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May 21, 2024 -13 Iyyar 5784

05/21/2024 02:31:28 PM

May21

History has been written from a number of different viewpoints. An older trend—dating from the classical Roman historians and mythologies—focused on the deeds and even feats of a few larger-than-life individuals. We know much about law, government, war and conquests by a few named individuals. The narrative of Torah establishes the multigenerational biography of a single family that over time became the Jewish people. Other names appear, but even figures who really pique our curiosity remain nameless placeholders frequently enough for names to be attached to them in Midrashic texts. 

Over recent decades a switch to the ‘history of everyday life’ featuring individuals and events whose record is known by accidents, reports in ephemeral texts or under unusual circumstances. Diaries, memoirs, letters, deeds and newspapers all contribute to this everyday stuff, as do archaeological discoveries that come to light in unexpected places. One example of that is recent excavations of Pompei, where lava froze life in the ash and lava raining down indiscriminately from Mount Vesuvius, freezing life at an identifiable moment in time. A thoughtful poem by Zelda means every person makes their own name. [EACH OF US HAS A NAME - Zelda - Ukraine - Poetry International]

Not all events are so clearly marked in place or time—yet Jewish tradition has a long tradition regarding its own lachrymose past. Generations of tears have been shed for those lost in violent acts, at an early age, or in wartime. Perhaps that is the higher order symbolism of the recently commemorated yamim [some say ‘yoms’] on 27 Nisan (Yom hashoah) and 4 Iyar (Yom hazikaron) prior to 5 Iyar (Yom ha-atzma’ut)—Israel’s Independence Day.

Within my memory, May 30 was known as Decoration Day, when flags were placed on soldiers’ graves from all the times the United States went to war. More recently, the final Monday of each May has become a day to honor public service (uniformed services) in late spring and the unofficial beginning of the summer resort season. The upcoming Memorial Day weekend will include a JWV service at the Fort Worth cemetery of Congregation Ahavath Shalom; Shabbat eve at CBI will also include some thoughts on those whom we have lost.

At home, privately, the ubiquity of yahrzeit lights marks the Jewish concern with memory. As years pass after the genocide of Nazi Europe, Jews keep the faith—literally—in the acts of remembrance we maintain. For those who visit cemeteries as fulfillment of the mitzvah of kever avot—ancestral graves—find stones on graves. There are many explanations for this custom whose origin is unknown. I am comfortable with two ideas. One is that ancient graves were heaped with loose stones that dissipated over time. Adding new stones slows or even reverses the process. More metaphorically, our presence means the world has been changed by our action. Like directed and has been changed by our actions. Like directed tikkun olam, what we do has consequences.

These thoughts leave me with two quandaries for this American Memorial Day. One is the fate and destiny of those whose identity is hidden—the nameless many whose land became an America they were never part of, or which did not allow them the freedom claimed for all ‘created equal’ remains integral to the national identity. It remains an indigestible lump in my throat.

A second concerns the memory of those whose names are known and whose deeds are recorded: the leadership of secession that cost the largest loss of life of any American war, the landowners whose possession included humans (discounted to 3/5 of a person in the decennial census and to be moved about disregarding ethical standards). Their claims of glory belie the unity of a population of immigrants and an increasingly diverse society.

 

Langston Hughes voiced his concern:

O, let my land be a land where Liberty

Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,

But opportunity is real, and life is free,

Equality is in the air we breathe.

 (There's never been equality for me,

Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")

[https://www.poetryfoundation.]

 

A slightly older view is recorded in part on the base of the Statue of Liberty, in the timeless words of Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) of ‘The New Colossus’:

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

[see: The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus | Poetry Foundation and Emma Lazarus - Poem, Quote & Statue of Liberty (biography.com), emphasis represents best-known excerpt from the sonnet.]

 

As you mark this year’s Memorial Day, let your questions come to mind and your answers bring you light.

Thu, July 18 2024 12 Tammuz 5784