When Memorial Day and Shavuot Coincide: The Importance of Remembering the Outsider

Shavuot and Memorial day don’t often, but certainly occasionally, fall very close to one another. At first blush you wouldn’t think that there is much relationship between the two holidays, but this morning, as we prepare for Yizkor, our memorial service, I would like to examine the powerful connection of the past several days.

First, memorial day recalls a commitment of those who had a dedication to something larger than themselves. Their service to our country speaks to the value of being a part of a community, a central value of Shavuot. As we stood together yesterday and received the Ten Commandments, we recalled what it must have been like for the community of Israelites, a rag tag group of people who had escaped slavery, to come together and to commit to God and to one another.

Second, memorial day does not discriminate. It asks us to embrace and recall all members of our armed forces. Male or Female, Young or old; Black or white; Jew, Christian, Muslim.

Understanding that there are different people that make up the fabric of the American community is an important reminder for our Jewish community as well. People come to our community from all backgrounds-some born jewish, some who have chosen to become jewish, some from the west, some from the east-with a variety of level of observance, but what we recall about them is their commitment to being Jewish and so when we stand together today, we remember that.

The final piece that I think is most powerful is about the role of Biblical ruth in the holiday of Shavuot and how that is an important message for Yizkor.

There are many stories that could be celebrated and many books of wisdom that could have been read for this holiday, and yet, the rabbis, in their infinite wisdom, made the decision that it was crucial to read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot. A story of an outsider who made her way in. A story of someone who was embraced, even though she was the other. What does this teach us? It makes me realize that our best face that we put forth is demonstrated by how we treat others, not just those who appear to be a part of us.

So today, as we observe Yizkor and remember those close to us, and think about the proximity to those who gave their lives for service, I want to reflect on a tragic, horrific story from last week.

I am not sure how many of you heard but last week at the University of Maryland, a young, African American man who was supposed to graduate from Bowie state over the weekend was murdered while waiting for an uber. This man, Army Lt. Richard Collins III, was planning on walking across the stage to accept his degree but instead his graduation robe was draped over a chair in the front row, and his family accepted his business administration degree. A moment of silence was also held during the ceremony.

Collins had just been commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army, and “he prided himself on his time and in his ROTC unit on being the top runner in his PTs,” remembered his father, Richard Collins Jr. “He even won a certificate for being the best.”

He was murdered by Sean Urbanski who walked up to Collins and stabbed him in the chest. According to charging documents, the suspect told Collins, “Step left, step left, if you know what’s best for you.” Not only has Urbanski been charged with murder, this is being investigated as a hate crime.

It is so tragic that in this week that we recall those who gave their lives in service to our great country we are still confronting such vicious acts of hate.

The message that we must take then, on this Shavuot yizkor, as we remember Ruth, the ultimate of outsiders, who found their way in, is that our families, communities, and world need to understand and expect the good in others. Last week Dave and I had the privilege of going to see Come From Away, on broadway. A brilliant production which recalls the story of when 38 planes filled with people landed in Gandor, NewFoundland on 9/11 because all US Airspaces were closed. I am sure that in the coming weeks and months I will speak more about the many themes that emerged from the show but one thing was clear-the generosity of the human spirit, even in the deepest and darkest of moments was profound and something to work towards. Understanding that we all bleed the same blood and that we have Jewish obligation to be our brother’s keepers is a message that I saw. And it is a message that must resonate today.

For Yizkor is not only about memory but it is acting with the values of those who we remember today. We say in the el maleh rahamim that we even say that we will pledge tzedakah to perpetuate ideals that were important to them. So we need to recall those in our families and our communities. We need to recall those who gave their lives for our country. We need to remember Lt. Collins who had a life ahead of him that was cut short too soon.

And we need to remember that how we treat others is a true reflection of who we, and who are loved ones are. So on this yizkor let’s us remember Ruth and her community. And let us live up to the values of Torah and our families, to make all of our lives, a blessing.