WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM SEAL TEAM 6
A Sermon for the First Day of Rosh Hashanah 5772
By Rabbi Wayne Allen
Howard Wasdin became an instant celebrity this past year. The publication of his memoir SEAL Team 6 coincided with the news that Osama Bin Laden was shot dead by the same anti-terrorist group of which he was once a part. Interviewed by Time magazine (May 23, 2011), he revealed several interesting pieces of information that ought to shape our lives as Jews. And how we ought to live our lives as Jews is central to our thinking on RoshHashanah.
Questioned on what is the difference between Seal Team 6 and any other elite unit of the armed forces, Wasdin explained that each team member is loaded down with fifty pounds of equipment, two weapons and a side-arm and run up and down stairs all day long, clearing rooms of potential threats. The training is relentless. In his words: “We’re going to do this all damn day, every day” until they are summoned to go on a mission.
I suppose we all expected to hear some other explanation; something more compelling. We wanted to hear that these are men selected for super-human abilities: great strength, exceptional judgment, keen eyesight, the shortest reaction-times, the sharpest reflexes, championship calibre fighting techniques, and unerring marksmanship. But that is not the secret of success of Seal Team 6, according to one of its former members and chronicler. What distinguishes this elite unit from any other is its dedication to training: to repeating the same activities throughout the day, day after day after day. I doubt that you would hear a member of Seal Team 6 complain that their repetitive activity is monotonous, boring, irrelevant, or useless. I suspect that each and every member of the team honestly believes that their training sharpens their skill and makes them better equipped to face any challenge.
Contrast this attitude with so many of us today. Faced with a tradition that requires regular and fixed prayer that includes the same scripted words recited every day with little variation; that follows a repetitive cycle; that demands a body of requirements to be fulfilled relentlessly, many conclude that Judaism is stifling or worse.
The first thing we can learn from Seal Team 6 is that training and practice and repetition do not make us bored, they make us better. Bill Bradley, Rhodes Scholar, former U.S. Senator from New Jersey and champion basketball player for the New York Knicks, writes in his 1998 book entitled Values of the Game that his success was the result of perpetual training and conditioning. He would practice three to four hours each day and two more hours each day over the weekend. He would not leave the basketball court until he sank twenty-five consecutive shots from five different places on the floor. And then he would play practice games. He learned that the harder he worked, the more things became “automatic.”
That leads to the second thing we can learn from Seal Team 6 emerges from the first. Wasdin was asked if he still maintains the skills he learned in the SEALs. He said that when he went to the shooting range for the first time in ten years, all of his shots came within a quarter’s diameter from the bull’s-eye. His comment was: “Talk about muscle memory.”
I am sure all of us have heard about muscle memory, that is, once our bodies are accustomed to performing a particular pattern of activity, our tendency is to repeat doing it in the same way almost unconsciously. Baseball pitchers rely on muscle memory, as do all athletes. Golfers rely on muscle memory and thus spend endless hours practicing their swing. (I am not a big fan of golf. I share Will Roger’s observation that long ago men cursed and beat the ground with sticks. Today it’s called golf.) Shooting, we now learn, is also a matter of muscle memory, hence all the practicing.
But I would suggest that as Jews we ought to enlist more than just muscle memory in our lives. We need to incorporate “goodness memory,” that is, repeating acts of nobility, kindness, and compassion, so that they become second nature to us. In the introduction to her inspirational book entitled My Grandfather’s Blessings, Naomi Remen tells how her grandfather once brought her a gift of a paper cup filled with some dirt. He placed it on the windowsill and asked Remen, then a little girl, to promise she would water it every day. If she did, her grandfather added, something may happen. She promised and, more often than not, kept it. About four weeks later, she noticed a small shoot had sprouted from the dirt. Her grandfather had placed a seed in that soil. All excited, she asked her grandfather about the secret of this miracle. “All it needs is water, Grandpa?” she asked. “No, Neshumeleh,” he responded. “All it needs is your faithfulness.”
What Judaism needs today is faithfulness. And what Jews need to do today is become practitioners of faithfulness, that is, repeat with love and care those noble patterns that can bring beauty and wonder to the world.
The third thing we can learn from Seal Team 6 is that teamwork is essential to success. The most elite fighting unit in the U.S. military does not function without the cooperative support of all its members. No single man, no matter how proficient, is able to complete a given mission. The tasks are too complex and demanding. Likewise, the Torah teaches that while the Kohanim are empowered to perform some key rituals, their service would not be possible without the support of the Levites. Even Moses required the support of his subordinate appointees when it came to properly judging the people Israel. Judaism is a group endeavour. As such, it requires all of our effort. We are all part of the team.
The fourth thing we can learn from Seal Team 6 is that without the ability to plan and anticipate we are doomed. We all know the story. Of the two helicopters sent to Abbottabad, Pakistan, one suffered from mechanical failure and crashed. Anticipating all that could possibly go wrong, the team was able to complete its mission by shifting to the second helicopter. Our tradition defines wisdom as the ability to anticipate the future. “Eizehu hakham? Ha-ro’eh et ha-nolad.” One of the words I disdain is the neologism “pro-active,” which really is no word at all. But it does convey a real idea, namely, that rather than behave in consequence to things that affect us, we ought to act with forethought, anticipating what might occur and thus be prepared for that contingency.
The challenges that face us individually and collectively during the course of this coming year may be significant. But we do have a design for success. All we need to do is make operational the lessons from Seal Team 6: we need to be faithful in our practice, keep doing what is good, act as part of a team, and act in anticipation of the possible threats to us as a people. And may God bless our efforts.