I have wonderful memories of Memorial Day while I was growing up in America. Memorial Day signaled the end of the cold, snowy Chicago winter. Memorial Day meant an extra day off of work and school so that we could host a barbeque with family and friends. And Memorial Day was one of the best shopping days of the year as nearly every store held a Memorial Day sale. Despite its name and its original intent, Memorial Day was a joyful day, serving as the official kickoff to summer.
That was Memorial Day for me for most of my life. But after my first Memorial Day in Israel, that changed.
Israel is a small country with a short (modern) history. Each of Israel’s modern wars took place within the last 71 years, the most recent being just 5 years ago. Every Israeli over the age of 18 is required to serve in the army. Most people know someone murdered in a terror attack or who fell in battle. My own children step outside our house each day and see the memorial plaque for Amos, the son of our grandmotherly neighbor, who was killed in 1982 during the First Lebanon War. In a tiny country like ours, it is impossible not to be connected.
Yom Hazikaron, as we call Memorial Day in Hebrew, is observed in the spring just as it is in America. But you won’t find people shopping or any sales going on — in fact, most stores are closed. The atmosphere in the country is somber and most people spend the day at home with family or at ceremonies paying tribute to all those who lost their lives for our homeland. The pain on the faces of the bereaved is so telling, the wounds so raw, their loss so unfathomable.
I have no doubt that places in America where army families live experience Memorial Day similarly to Israelis. I know that many Americans pay tribute to fallen soldiers in cemeteries and at other meaningful monuments. There are definitely many Americans across the country who connect with the meaning of the day.
However, reality is that America is large (especially compared to Israel, which is only the size of New Jersey). The American War of Independence was hundreds of years ago. It’s easy to feel emotionally disconnected from those who gave their lives for the freedom most of us take for granted.
In the book of Isaiah, when God spoke of creating an everlasting memorial, we read, “to them I will give…a memorial and a name” (56:5). Yad V’shem, Hebrew for “a memorial and a name,” was chosen as the name for Israel’s Holocaust Museum in order to impress upon visitors that each victim had a name. Each had an identity. Each was a person. Each was a world unto themselves.
And so it must be on Memorial Day. Every soldier that has fallen in battle was somebody’s daughter or son, a mother or a father, a spouse, a friend, a child of God. It does not matter if that person fell in a battle that took place two-hundred years ago or two months ago. They are the reason that we enjoy the freedoms we are blessed with today. We cannot let their memories live as mere statistics or in history books.
My blessing for America this Memorial Day is that not one more soldier will fall in battle and there will be no need to add any names to the list of fallen heroes. However, I pray that we will always educate our children about the sacrifices that fallen soldiers made on our behalf. We must inspire, by example, everlasting gratitude for the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice. We must teach all of our children to protect and cherish the gift of freedom that has been handed to them; it was purchased at a very high price.
Although we can never pay back our debt to fallen soldiers, we can ensure that their fight was not in vain.
With blessings from the Holy Land,