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By Brigadier General Donald F. Schenk, USA (Ret) 

Each year at this time, when the days are short and the fading sunlight turns to darkness too soon, I am reminded of the strength and power of the Chanukah story we know so well.

This is our annual celebration of freedom. Each of the nights causes me to reflect on our duty to fight for our national freedom when called upon and our obligation to be the best leaders we can be every day, regardless of our rank, our role, or our position. To live a life of deeply held values—to be a person of Character. To study, to learn, and to know the job and all it entails—to be Competent. And to do the right thing always for our subordinates, for our organization,  and for the Nation—to make a personal Commitment. To Be. To Know. To Do.

Throughout my Army career and my post-service life as a Veteran, I have tried to find a relevant leadership lesson in all I do, and, having found that lesson, make it a point to impart it to those with whom I come in contact. I spread those lessons in my synagogue, within the Jewish War Veterans, and as an advocate for the Aleph Institute.

What follows are eight leadership lessons, one for each night of Chanukah. I’ve taken the liberty to include a short English reading associated with the lighting of each candle to deliberately connect each of the eight nights with the leadership lesson.

The first light tells of Him whose first command was “Let there be light.” The darkness of idol worship was scattered when Israel brought radiant knowledge of one God. “I am the first and I am the last,” saith the Lord.

On its surface, this passage appears to address idolatry and how the light of the first candle casts away the darkness of that practice through our knowledge of the Lord and his power. But, as in so many things about Judaism, there is an opportunity to learn more. In this instance, it is about the nature of leadership and leaders. Our responsibility is to always be in front (“the first”), whether in front of the formation or in the vanguard of the attack, as our men and women look to us to lead, guide, and give them purpose and direction. Our responsibility is also to always look after their needs before our own (“the last”), and to selflessly sacrifice for them by placing their care and welfare in front of our own.

The second light is the light of the Torah. Israel’s book of law has brought learning and truth to all of the western world. “The commandment is a lamp and the Law is a light.”

Laws—when there natural or manmade—provide rigor and routine to the world and what we do in it. They provide necessary structure, the basis upon which to act in the absence of orders, and moral guides for us when no one else is looking. As members of the military and as leaders, our obligation is to the oath we each swore—whether an oath of enlistment or an oath of office—to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic, and to bear true faith and allegiance to the same. To subordinate ourselves to something bigger than we are as individuals. As we accept our obligations to the laws of Torah, so too must we accept our obligations to the Constitution, as well as the laws and the regulations which flow from it. As the Torah describes God’s laws for how we are to live, so too do regulations and policies provide the governing structure for our lives in uniform and the basis upon which good order and discipline are founded.

The third light is the light of Justice. No nation can endure which is unjust to the weak. “Justice, always justice, shalt thou pursue,” was the greatest commandment of Moses our teacher.

The basis for worldly justice is our willing acceptance and commitment to hear and remember the word of God. The justice we seek is the justice found through living a good and meaningful life. However, what about justice in the military? It does not matter in which branch of the military we serve. We are all bound by a common system of justice that flows from the Constitution, national laws, and the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). As leaders, we have an explicit obligation to know, understand, and act in accordance with the UCMJ. But the caution is not to act blindly, but instead to make allowance for necessary humanizing and tempering of the law during implementation. Thus, we can fulfill Moses’ command to seek justice by doing the right thing, not just doing things right. We are also obligated as those wearing our Nation’s uniform to comply with the mandates of our Code of Conduct and the Laws of Land Warfare in the Geneva and Hague Conventions. Justice, always justice.

The fourth light is the light of Mercy. Cruelty hardens the heart and destroys friendships. “Do justice and love mercy” was the teaching of Micah the prophet.

The Profession of Arms is a dirty business. Often when asked what I did in the Army, I would jokingly say, “My job was to break things and hurt people.” After that shock wore off, I would do a bit of explanation about the real job. I would take care to explain that above and beyond the purely technical or warfighting aspects of what I was called upon to do, there exists an over arching compassionate aspect to the decisions made and actions taken. Justice and mercy—to and for our fellow Soldiers and to the enemy—are the things that set our military, and us as Jews in uniform, apart from other militaries and other peoples. Justice and mercy are at the very core of who we are and what we do, but, most importantly, how we do it.

The fifth light is the light of Holiness. Purity of thought and nobility of action make all of life sacred. From the prophet Isaiah these words have been taken into Israel’s prayer book: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts.” 

What? Holiness? I haven’t eaten. I haven’t slept. You just told me to do the impossible. I’m cold and I’m wet! You want me to seek holiness?

Yes, I do. And, so should you. As individuals walking with and for God, compassion, mercy, and justice provide the means by which we can fulfill the need to be holy in all we do. The pursuit of everyday holiness in the thoughts and  deeds making up our daily lives provides a needed guiding light that is a beacon for ourselves and for others allowing us to always seek and find the best in all we do. One of our essential tasks is to look for silver linings of opportunity in every situation and to follow that opportunity to achieve success. I am reminded of the young Soldier standing in the pouring rain smiling while eating his cold green eggs off the front fender of a truck knowing he was “cheating” the Army. What does he know that I don’t? Seek and ye shall find. We’ve all been there.

