By CH, Capt Yosef Zarnighian, USAF
Many Jews around the world have the custom to learn the famous Mishnaic work, Pirkei Avot, Ethics of our Fathers, during the period between Passover and Shavuot. It is here that we learn: “Do not belittle any person, and do not discount anything. For there is no one who does not have his moment, and no thing that has not its place” (Avot 4:3). Every chaplain serving in the US Armed Forces hopes and prays for “quiet days”—where no calls relating to crisis, death, or tragedy strike, but in our line of duty, this is unavoidable. As chaplains, we must always be prepared for these moments.
I found myself asking the question of how I was going to deal with my first matter of life and death in February 2023. The day was coming to an end, and the week had been a successful one at my duty station, Joint Base Mc- Guire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey. As I was packing up to leave for the day, I received an urgent call from a service member, frenzied, anxious, and panicked. I knew then that this call was going to take surgical level patience to diffuse. Because US military chaplains are bound by absolute confidentiality when speaking with service members and their dependents, I assured the individual that whatever he told me would remain 100% confidential; no exceptions. Somewhat relieved to hear this, he informed me that his father was suffering from a sudden terminal illness. While he had been estranged
from his father for many years, it was here and now that this man’s compassion and love for his father was aroused.
The doctors informed the son that he had a choice: He could prolong the medical assistance to his father, which would result in further pain for him, but would also offer the slim chance of his recovering and living another day. The other option was for the son to authorize the removal of all life support to his father, which would minimize the father’s pain, but would assure his early demise. It is important to note
that this individual also told me that I was his first line of contact in this crisis. He was not yet seeking the counsel of the attending physicians, his faith leader, or his friends and family.
As US Air Force chaplains, we are trained to diffuse these kinds of situations as officers and as clergymen. As such, the split-second decision making mentality—the officer’s mindset that we are trained to use, went off, as did the frame of mind I have as a rabbi, which is through our Torah. I
proceeded to ask him, “Are you a man of faith, and do you value the sanctity of human life above all?” He replied with an unequivocal yes, after which I encouraged him to remain strong, firm, and hopeful in the recovery of his father. Even if G-d had other plans for his father, so long as he was living, with the possibility of recovery, I was able to give this fellow service member the reassurance that he already
had deep down—that human lives are not for us to take and give, but they are ours to rekindle, nourish, and pray for, so that we may continue to live to serve Hashem, our country, families, and ourselves, for as long as G-d wills.
While I do not know the eventual outcome of this particular case, I do know that this fellow ended our call reassured, comforted in hope, and confident about coming back to his chaplain for his future needs. Just as I was in the right place at the right time to help save this precious life, we all face similar placements where we can make a difference that no one else can offer. May we all strive to be the
model of hope and trust for our fellows during their time of need, and to make the most of “our moment” by reaching into our treasure chest of Judaism, giving light and comfort to all.
Originally published in The Shavuot 5783 Jewish-American Warrior Magazine