What should Memorial Day look like?

Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation B’nai Israel

All Hebrew texts from www.sefaria.org

How do we serve our communities? This weekend is Memorial Day Weekend. Ignoring the ads for cars, tvs and appliances, it is a time to remember those who served our nation and made the ultimate sacrifice. Begun during the Civil War, transitioning to Decoration Day (when one would decorate a grave) and not a Federal Holiday until 1971, it should be a day of remembrance. In the year 2000, the addition of a moment of silence at 3PM, was added, yet for so many it passes with barely any notice.

This stands in stark contrast to Israel. A little over two weeks ago, Israel had their Memorial Day. Followed immediately by their Independence Day, the direct link between the two is seen. There is national mourning, national consideration, national connection to loss. There is also national service with everyone, in theory, required to serve. Exemptions are hotly debated and become an issue in every coalition government. Every single person has a connection to Israel’s founding or continued defense. National service allows some to work in hospitals or “volunteer” across the country.

[Editorial note: Join me next April/May for 10 days in Israel.  You can see this transition from mourning to celebration.  You can see the world stop to remember. https://israeltour.com/tour-item/rweintraub/]

How could we bring that here? What could we do as Americans to ensure that people were as invested in the fabric of our society? What could we do to REALLY remember?

Looking at our history Jews have done a very good job at remembering. So many of our holidays have at their core, the idea of coming together as a community and commemorating an important event. This is a lesson that our young nation still needs. This holiday is a reminder of service, yet for so many the connections are distant, the pain is not shared. For Jews, the JWV struggles as the number of Jews presently or recently in the military pales to generations before. (I am proud to say that many of my colleagues do serve as chaplains, in active and reserve positions).

This parsha looks in a different direction. It looks not at the past but in the future. Behar Sinai, standing at Sinai, we receive laws for when make it to Israel. The second to last parsha of the Leviticus, before Bamidbar/Number, before our journey in the wilderness, that led to the promised land, it is almost entirely forward thinking. It dictates all that needs to be done in Israel. Amazingly, in such an optimistic section, it offers many prescriptions for treatment of those less fortunate. Thinking about poverty, it demands fair treatment with loans, without profit for those in need. IT speaks of indentured servitude for those who have no other choice. Much of the parsha speaks of not just the sabbatical year, but the Jubilee year, when land can revert to its rightful owner (who might have been forced to sell) and where those terms of indentured servitude end.

This parsha is not trying for a perfect world or a perfect solution. It recognizes that perfect can be the enemy of the good. Instead, it looks at incremental steps to reduce poverty. It creates conditions where those who are more fortunate cannot take advantage of the less fortunate.

Powerfully, this parsha speaks of Sabbatical and Jubilee years, that the land itself needs regular rest. It shows that not only do WE need to take time, but the entire world does!

וְקִדַּשְׁתֶּ֗ם אֵ֣ת שְׁנַ֤ת הַחֲמִשִּׁים֙ שָׁנָ֔ה וּקְרָאתֶ֥ם דְּר֛וֹר בָּאָ֖רֶץ לְכָל־יֹשְׁבֶ֑יהָ יוֹבֵ֥ל הִוא֙ תִּהְיֶ֣ה לָכֶ֔ם וְשַׁבְתֶּ֗ם אִ֚ישׁ אֶל־אֲחֻזָּת֔וֹ וְאִ֥ישׁ אֶל־מִשְׁפַּחְתּ֖וֹ תָּשֻֽׁבוּ׃
and you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family.

Rashi teaches:

וקראתם דרור. לָעֲבָדִים, בֵּין נִרְצַע בֵּין שֶׁלֹּא כָלוּ לוֹ שֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים מִשֶּׁנִּמְכַּר: אָמַר רַבִּי יְהוּדָה מַהוּ לְשׁוֹן דְּרוֹר? כִּמְדַיַּר בֵּי דַיְרָא וְכוּ' — שֶׁדָּר בְּכָל מָקוֹם שֶׁהוּא רוֹצֶה וְאֵינוֹ בִרְשׁוּת אֲחֵרִים (ספרא; ראש השנה ט'):
וקראתם דרור AND YE SHALL PROCLAIM LIBERTY unto slaves, both to him whose ear has been pierced (and whose period of servitude has thus been prolonged until the Jubilee; cf. Exodus 21:6) and to him whose six years of servitude (the period prescribed for an ordinary Hebrew servant; Exodus 21:6 Exodus 21:2), reckoning from the time when he was sold, have not yet ended. R. Jehuda said, “What is the etymology of the term דרור, freedom? A free man is like a person who may dwell (דור) at an inn — meaning that he may reside in any place he pleases, and is not under the control of others. (דרור therefore implies liberty of residence) (Rosh Hashanah 9b).

Ibn Ezra:

דרור. ידועה שהוא כמו חפשי וכדרור לעוף עוף קטן מנגן כשהוא ברשותו ואם הוא ברשות אדם לא יאכל עד שימות:

freedom This word means “liberty”. Compare, “like a flying swallow” [Proverbs 26:2]. The term there denotes a bird which sings as long as it is free; but if it is forced into captivity, it will starve itself to death.

יובל היא תהיה לכם. All of you will also be free of subservience to other nations.

Chizkuni (13th century France)
לכל יושביה, “for all its inhabitants;” seeing that the Torah wrote: ושבתם איש אל אחוזתו, “each man of you is to return to his ancestral heritage,” it would have sounded as if women did not possess ancestral land in Israel. Therefore the Torah also had to write: לכל יושביה, to all of its inhabitants no matter which sex. According to Sifra, this meaning has been derived from the word: תשובו, [which is a repetition. Ed.] לכל יושביה, “for all its inhabitants.” This is why as soon as even when only parts of the tribes had been exiled, this law could no longer be observed.

These commentators, this text, speaks of freedom in a different way than we are used to. Yes, it discusses freeing those who were indentured servants, those who served as slaves in the houses of another, but it also speaks of the land. It says that our property is passed down through generations of families--and that families have an opportunity to reacquire property they had to sell in hard times--assuming their situations have changed.

Looking at our own country today, these lessons remain. How do we make incremental change to ensure that all have a fair shot? What steps can we take to create opportunities for growth? I do not stand here with solutions. I’m not running for president.

I stand here humbly and remind us that looking backward is essential, yet if we truly wish to live, we must also look forward. Our Torah teaches that the world we live in is not a perfect one, but it is ours. It recognizes the humanity in each and every person, regardless of their wealth or lack thereof. As we look at our nation’s future, let us look for one that builds community, that builds sanctity, that builds humanity. Let us find ways to work together, rather than tear one another down.

Thinking about Memorial Day, I think about men and women who gave their lives so that we might live in freedom--freedom to worship, freedom to pursue life, liberty and happiness. This was not a freedom just for wealthy men, but for all people. Even if it has taken us a little time to recognize that, our men and women in uniform have known it all along. Death does not discriminate, we must ensure that we do not either. That is one way we can stand at Sinai, be behar Sinai, at Mt Sinai--not just in the past, but in the future.

Photo from Washington DC