Memorial Day: Israel and America

Sermon delivered May 25, 2007, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block

As I was preparing tonight’s sermon, I looked up “Memorial Day” on the Internet encyclopedia, Wikipedia. I already knew that our American Memorial Day had been established in the wake of the Civil War, to honor Union soldiers. I was not surprised that the encyclopedia entry mentioned the Indianapolis 500 in the first paragraph.

Memorial Day in America has lost its meaning, for all but a sliver of our society. Yes, Monday will feature ceremonies in cemeteries, particularly military cemeteries. Perhaps even families of fallen soldiers and veterans will visit their loved ones’ graves in our own Temple cemeteries. Appropriate ceremonies will be held by government officials, with a bit more attention at this time of war.

Nevertheless, for most Americans, Memorial Day is, as Wikipedia describes it, a day for picnics. Monday will mark the unofficial beginning of summer, which will find its other book-end on Labor Day, another holiday similarly stripped of its intended meaning. Even July 4, not celebrated on the nearest Monday, has largely been neutered. The flags and patriotic music that accompany cookouts and fireworks on America’s Independence Day do not seem to evoke sincere expressions or feelings of patriotism in most of our fellow citizens.

Interestingly, the ancient Rabbis faced a similar holiday problem. Two thousand years ago, as the Temple was destroyed and our ancestors were dispersed across the ancient world, our sages must have wondered how the highest holy days of ancient Israel would be observed. You see, in the biblical period, the most important holidays were not Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; they were Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. These three holidays, which seem very different to us, actually have much in common. All celebrate harvest, albeit of different crops at different seasons. When the Temple was standing, Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot were all observed with pilgrimage to Jerusalem, there to offer sacrifices prescribed for the season. So, the Rabbis must have wondered: Would Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot retain their significance for Jews living outside the Land of Israel, in climates with different agricultural cycles? Would Jews even care about crop-based festivals, if they were no longer farmers? And how would these holidays be observed, now that the central activity, pilgrimage to the Temple, was no longer possible?

Fortunately, the Torah held the key. The early spring harvest festival, Passover, also celebrates the Exodus. Later in the spring – just this past week, in fact – Shavuot not only marks the barley harvest, but also the day on which God gave us the Torah at Mount Sinai. Only Sukkot retained a primary focus on agriculture, and even that fall festival enjoys a connection to the desert experience, as we are told that God caused our people to dwell in Sukkot during the forty years of wandering.

The Rabbis, then, were able to ensure that Jews would observe these festivals in changing circumstances. As a result, 2000 years later, we continue to mark these holy days with religious significance, not as days for cookouts or auto races. The Rabbis also emphasized Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, also found in the Torah, and less connected to the agricultural cycle. Now our High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur focus on that which is spiritual.

So we have precedent in Jewish history for taking an existing holiday, vesting it with new meaning, thereby preserving its significance. Will such a procedure work for Memorial Day in our own times?

Most troubling would be the premise. Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot needed new life, because the earlier agricultural emphasis had waned in importance. Similarly, the holiday originally established to honor Union soldiers was broadened to unite all Americans, now honoring our fallen military heroes from all wars and all sectors of our nation. However, the basic premise of Memorial Day ought not to have diminished: Americans continue to bear a national obligation to recall and honor the men and women who gave their lives for our country.

So, observances aside, why do most Americans ignore the official meaning of Memorial Day, celebrating frivolously, if at all?

Apparently, too many Americans take our country for granted. The overwhelming majority of us were born here. We do not have personal memories of lands where our freedoms were restricted, where we lacked the opportunities guaranteed to all Americans. We don’t have the perspective to appreciate what our fallen heroes have bequeathed to us.

Other reasons may be even more troubling.

Thankfully, the American public continues to think highly of our fellow citizens in military service, even as a growing majority opposes the current war. Nevertheless, we must admit that our nation is removed by sixty years, more than two generations, from a war that united our country in clarity of purpose. More than six decades have passed since the American military has engaged a battle in which all agreed that our very way of life was at stake. As a result, too many among us may actually devalue American lives lost in battle.

Even more problematic, the United States military does not draw equitably from all segments of American society today, as it once did. While an all-volunteer force offers many benefits, one consequence is that millions of Americans may actually not personally know anybody who has died in battle. They may not even have a friend in the military today. Our situation in San Antonio is skewed, of course. All of us know military personnel, for tens of thousands are stationed here. At the same time, even in San Antonio, most of our Temple members under fifty have never lost a friend or relative in battle. Memorial Day lacks a personal resonance for us. Memorial Day is without personal significance for millions of other Americans outside the lower-middle socio-economic stratum of our society, from which most of our military is drawn today.

Saddest of all, many Americans today question the basic goodness of our country. Americans who lack decent public education opportunities or access to health care may be excused for being less than enthusiastic patriots. For too many among us, America does not feel like the land of opportunity. At the same time, millions of Americans are easily confused about the difference between opposing certain policies of government and being anti-American. The cause for that confusion is clear: Some staunch supporters of the War in Iraq, occasionally even the President, have falsely declared or cynically implied that nobody who loves America would oppose this War. Perhaps the real purpose of Memorial Day is obscured because too many Americans are ambivalent about America.

I would contrast America’s observance of Memorial Day to what I saw and did in Israel, twenty-one years ago. In the Jewish State, Yom HaZikaron, which translates exactly as “Memorial Day,” is observed on the day before Yom Ha’atzmaut, Independence Day. The connection is clear: Without the men and women who have died in battle, Israel would not be free. Nobody schedules cookouts or car races on Yom HaZikaron. Happier, but still patriotic, observances are reserved for the next day. While the government holds ceremonies in military cemeteries and families visit graves, the most important observance includes every person in Israel. Air sirens blast for a full minute or more, throughout the land. Everybody stops what they are doing. People pile out of buses. They stand silently, in national solidarity, for as long as the siren sounds.

Perhaps such a practice would re-invigorate our own Memorial Day in America. Perhaps Israel, being newer, is eventually headed for the same decay in its own Memorial Day. Israelis today question the wisdom of the State’s most recent military ventures. Indeed, Israel faces many threats, not the least being cynicism growing around the nation’s leadership.

Both America and Israel, though, remain most worthy of honor. Even our imperfect society is the land of the free and the home of the brave, a beacon of opportunity to the world. Even an Israel in internal crisis is a refuge for the oppressed, a light to the nations. We have much to celebrate as Americans, even as we join Israelis, rejoicing in our Jewish State. Let us honor and revere the memories of all who have given their lives that we might be free. Then, truly, will our memories be a blessing.