Rabbi Charles P. Sherman
Memorial Day Weekend
Let me begin by asking you to consider two questions. First, when you hear the words “Memorial Day”, what is the first thing that comes into your mind? This is the beginning of Memorial Day weekend, so what does Memorial Day trigger for you?
If you are like most people, I suspect that the answer is probably: first day of summer, opening of the JCC swimming pool, day for big store sales, or something like that. Very few of us Americans think of Memorial Day as a day for commemorating an historical event.
In fact, I suspect that most Americans are not exactly sure what event Memorial Day commemorates. So that is question two. Is it the end of World War I? If that is your guess, you are wrong. We have Veteran’s Day, which used to be Armistice Day, to remember those who fell in World War I.
Is it the end of World War II? Wrong again! VE Day and VJ Day do that.
Is it the Revolutionary War, or the War of 1812, or the Spanish-American War which we are supposed to remember on Memorial Day? Still wrong.
Memorial Day marks the end of the Civil War, and it commemorates all those who fell in that war on both sides – North and South, Blue and Gray.
The reason I asked you about the origins of Memorial Day is to point out that we Americans are not a people very good at remembering. The truth is – we do not like to remember. We do not like to dwell upon the past, for we are much too busy enjoying the present and planning the future.
He may have been exaggerating a little bit, but I believe that Henry Ford expressed the American mood very well when he said: “History is bunk!” Who has time to pay attention to history when the present is so preoccupying and the future is so challenging? History just is not the average American’s thing.
Not so for us Jews. We are a people who do not want to live in the past, but we surely want the past to live in us. You cannot be a serious Jew unless you have a sense of memory, unless you know where we came from and what we have lived through until we got to where we are today.
When David Ben-Gurion testified before the United Nations Commission on Palestine, he made a wonderful point about the role of history in Jewish lives. He said: “Some 350 years ago a ship called the Mayflower set sail for America. Hardly anyone in America today can tell you the exact date on which it set sail, or the exact date when it landed. We probably learned those dates in school, and we kept them in our heads long enough to write them down if they were on our exam, and then we promptly forgot them – and understandably so. Who needs to know exactly what day the Pilgrims sailed or the exact day on which they landed?”
Then Ben-Gurion contrasted that fact with this one. Not 350 years ago, but some 3,000 years ago, the Jewish People left Egypt, and every single Jewish child in the world today – if he or she has had any Jewish education at all – knows exactly what day they left. And every single child – if he or she has had any Jewish education at all – knows exactly what they ate the night they left.
We know because we eat what they ate on that day. We eat matzah on the anniversary of the night that the Jews left Egypt in order to keep the event forever in our memories. We Jews eat history so that may remember.
Remarkably, in my lifetime, four new holidays have found a place on the Jewish calendar – Yom Ha-Shoah, Yom Hazikaron, Yom Ha-atzmaut, and Yom Yerushalayim. Every year in the springtime, when other people are shaking off the winter and focusing on the new plants beginning to bud, we Jews look back and remember.
On Yom Ha-Shoah we remember those who perished in the Holocaust. Many of those who survived that nightmare are no longer alive now; many of those who are still alive are frail and feeble. But we still remember this event every year, not only for their sakes, but primarily for our own. We understand that only if we remember the barbaric evil which occurred, will we be able to understand the need to do whatever we can to make sure that nothing like this will every happen again.
On Yom Hazikaron, Israelis remember those who fell in Israel’s War of Independence and all those who have died in Israel’s defense ever since. It is a day taken very seriously in Israel. When the siren goes off on Yom Hazikaron, everyone stops whatever they are doing, wherever they may be and stands at attention for a moment of silent tribute. And rightly so, for if it were not for those people who made the ultimate sacrifice, Israel would not be.
On Yom Ha-atzmaut, the next day after Yom Hazikaron, we – and the rest of world Jewry now – celebrate Israel’s birthday. Last month we celebrated Israel’s 65th birthday. With all of Israel’s problems, which surely are many, it is still a yuntif to realize that after 2,000 years of waiting and wishing and praying, we Jews now have a state of our own. It may not be at peace yet, it may have more than its share of challenges – social, spiritual, economic, psychological, military and political – but at least we have it. At least there is one place on this earth where the street and the school and the theater and the movies and the television and the culture are Jewish, not just the home and the synagogue. At least there is one place on earth where the problems are ours to deal with, where we can see if the values of our heritage can really be applied to the modern world. With all of its problems, thank God for Israel.
You realize that almost all other Jewish holidays are celebrated for one day in Israel and two days by traditional Jews in America. But this observance is two days in Israel and one day in America. You see, for Israelis, Yom Ha-atzmaut would be impossible without going through Yom Hazikaron. First, Israelis commemorate those who have died in the wars, and then they celebrate. If we only celebrate Yom Ha-atzmaut and do not pay much attention to Yom Hazikaron, which is what we here in the Diaspora do, that means we do not really feel the price that so many have paid so that there could be a State of Israel. Israelis understand that people who do not appreciate the price that the State of Israel has paid cannot really appreciate how precious it is.
Then, on the 28th day of Iyar, Jews marked the fourth of the new holidays on our calendar – Yom Yerushalayim. Each year we go back in our memories to the excitement, to the awe and joy we felt on that great day 46 years ago, in June of 1967, when the word came out Har Habayit b’yadeynu – the Temple Mount is in our hands. The City of Jerusalem was reunified; no longer was it the Wailing Wall.
You see the contrast – two cultures, American and Jewish; two civilizations, two ways of looking at the world. One focuses on the immediate present and one focuses on the ancient and recent past. Now obviously no healthy people can focus only on the present or exclusively on the past. We need to somehow balance them both. As Ben-Gurion once put it: “We do not want to live in the past, but we do want the past to live in us.”
