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A Tribute to Daniel Somers

Updated: Dec 9, 2023

Pinchas, the son of Elazar, was a religious zealot. The book of Numbers, chapter 25 verses 1-9, describes his act of vigilante justice, thrusting a spear through an Israelite man and a Midianite woman, thus staying the plague which had afflicted the Israelites and killed 24,000 people.

Living as we do at a time when murder in the name of religious passion is a wretched plague, Pinchas’ action is wildly uncomfortable. What makes it even more unfathomable, is that God rewards Pinchas, in verse 12, with “briti shalom,” “My covenant of peace,” and an eternal role as a religious leader. We struggle to understand how religious violence can be rewarded.

Religious leadership and untamed violence? We struggle with it in the Torah and we struggle with it in our world. Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Judah Berlin (19th century) offers this perspective: The covenant of peace with which Pinchas was blessed refers to an internal sense of peace, making peace with the violence that was necessary in that moment- necessary but nonetheless tragic. God’s blessing of peace allowed Pinchas to build a life that was not defined solely by his zealous action.

Today’s wounded warriors face that same struggle- how to make peace with the violence they have undertaken and the many lives lost in the process. Sadly, tragically, we do too little to arm them with a moral foundation for warfare, and less to ease them into a covenant of peace when they return from battle. The covenant of peace is broken.

Judaism is not a non-violent tradition. The Torah mandates capital punishment for a variety of offenses, and war is an accepted reality. The Psalmist promises that “God will give strength to the people, God will bless the people with peace,” (Psalm 29:11) Peace is understood to be built on a foundation of strength, at least until the Messianic age when swords may safely be beaten into plowshares. But how do the warriors attain a sense of peace with their participation in warfare?

The Torah understood that warriors cannot return from battle and immediately integrate back into the community. The Book of Numbers (31:19) provides for a week of de-mobilization where combatants remain outside the camp for a time of transition. The insight of this ancient wisdom is too often ignored. In 2005/2006, at the suggestion of the Chief of Chaplains, I drafted a “Ritual of Transition” for use by re-deploying troops returning from Afghanistan. In this prayer, I attempted to give voice to the pain of injuries invisible to the naked eye and the scars born by the soul. I wrote of “hearts. . torn with grief for all our losses, for all the pain we have experienced,” and asked of God “that You would touch us with Your merciful hand, and allow us to move forward in our lives in wholeness. Help us to be worthy children to our parents, generous spouses to our husbands and wives, caring friends and loving parents. Allow us to leave behind what needs to remain behind, and emerge from this deployment with peaceful hearts.”

This prayer was not realized for Daniel Somers, zichrono l’vracha, may his memory be for blessing. I remember Daniel as a shy, quirky, brilliant young Bar Mitzvah student. He was a sweet, sweet child with great intellectual depth. He went on to a career with the Joint Special Operations Command and service in the U.S. Army as an Arab linguist. Daniel ended his own life on June 10, 2013, a life he described in his suicide note as “nothing short of torture.” He writes of his struggle over a decade to come to that “brit shalom,” that covenant of peace, and how no medical intervention could save him from the knowledge that “there are some things that a person simply cannot come back from.”

Daniel sought every outlet- a healing documentary he was working on, “replacing destruction with creation,” but nothing could release him from “every day a screaming agony.” In the end, in his painfully eloquent note, he describes his suicide as a “mercy killing,” which he follows with an indictment of the war and of the medical establishment that failed him so profoundly.

As the 4th of July approaches, I am proud to be an American and proud to be a Soldier. And, I am deeply ashamed at how I could not be there for Daniel Somers and how we, as a community, continue to not be there for our wounded warriors.

As the story of Pinchas is recounted in the Torah, tradition mandates that the word “shalom,” “peace,” be written with the letter “vav” broken. Pinchas receives the gift of peace, but it is not a whole peace. Our peace is not whole when we neglect the spiritual care of those who give their lives and souls in service to our nation.

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