It is something that happens off and on over the years, this coincidence of Memorial Day and the second day of Shavuot, when we are asked to recited the Yizkor service. The last time the two days overlapped it was 1985, and before that 1971. Memory is of course a central component of both experiences. The word ‘memorial’ simply means a structure – whether that structure is physical like a tombstone, or a structure in time – like a day or a liturgical structure – the enables us to remember a person who has died. And the word ‘yizkor’ comes from the Hebrew root that means ‘to remember.’ So it somehow feels appropriate that the two days fall together, with their shared themes and feelings.
The history of Memorial Day is an interesting one, albeit much more recent than you might expect. The holiday was first established in the late 1800s, as a day to remember those killed during the Civil War, still America’s bloodiest. At first the holiday was called Decoration Day, because of the custom of taking flowers and laying them on the soldier’s graves and tombstones. For many years the date was fixed as May 30th, regardless of which day of the week that was, and it wasn’t until the early 70s that the date was fixed as the last Monday of May, and the day was recognized as a national holiday. So it has only been for the last 40 years or so that Memorial Day has been observed as the last Monday of May. And as recently as 15 years ago the holiday was still being tweaked. It was in the year 2000 that congress passed a law that every citizen should pause at three o’clock in the afternoon on this day for a moment of silence, to acknowledge those who have lost their lives fighting for this country and for our freedom.
At the heart of Memorial Day is the idea that collective memory is important. It creates national identity, it reminds us of what connects us as Americans, that we share a narrative and a history, that our triumphs and our tragedies bind us together as a nation, as a people. But Memorial Day is also about personal loss. Families gather today at Arlington National Cemetery. They bring flags and flowers to specific graves. This is their brother or sister, their father or mother or grandfather. Their friend. On Memorial Day the nation gives thanks, and honors, and remembers. But the individual mourns. The bitterness and sadness and grief of a loss comes back into the heart. In the midst of a holiday that has become largely about sales and barbecues we would do well to remember that, and perhaps this year pause at 3 for that moment of silence.
Yizkor is Judaism’s moment of silence. We Jews learned long ago the importance of remembering and memorializing. If you think about it all of our holidays are at least in part an exercise in memory. Passover is about recalling the exodus. This holiday, Shavuot, reminds us of the giving of the Torah. Each summer we celebrate Tisha B’Av, a commemoration of the day the Temple was destroyed in ancient Jerusalem. Hanukkah and Purim also mark historical events in the history of the Jewish people. Judaism is a deeply memory-centric faith, but most of the remembering we do in Judaism is not personal, it is national. But Yizkor is different. It is the most personal memory exercise we have in Judaism. In the midst of recalling our national stories, our collective historical experience, the tradition carves out for us this moment of silence, this opportunity for personal reflection and recollection, this specific moment to remember the loses of our lives. The very people we have shared these holidays with over the years who have passed from this world to the next.
As we rise today for the Yizkor service, may we remember the sacrifices of those who defended our nation, even as we call to mind those we have loved and lost, whose lives continue to touch us each day, and whose memories we honor in God’s presence, during this watchful hour –