of others and do the right thing? The student then went on to criticize President Barack Obama for making a deal to trade 5 Taliban terrorists to free the “deserter Bowe Bergdahl.”

I paused when I read this. On the one hand, I encourage my students to apply the lessons of Torah to modern life. On the other hand, it concerns me that we have been so quick to judge Bowe Bergdahl when all the facts are still not known.

I used this as an opportunity to engage in a dialogue about what our tradition has to teach about justice. We are taught by our tradition:

צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף
Tzedek, tzedek tirdof…
Justice, justice shall you pursue…
Deuteronomy 16:20

And we are also taught:

מַצִּ֣יל נְ֭פָשׁוֹת עֵ֣ד אֱמֶ֑ת וְיָפִ֖חַ כְּזָבִ֣ים מִרְמָֽה׃
Matzil n’fashot ad emet v’yafiyach.
Truthful witness saves lives,
but one who breathes out lies is deceitful.

Proverbs 14:25

We don’t know the entire story about what happened to Bowe Bergdahl, or why he made some of the choices he did. What we do know is this: every human life is sacred. Israel makes many of the same sacrifices to bring back their captured soldiers, just as President Obama made the decision to bring back Sgt. Bergdahl.

We need to wait to learn the rest of the facts, for justice to run its course before we are quick to judge.

My colleague, Rabbi Keith Stern, (Senior Rabbi of Temple Beth Avodah of Newton, MA) wrote a beautiful piece about this, an open letter to Sgt. Bergdahl’s parents, which sums up how I feel. I share that with you below:

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Bergdahl,

I truly can’t imagine what these past several years have been like for you. Knowing your son was being held captive by the Taliban, not knowing where he was or the status of his health… I’m sure you haven’t slept well for years. And then this: the anxiety over whether Bowe would be freed (we know there had been similar plans aborted), the thrill of his safe release… and now the firestorm of criticism and hypocrisy.

I’ve never met you nor have I met Bowe. Thankfully I found the Rolling Stone article written by Michael Hastings (who tragically died in a car crash last year). I feel like I know you and Bowe and his situation a little better.

Bowe’s childhood growing up on 40 acres of lush farm tucked into remote country sounds like another world to me, a suburbs boy who’s raised his kids in a fairly insulated and protected environment. Bowe had a whole world to explore on a dirt bike. He loved his bb gun. It sounds glorious and free.

But you tempered his freedom. You homeschooled your kids and rigorously set out a moral system by which they could evaluate their actions. They learned about accountability for their behavior.

Bowe tried to find his balance point between responsibility and adventure. Mr. Bergdahl, you seem to have been a tremendous influence on Bowe, telling him not what to do but rather to do what he thought right. What an honorable man you are. It is not easy to parent a child with so much energy and drive and curiosity, a kid who seemed determined to push the envelope, to become an Olympic fencer or to join the French Foreign Legion or, for that matter, the US Army.

The two of you obviously know a whole lot more than I do, so you may know much more about Bowe’s story and why he left his post. The Rolling Stone article painted a disheartening story about his unit and its lack of leadership and discipline. Being stuck in the middle of nowhere with the kind of chaos that seemed to constantly flare up into trouble must have been mentally challenging and exhausting. The point is, nobody knows yet why he left his post. So why are so many people judging Bowe? He is being pilloried in the press by pundits and politicians who profess to know something. These people use lies and half-truths to turn your son into a shirker, a deserter, a turncoat. It is striking to me that there is no such thing as circumspection, no benefit of a doubt. There is no empathy, no mature sense of propriety. I am ashamed of the way some of our country’s politicians and journalists have spoken, for they truly besmirch the good name of this country, not to mention, of course, your son’s honor. In the Jewish tradition such talk is utterly unacceptable.

So now you are in limbo. Bowe is safely returned to the US, but I would guess you are still not sleeping. You’re wondering what shoe may yet drop. But I know that you must be so relieved that at least you know where he is. I am so saddened that his welcome home ceremony was cancelled. I get it, but that must have been yet another bitter pill to swallow.

I’m sure people have pointed out all of the facts about the prisoner swap that enabled your son to get home. As a Zionist and a Jew, I know that Israel has released thousands of prisoners in order to return Israeli soldiers from captivity. In fact, Israel has swapped prisoners to get dead Israelis back. It’s never easy. It’s always controversial. But in the end most Israeli parents need to know at the end of the day that their children will not be abandoned in captivity.

 Like I said, I don’t know what happened. We may never really get the truth. But this I do know: It doesn’t matter if Bowe had deserted his post or not. The story may end up unfavorably. Your son may be in legal trouble. As David Brooks wrote today:

It doesn’t matter if he is a confused young man who said insulting and shameful things about his country and his Army. The debt we owe to fellow Americans is not based on individual merit. It is based on citizenship, and loyalty to the national community we all share. Soldiers don’t risk their lives only for those Americans who deserve it; they do it for the nation as a whole.

I am so sorry for your anguish. I hope you are soon reunited with your son. And if things get harder, if there is litigation and more circus antics in the press, please know that many of us who are parents and grandparents and proud Americans send you our love and support. No matter what, he’s still your boy.

Rabbi Keith Stern

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