The sixth light is the light of Love. When the love which our parents gave us makes all of our life beautiful, we learn to understand the Biblical words: “Thou shalt love the Lord Thy God with all thy heart and soul and might.”

We are all made in God’s image and we owe every one of our battle buddies made in that same image the same amount of love as we owe God. In the classic postWorld War II study entitled Men Against Fire, published in 1947, Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall (not to be confused with General of the Army George C. Marshall) observed that men fight neither for love of country nor love of regiment, but for the love of the man next to them. But, is that love of our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines sufficient? Simply put, the answer is “No!” As leaders, we all have an obligation to love and care for the families of our subordinates and to ensure that they, just like their spouses, fathers, and mothers, have what they need, are safe, are protected, have a roof over their heads, and meals on their tables. Taking care of Soldiers and their families is essential. As leaders, if we don’t do that, our subordinates will not have their head in the tasks we need them to perform. We owe them our best, every single day. Indeed, everything we touch and behold is deserving of our love and care, to include the equipment we need to do our job every day.

The seventh light is the calm light of Patience. Nothing can be achieved in haste. The spreading tree and soul of man grow slowly to perfection. Thus, sang King David, “Trust in the Lord, wait patiently for Him.” 

None of us is perfect. We all require instruction to improve, yet we can never be perfect. Reach into your wallet, pull out a dollar bill, and turn it over, and you’ll see images of the Great Seal. The picture on the left is of the reverse side and it shows a pyramid. That pyramid signifies strength and duration. It is capped by the Eye of Providence under the motto Annuit Coeptis (“God Has Favored Our Undertakings”), and it is unfinished in recognition of the fact that the work of forming this great country as a Novus Ordo Seclorum (“A New Order for the Ages”) is yet to be completed. Completing that work requires patience and perseverance, that same patience and perseverance undergird the practice and repetition that fine-tune our daily organizational training and leader development work needed to grow into the best leaders, teams, and formations we can be. The mantra of training is crawl, walk, run, run faster. It requires each of us to patiently go thru the steps, by the numbers, so that everyone knows his/her job  and can perform it as second nature, and when mastered, we pick up the pace to full speed execution. That mantra originates with patience—patient explanation; patient coaching; patient growth.

The eighth light is the light of Courage. Let truth and justice be your armor and fear not. Judah Maccabee, the hero of Chanukah, lived by the words Moses spoke to Joshua, “Be strong and of good courage.”

Training to a fine edge is only part of what we need to do. The true test comes in execution of our tasks, whether administrative, force development, force generation, or combat operations. Having trained and trained hard, I know I can execute any task because I am competent and know, truly know, my job and all it entails. Practicing and rehearsing every operation so that I can anticipate what I might need to do in any scenario gives me confidence in my own abilities and the abilities of the team I lead. Because I know the men and women under my care and entrusted to me, I know where their individual and collective strengths and weaknesses lie and can tailor assignment of tasks to achieve the most favorable outcome. That combination of competence and confidence give me courage to act with initiative to seize the moment when demanded to do so and thus secure success and victory from every situation and circumstance. Throughout my Army career I was ever mindful of the motto of my regiment, the 37th Armor—which relieved the 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne in 1944—Courage Conquers. Remember that. Remember also that your men and women look to you to be like Joshua, “Strong and of Good Courage.”

Leadership and being a good leader are essential to all we are asked to do in the service of our Nation. It matters not what your role, rank, or service might be, the common bond of military service is always about leadership. Whenever two Soldiers are moving, one of them is the leader, and being that leader requires knowing it and acting the part. To Be. To Know. To Do.

To paraphrase a former Chief of Staff of the US Army, General Eric Shinseki, the US military does two things every day—it trains servicemembers and then grows them into leaders. It does that because the military doesn’t hire out. It grows its own leaders. That work is ours to do.

Let us be ever mindful of our obligation not only to spread the light of truth, but also to do the hard work of growing our leaders, whether we are in uniform today or part of that long line of veterans there to support each of those serving the Nation today. Let us be reminded of our obligation when lighting the Shamas each night of Hanukkah and reflecting on the following:

As one candle may kindle many others and yet lose none of its own light, so Judaism has kindled the light of truth for many religions in many lands and still shines brightly through the ages.

Now, go spread the light of leadership!

BG Donald F. Schenk, USA (Ret), has had a wide-ranging and impactful career spanning almost five decades of service to America’s Soldiers and Veterans thru positions in the Army, in industry, and as a volunteer. A resident of Michigan, he serves as Chief of Staff of the Department of Michigan of the Jewish War Veterans ( and has lectured at the annual Jewish Chaplains’ Training Course conducted by the Aleph Institute (www.aleph He resides in Michigan with his wife, Janet. Together they have two sons—Joshua and Zachary

Originally published in the Chanukah 5781 Jewish-American Warrior