During my 38 years of military service, I had the honor of traveling twice to Iraq to celebrate Passover with deployed service-members, and numerous times to Kuwait. In every location, soldiers were so grateful that a rabbi would travel all the way from the US to share the seder with them. So many thought that they were the only Jew within hundreds of miles, and the familiar prayers and songs created an instant sense of community.
In 2005, I was especially moved by the ritual of spilling wine from our cups as we recalled the plagues in Egypt. During a war, it is an all too available temptation to dehumanize the enemy. Sometimes it feels like a necessary part of preparing for battle. As we participated in this ancient ritual, we were reminded that it is neve r appropriate to rejoice over the suffering of others, even our oppressors and even those who may be trying to kill us. Removing the wine from our cups reinforced this message that our joy is diminished when we contemplate the necessary pain that was part of our liberation.
At Forward Operating Base Taji, the lights kept coming on and off as the generators ceased to function, and I quipped that we were reenacting the plague of darkness. After the service, one young woman told me that “It was almost like being at home.” In 2006, at Forward Operating Base Sykes we began the seder and were introducing ourselves, when one participant said-
“I’m glad that we are locked in this CONNEX behind closed doors in a relatively secure place, for our own protection.” When we opened the door for Elijah, there was a moment of hesitation and a collective intake of breath. Wow! There was a real feeling of risk and some danger, but I decided that it was critical that we open the door and proudly sing Eliyahu HaNavi. We read about other doors in history, flung open by the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusaders, the Nazis. It was a powerful, powerful moment and a huge assertion of freedom in that hostile place. Our celebration of freedom was especially meaningful as we were, once again, fighting for freedom from tyranny.
Rabbi Bonnie Koppell serves Temple Chai in Phoenix, AZ and currently holds the rank of Colonel as a military chaplain in the United States Army Reserve.