As I have done for the past 29 years since my ordination as a rabbi, I have dedicated my sermon on the Shabbat before Memorial Day to the men and women of our armed forces. Before the term “lone soldier” was a thing, I joined the Israel Defense Forces and served in Jerusalem and Lebanon in 1983 during Operation Shalom Gallil. I have felt a need to remember since I stood on an abandoned Syrian bunker with a Vietnam Vet who in his moments of flashback to his days as an artillery officer, was recalling the smell of the cordite when none was there. We are bound to remember. And so we do.
On Monday, 26 May, we mark the 149th anniversary of the first official observation of the holiday we now call Memorial Day, as established by General John A. Logan’s “General Order No. 11” of the Grand Army of the Republic dated 5 May, 1868. This order reads in part: “The 30th day of May 1868 is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers and otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.” Logan’s order in fact ratified a practice that was already widespread, both in the North and the South, in the years immediately following the Civil War.
Since 1776 and the Birth of this Nation, 1,354,664 have been killed, 1,498,240 have been wounded. In the Civil War alone, 750,000 were killed in battle. To quote Winston Churchill in a different context, “[never] was so much owed by so many to so few.” I cannot help but reflect on the brave men at Valley Forge – shoeless and starving – who refused to abandon their posts or their beloved general, lest the cause be lost. The 20th Maine Infantry Regiment under Colonel Joshua Chamberlain who, along with his men, held the line at Gettysburg against long odds, thus turning the tide of the war and ending the scourge of slavery in America forever. The brave men and women serving overseas today, who vigilantly watch over us and defend our shores.
But perhaps most importantly, Monday is a day to honor and remember all U.S. service members – through the centuries – who perished in the line of duty and especially their family members who survive them.
In Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, he reminded his contemporaries 148 years ago that every American has an obligation and responsibility to support the care of the military families of loved ones killed in action – one of our oldest and most noble traditions. He said:
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan–to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.
We should hold to the true meaning of this day. Alas, for too many Americans, Memorial Day has come to mean nothing more than another three-day weekend, albeit the one on which the beaches and pools open, signifying the beginning of summer. Unfortunately, the tendency to see the holiday as merely an opportunity to attend a weekend cook-out obscures even the vestiges of what the day was meant to observe. It is a solemn time, serving both as catharsis for those who fought and survived, and ensuring that those who follow us will not forget the sacrifice of those who died so that the US and the principles that sustain it might live.
What leads men and women to behave as soldiers and offer themselves up as sacrifices? The honor and valor of those whom we remember on Monday, is often colored by the conflicts in which they fought. Where they fought is irrelevant to me, that they served is the key honorific moment. Men and women, with their whole lives ahead of them, placed themselves in harms way by intent or accident and often paid the highest price for ensuring that we could gather here tonight. That is worth remembering every day and honoring whenever we have the chance.
In the history of the world, many good soldiers have died bravely and honorably.
At the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg four months after the battle, President Abraham Lincoln fleshed out the understanding of what he called in his First Inaugural Address, the “mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land…”
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address gives universal meaning to the particular deaths that occurred on that hallowed ground. The deaths of the soldiers at Gettysburg, of those who died during the Civil War as a whole and indeed, of those who have fallen in all the wars of America, are deserve the greatest honor we can give to them. They have earned this day we call Memorial Day and we must, in Lincolns own words, remember their sacrifice.
Isaiah, the great prophet who envisioned a time when swords and spears would be turned into plowshares and pruning hooks (Isaiah 2:4), recognized the transitory nature of life and the enduring presence of God. “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades… but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:6-8).
And as we remember those who have fought in the wars our nation has fought and the price that was paid and the heartbreak of their families, let us commit ourselves to finding better a way so that day might come when fathers no longer die a long way from home and mothers will be able return home to watch their children grow up and sisters and brothers and sons and daughters will once again know the embrace of their families.
We remember today, because we dare not forget.
Let me conclude with this prayer.