Who Will Remember Memorial Day?

A 2006 survey ahead of Memorial Day found that a mere 7% of Americans were planning to attend a Memorial Day observance of any kind. Unfortunately, this pretty much sums up the challenges facing Americans, as we (hopefully) struggle with the dispiriting reality that our national day of remembrance is more commonly observed as the the unofficial first day of summer, with the mandatory barbecues and beach trips that accompany that appellation.

Indeed, numerous veteran's organizations, and even Congress, have taken note of the lackadaisical manner in which so many observe this day. Unfortunately, few of these efforts have borne fruit. On May 2, 2000, for instance, President Clinton signed into law the National Moment of Remembrance Act, which designates 3:00pm on Memorial Day as a moment dedicated to Taps and silent remembrance. Of course, the very fact that so many of us are unfamiliar with this law - the comparison to the 10:00am siren that blares throughout Israel on Yom HaZikaron, when the entire country comes to a standstill, is instructive - demonstrates that the law has had minimal effect.

To take another example, from 1987 until his death in 2012, Hawaii's Senator Daniel Inouye advocated that the date of Memorial Day ought be changed to its original date of May 30. Arguing that the shift away from a long weekend would disentangle Memorial Day from the beach trips and barbecues associated with the beginning of summer, the senator made his case every year on the senate floor. His proposal, however, has not received significant support, and so the problem remains.

It would appear, though, that the challenge applies not only to the annual observance of Memorial Day but throughout the year. We find ourselves a century and a half after the Civil War; our wars are fought abroad and many of us do not personally know soldiers who have served, much less those who have given their lives. Some of our more recent wars, moreover, such as Vietnam and Iraq, have been hotly disputed among the American public. In the case of the former, they have even spawned pacifist movements, casting a shadow over our attitudes toward the entire enterprise of warfare. In such an era, what can we do to increase sensitivity toward the heroism of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of our freedom?

I would submit that Parshat Behukotai offers the beginnings of an approach. The tokheha, scathing rebuke of the Jewish people, is predicated on one key concept: the sacredness of the land. The erez is presented as almost animate: owing to our sins it expels us from its midst. This motif, moreover, appears in numerous instances toward the end of Sefer Vayikra. At the conclusion of parshat arayot, the laws of illicit relations, for example, the Torah warns, "ve-lo taki ha'arez etkhem," "lest the land vomit you out" (18:28, 20:22). The sanctity of Erez Kena'an is clearly a controlling theme in the latter third of Vayikra.

Israel, however, is not the only physical space that is endowed with halakhic sanctity. To understand why, one piece of background is required: the halakha of met mizvah. This refers to an individual who is found dead, abandoned in a field. According to the Gemara (Bava Kama 81a), Yehoshua established that the sanctity of Erez Yisrael was to be conditioned upon the precept of met mizvah.

With this principle in hand, we may turn to a Talmudic passage in Tractate Eruvin (17a). The Mishnah there lists a number of halakhic leniencies granted to soldiers at times of war. The Gemara goes on to cite R. Yehuda ben Teima, who adds two additional wartime rulings. First, a military brigade may encamp anywhere, even on private property. Second, a dead soldier is to be buried in the very place in which he was located. The Gemara goes on to clarify that this latter halakha applies even in an instance in which there are relatives to bury the dead. In the words of the Rambam (Laws of Kings 6:12), the soldier "has acquired his land like a met mizvah."

The reasoning for R. Yehuda ben Teima's second is unclear. If there are in fact relatives to bury the soldier, why does the Gemara rule that the soldier may be buried on the battlefield? Apparently, for the Talmud, the place in which a soldier gives up his or her life sanctifies that plot of land. Not only is the land of Israel sanctified, but the location in which a soldier has made the ultimate sacrifice is endowed with kedusha as well. The Gemara, in other words, anticipated by well over a thousand years President Lincoln's haunting words at the Gettysburg Address:

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate - we can not consecrate - we can not hallow - this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.

I believe this halakhic ruling offers a direction for what we might be able to do to more deeply instill within ourselves a greater appreciation for those Americans who have made the ultimate sacrifice. Certainly there is much we can do: read books, watch documentaries, speak to veterans who lost friends in battle, and more. But we are also fortunate to have access to plots of sanctified land of which the Gemara and Lincoln spoke: Gettysburg, where Lincoln delivered his timeless remarks; Shanksville, where Flight 93 crashed on 9/11; Ground Zero; and, locally, the Mikveh Israel cemetery, where we can visit the graves of Jewish heroes who gave their lives in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and the Civil War. These are all within driving distance from Lower Merion, PA, and should all be on our bucket lists of places to visit.

In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik wrote:

For many Americans, Memorial Day obligates us once a year to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their nation. Yet for Jews, memory, bridging the gap between past and present, is a constant duty. The renowned 20th-century Talmudist Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik once wrote that for Jews, “bygones turn into facts, pale memories into living experiences and archaeological history into a vibrant reality."

There is much we can do to transform Memorial Day from the day the pools open to one on which we commemorate heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice. By taking the time, perhaps during the upcoming summer, to make a pilgrimage to hallowed ground, we will hopefully take a significant step toward making next year's Memorial Day observance that much more meaningful.