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May 28, 2010  RSS feed
Rabbinically Speaking

Text: T T T

Memorial Day: Israel, U.S. polar opposites

By RABBI DANIEL TREISER Temple B’nai Israel, Clearwater

Remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt, the house of bondage … (Exodus 13:3)

Remember me when all is well with you again…. (Genesis 40:14)

Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy…. (Exodus 20:8)

I will remember My covenant with Jacob…. (Leviticus 26:42)

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey after you left Egypt…. (Deuteronomy 25:17)

The Hebrew root for the word remember, zayin, chaf, resh, appears in our Bible in one form or another more than 200 times. The concept of remembrance is an essential component of our identity as Jews.

We remember our obligation to maintain the customs and traditions of our ancestors. We remember the pledge of the covenant that bound the ancient Israelites, and us, to the Holy One, just as it bound the Divine to us. We remember the trials and tribulations of our parents, our grandparents and great-grandparents, the efforts they made in coming to this country looking for a better life, an escape from anti-Semitism and progroms, the ability to live their lives as free Jews and as Americans.

Each week when we recite the Kiddush over Shabbat wine we declare it as a remembrance of our departure from slavery in Egypt. Our Jewish New Year is called a Day of Remembrance, on which we remember the acts of Creation. We dedicate a day in our year, Yom HaShoah, to remember the victims of the Nazi atrocities and pledge that we will never forget. And with each yarzheit and Yizkor service, we remember the loved ones who brought meaning and purpose to our lives.

What is the purpose of remembering? Memory allows us to connect with the experiences of our past, to learn from the experiences of those who came before us how they interacted with God and with the world around us, and to understand how we might make those same connections.

One of the greatest fears of our human condition is answered by memory as well: what happens after we die? While we cannot know what lies beyond the body’s death, our tradition gives many different answers to the question of an afterlife. But there is one sense of eternality that we know with certainty does exist: we live on in the memories of those who love us, who remember the meaning and impact we had upon their lives, who share the stories of our lives with the generations of our families yet to come.

A day like Memorial Day is essential to the soul of a nation, for it is a day on which to share the stories of those who have given their lives to ensure that nation can live. Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism is such a profoundly moving example of the importance of a day of memorial.

I was so fortunate to be in Israel for Yom Hazikaron with 42 members of our Temple B’nai Israel family this April, to experience the impact of a true Memorial Day. In Tel Aviv we gathered in Rabin Square, the same square where Prime Minister Rabin spoke just moments before his assassination in 1995. Thousands of Israelis were there to remember soldiers who have died defending our Jewish homeland. We watched the stories of seven soldiers, their lives, and the impact of their deaths, on giant screens. We sang songs of remembrance, of sadness for lives left uncompleted, and prayers for peace.

The next day, as we drove to Rehovot, we saw what we thought was a major accident on the highway, as two lanes of traffic were shut down and blocked by police cars. In fact, the highway had been turned into a giant parking lot for the Military Cemetery in Holon. Imagine hundreds of cars parked on I-275, just so people can attend a

memorial ceremony.

A few moments after driving past, our bus pulled to the side of the road as air-raid sirens blasted throughout the country, and we, together with the entire country, came to a complete stand-still for two minutes in silent remembrance of those who have died in the Israel Defense Forces.

It is a hauntingly beautiful sight to see a major highway with all vehicles stopped, every driver and passenger standing in the roadway in silent tribute.

It is this sense of remembrance, of acknowledging that the blessings of freedom and existence come with a heavy price, which permeates the soul of Israel. It is only through the lens of solemn memory that the nation can turn to joyous celebration of her independence later that evening with the beginning of Yom Ha’Atzma’ut. It is with that same reverence for those who continue to defend Israel that a seat was left open in the Sanctuary of Kehilat Mevasseret Tzion, where we observed Shabbat, with a sign that read, “Reserved for Gilad Shalit,” the Israeli soldier abducted by Hamas in 2006.

What a striking contrast there is between Yom Hazikaron and Memorial Day here in the United States. There may be assemblies and parades, some may visit a cemetery or display a flag from our homes. But for far too many, Memorial Day is nothing more than a three-day weekend. Some fear that the meaning of Memorial Day, to remember the fallen soldiers of our country who died to preserve our liberties and freedoms, has faded with time. Perhaps then, we as a Jewish community can once again serve as an example to our neighbors of what Memorial Day can be.

In May 2000, Congress passed Public Law 106-579, establishing the White House Commission on Remembrance. The Commission has suggested that Americans observe a moment of remembrance at 3 p.m. on Memorial Day, taking a moment of silence or reverence to honor the sacrifices of American soldiers. Perhaps we can learn from our Israeli brothers and sisters, and use this time to find a meaningful moment in our own Memorial Day observance.

The Rabbinically Speaking column is provided as a public service by the Jewish Press in cooperation with the Pinellas County Board of Rabbis. Columns are assigned, on a rotating basis by the board.

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