In my opinion, America focuses on the present too much. An example. For the life of me, I cannot understand why people are willing to pay more money in order to be able to get onto the Internet faster. Does that make sense? Would our lives really be any worse if we were only able to access the Internet seconds later?
And so Memorial Day, and even the 4th of July, have become essentially only opportunities to take off from work in order to take advantage of “Today-Only” sales at the mall. “Today-Only” is a fascinating phrase meaning: this is a day for shopping and not for thinking about what happened on this day. “Today-Only” is the motto by which we live on these commemorative holidays.
And so one of the key words of our culture is “multi-tasking”. We live such pressured lives; we go at such a frantic pace, that anyone who is doing only one job at a time feels like a slacker. A colleague whom I quote frequently, Rabbi Jack Riemer, says that he has learned to multi-task. “When I go to the barber for a haircut, I read and, at the same time, I get my nails cut. So that is three tasks I am carrying on at the same time – getting my hair cut, getting my nails done, and reading. But” Rabbi Riemer says; “the woman who cuts my hair “complained whenever I turned the page of the book I was reading. She said it interfered with her work.
“So now I read Hebrew while she cuts my hair. The reason I read Hebrew is that when I read Hebrew, I read more slowly and turn the pages less often. So now I can do five tasks at the same time. I get my hair cut, I get my nails done, I read, I strengthen my Hebrew skills, and I can be nice to the woman who does my hair – all at the same time.”
Multi-tasking is a uniquely American word. Where else are people driven to live at such a frantic pace that they have to do many things at the same time? Where else are people so obsessed with the present that they have no time to learn from the past, or to think about the future?
No wonder no one knows how Memorial Day came about; we have barely enough time to get to all the sales we have to go to on this day. Who can take time to think about who we are supposed to remember on this day, or what we are supposed to learn from them?
In America we want instant gratification. We are like the man who prays to God and says: God, please give me the gift of patience – and give it to me NOW!
On television a murder mystery can be solved in 59 minutes, and that is with four or five time-outs for commercials. So why can’t the problems of starvation in the world, or unemployment, or disease, or inflation, or the tensions in the Middle East be solved so quickly? And if they cannot, who has the patience to stick with them until they can be resolved? “Perseverance” is a word we do not even hear any more in America. In America, the past means yesterday or, to be more precise, last night. Anything before then is ancient history.
In Judaism, it is the other way around. The going out of Egypt is not just something that happened long, long ago. It is our story, and that is why we go back to it each and every Passover.
The moment at Mount Sinai was not something that happened in antiquity; it is the raison d’etre of our lives today. So we celebrate it each and every Shavuot, as a reunion with ourselves and our goals. We stood at Sinai as the Ten Commandments were read from the Torah ten days ago.
Judaism believes in building for the future, but in doing so on the basis of what we have learned in the past. A Jew without a memory is obsolete.
In preparing this message I rented a movie which Rabbi Riemer suggested. It is called “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”. It is a rather thoughtful and inventive movie. Its title comes from a poem by Alexander Pope. The movie is about the idea of “voluntary amnesia”. It is a love story about a young couple, played by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, who break up with each other after two years of going together. They decide that they want to go through a medical procedure which is guaranteed to erase the two-year relationship from their memories.
But while going through this procedure, the male hero – Joel – realizes that he only wants to erase the painful parts of his memory. He wants to hold on to the memory of the sweet moments that he and his girlfriend shared together. But the doctor tells Joel that the procedure is all or nothing, that if he wants to remove the painful memories of a romance gone sour, he has to remove the good memories as well.
So he has to choose – should he go for the medical procedure and remove the entire two years – the good and the painful, the sweet and the sour – or should he keep the whole two years and back out of the surgery? Should they go through voluntary amnesia or not?
I shall not tell you what they decide. But I believe that if Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet were Americans, they would go for it. And if they were Jewish, they would not. Jews believe in holding on to their history, to all of it, the good and the bad, the sweet and the sour alike. That is why we Jews make a Hillel sandwich at the seder and eat charoset, which is sweet, and maror, which is not, together. We understand that life cannot be lived a la carte, and that you cannot have the good in life without the bitter.
Each of us has a choice between accepting our past, which means all of it, or rejecting our past and focusing only on the present. I know which choice the Jewish People have made. We have chosen to accept our past, all of it – the bitter and the sweet – because we understand that it is only our relationship to the past which enables us to live in the present and that gives us a roadmap into the future. The Hebrew poet and partisan leader Abba Kovner advised: “Remember the past, live in the present, and trust the future.”
As for America, which way will America choose? Who can say? But one indicator of the way America will choose is to watch and see what Americans do this Monday – on Memorial Day – and on other holidays which used to be holy days in the calendar, devoted to commemorating the past. If we treat them only as occasions for frequenting the “Today-Only” sales at the mall, or for backyard barbequing, and forget what events in our history they are meant to bring back to our attention, then we will have chosen the way of “voluntary amnesia”.
I believe that will be sad. Then we will be a time-obsessed people – busy, busy, busy with the present, a people that has no time for the past or the future. We will be people who boast that we can dial-up and get on faster this year than we could last year. We will be people who can get on quickly, but then have no idea of what to say and where to go and why we are there once we are on. And that would be very sad.
May America learn from its Jews the value of being connected to the past, and may we Jews learn from America the value of living in the present. And may both heritages nurture us and nourish us and guide us to build a future that is worthy of the past. Amen
— I am indebted to Rabbi Jack Riemer for this message.