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Lieutenant Wouk's Black Boxes Bookmark and Share
Lieutenant Wouk's Black Boxes
By: Herman Wouk

Emerging from midshipman school a newly minted ensign in blue and gold, I was prevailed upon by my widowed mother to come to the Lubavitcher Rebbe. I was not going in harm's way as yet, just to communications school in Annapolis, but I did not argue. The Rebbe was a gentle personage of imposing presence, recently escaped from Nazi-ruled Europe after a harrowing ordeal of Soviet imprisonment. He knew of my grandfather as a profoundly learned follower, he received us with grace, and we conversed in Yiddish, his voice weakened by asthma to a near-whisper. As I left, he gave me his blessing, and with it a dime. His successor, the late famous Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, gave dollars. The dime went with me to sea as did my phylacteries, which I would strap on each day in moments snatched from ship routine.

A month or so after the war ended, a typhoon swept over Okinawa, damaging or beaching more than a hundred vessels with some loss of life. My destroyer-minesweeper was thrown up on the rocks, pounding and grinding through a grim howling night. Next day, when all hands had been safely taken ashore, I observed a new warm respect toward me in the crew. As the executive officer, the captain's enforcer, I was not loved. During the storm I had done nothing but hang on like everybody else. I asked an old chief what this was all about, and he told me that the sailors were convinced they had been saved by "Lieutenant Wouk's black boxes."

I don't remember why I carried the Rebbe's dime to the South Pacific, Edman-trained rationalist though I was; probably on the disreputable notion that it couldn't hurt. There are no atheists in foxholes, people say, and I have heard that there are few atheists among American and Israeli fighter pilots. In war and in training for war, the unknown lurks just ahead, all too close and menacing. Hence amulets, and hence I guess my crew's belief in the thaumaturgy of black boxes. Agnostics tend to ascribe religion to fear of the unknown, and ritual to mumbo-jumbo propitiation of the unknown. There may be something in that, but not everything. I have a teaching from my fathers, "Bind these words on your arm, and let them be as frontlets between your eyes." That is why I tied on the black boxes in the South Pacific as I do today.

"But what did you get out of tying them on out there?" the agnostic may persist. "Did this obsessive business with leather straps, and Bible quotes inside black boxes, really bring you any closer to your God? Be honest. What was the difference in that, if any, from the Rebbe's dime?" Fair question. Putting the best face on the conduct of the young man I was so very long ago, it was the difference between halakhah and Kabbalah.