Shavuot 2015 - Memorial Day and Yizkor

Memorial Day in America is most commonly associated with retail sales, sporting events, barbecues and vacation. It's a time when people relax and enjoy the unofficial start of summer. Most people though seem to forget the reason why Memorial Day exists. Most people don't spend more than a moment to recall the members of the US armed forces who were killed in the line of duty protecting our country so that we can remain free. Sure there are parades and ceremonies at military cemeteries but not enough people make the effort to attend.

The way the Jewish calendar and the secular calendar coincide this year forces us to reflect upon the concept of memory. What does Judaism teach us about memory that we can apply to the yizkor service and to Memorial Day?

On the first day of Shavuot we read the portion from the Torah which describes God's revelation at Mt. Sinai and the giving of the 10 commandments. The fourth commandment concerns Shabbat and begins - זכור את יום השבת לקדשו - remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it. What does that mean? How can remembering lead to sanctifying? Memory is usually a passive act. We think about an event or a person and that image comes to mind. That's what memory is. How can that be a sacred act? The rest of the shabbat commandment sheds light on this because it goes on to tell us to actively refrain from work. Memory of the sabbath really means to take note that it is the sabbath and then do something about it. In other words, memory causes us to act in a positive way.

As we are about to recall our loved ones in the yizkor service, the message is clear. It's not enough to remember our family, the martyrs of Israel and the six million in the 4 yizkor services a year. We need to ensure that their memory leads us to act. By recalling their lives we should be motivated to act in a righteous and just way.

Judaism teaches us that memory is not a passive act. It's not enough to sit back and recall events, places or people. Judaism commands that memory lead us to "tikun olam" making the world a better place.