Memorial Day, for many American’s who don’t have direct ties to the military, is usually more about barbeques and the great sales than it is about remembering those who gave their lives for our country.
Headed into this Memorial Day and looking for some deeper meaning in the holiday, I wanted to share some Jewish thoughts about the purpose and meaning of memory.
If you don’t know this already, Jews are seriously into memory. There are more than a dozen holidays and rituals each year that focus on the loss of loved ones, past persecution, and national calamity.
But what is the purpose of all of this memorializing of the past? It is just about the history or is it about something deeper?
Yehudah Kurtzer in his book Shuva explains the power of remembering with great elegance. For him, there is a difference between “history” and “memory." He says, “Where history informs, memory commands. History liberates while memory obligates.”
In other words, thinking about the past just as history creates a process of depersonalization. We hold bygone days at a distance; we try to be objective and focus on getting the facts right.
Memory on the other hand is deeply personal. We look into the past, not for its own sake, but to understand our present and to help us decide upon a future.
In this way, memory is less concerned with facts and more concerned with wisdom and meaning.
A great example of this is a trope in the Torah that states an ethical behavior like “do not oppress the stranger” followed by the justification, “because you were slaves in the land of Egypt.”
The Torah makes it clear. Memory is not just about past suffering, it’s about what we can learn from it and the obligation to fight against the persecution of others.
So this year for Memorial Day, I would ask us to return to the deeper meaning of why we remember.
Of course, the holiday can be a moment of pause to think about all of those heroes who fought and paid the ultimate sacrifice for us.
But we can also go even further and ask two more questions: “What is it that we learn from their memories, from their sacrifice, and from their lives” and “how do we want to apply those lessons today to make our world a better place?”
Wishing you all a great holiday weekend and may our past heroes be an inspiration for us all.