The Meaning of Memorial Day
Every year I struggle to convey the real meaning of Memorial Day to my friends and family (and anyone who will listen). It goes beyond the idea of using it as an excuse for BBQs and trips to the beach. It seems like every “holiday” associated with the military or America blends together into a chance to recognize or thank our veterans. While showing gratitude to our service is commendable, it really misses the point.
Memorial day is something different. While technically a “holiday”, it is not a day of celebration. We Jews should be intimately familiar with the idea of a solemn “holiday” to remember and honor tragedy. Heck, that’s half of our holidays on the calendar.
As I mentioned, Chaplain Frommer says it well:
It is instructive to consider this connection as we approach Memorial Day, which isn’t so much a time for care packages or helping service members—important work for the rest of the year, particularly on Veterans Day or Armed Forces Day—as it is a time to honor the dead for their ultimate sacrifice. In the military community, if you’ve lost a friend or loved one, Memorial Day is about grief and pain. In the military community, Memorial Day remarks are spoken and heard in a context of the personal.
Most civilians, however, do not share such a personal connection to Memorial Day. There is a blessing in that, for sure—we are fortunate to have secured a safer path for ourselves and our children. But there is also a curse—we have passed the burden of war on to others, and we have detached ourselves from its costs. For most, Memorial Day means little more than a long weekend. For those outside the military, it’s impossible to wrap the mind around the true meaning of the day.
Now that I live in the Washington DC area, a visit to Arlington Nation Cemetery is an easy trip. This year I paid my respects to several of my friends whom I’ve lost over the past decade of war. My most recent trip was very different than the ones I made in high school in the 90s, where you might see a sprinkling of Vietnam or WWII vets visiting graves.
The fields are now full of young people: parents, siblings, friends, spouses, and sadly children of service members who have died in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in our most recent conflicts. These are the people that you work and daven with. They are the children that play with your own on the playground. Along with remembering and honoring the sacrifice of the service members themselves, it is important to recognize the sacrifice that these families have endured.
I will say that there is a ray of hope in all of this. Among the throngs of grieving family and friends visiting the cemetery, I saw a great deal of tourists and just “regular” visitors that were there to pay respects and explain to their own family the importance of the day. Seeing this made the frustration I normally feel during Memorial Day subside. It was instead replaced by a sense of pride in my countrymen and comfort for those in the ground at Arlington, knowing that the lives that they gave were truly being honored and recognized.
So next year as Memorial Day approaches, I challenge everyone to do something meaningful to honor the men and women who gave their lives in service of our country. In between your holiday plans, set aside some time to visit a local National Cemetery (you can find one here) or volunteer at an organization that supports the families of fallen service members. (Resources here, here, and here)