Today is the first day of Shavuot, the annual Jewish celebration of the giving of the Torah.
It is also Memorial Day Weekend here in the United States. (Tomorrow, May 25 is the holiday itself.)
Shavuot and Memorial Day have something in common: nationhood. Each honors an essential fight that must be fought for shared identity to form.
- Shavuot - the intangible fight for identity: The Torah, and specifically the Ten Commandments, is the fundamental framework from which the Jewish nation derives its identity. "I am the L-rd Your G-d," "Thou shalt not kill," "Honor the Sabbath Day to keep it holy." It is said that G-d held a mountain over the Jews' heads to make us accept it. And yet we also learn that the Jews said these words: "We will do (first) and we will understand (later)." It is hard to understand - did the Jews want it or not? Given the durability of Torah observance over time, the intensity with which we have clung to it, and the passionate debates about Jewish morality that never seem to die, it appears the answer is yes and the rest is only commentary. Shavuot represents not the transmission of a policy, but rather the victorious effort to win allegiance in the hearts, minds and souls of a people.
- Memorial Day - the physical fight for survival: The United States of America was blessed with the wisdom of its founding fathers and mothers, I believe inspired by G-d, to write the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. They are similar to the Torah in laying the foundation for our beliefs as a nation. The intellectual part is all fine and good, but without actually killing the enemy, and sadly, risking and often losing our own lives in the process, our nation would never have stood a chance. Military service is more difficult and more fundamental in many ways than intellectual arguments about right and wrong, because it can cost our soldiers literally everything they have. Plus, it's inevitably ugly and morally gray no matter what the victory. If only we could all just get along, right? But we can't, and history is played out on the ground, not in a computer simulation. On this day, we honor the men and women who not only took the risk, but suffered the ultimate loss, one for which there is no compensation.
"Jewish patriot": We Jews are often stereotyped as bookish and nerdy, unable to defend ourselves - sometimes we even stereotype ourselves that way. But we have a long history of military activity, and bravery and heroism not only for Israel but in establishing the U.S. and defending its freedom.
We want to fight for what's right.
The truth is, Jews are a courageous people and again, contrary to the stereotype, we are not by and large greedy and scheming and selfish. Rather, we are deeply motivated by belief, though we may disagree vehemently about what "right beliefs" are.
So this weekend is a double holiday for me, specifically as a Jewish patriot. I love my faith and I love the United States, having been born here and bred here and being a deep believer in its framework for a civil and just secular society.
In addition, I am always awed at the respect shown to me by non-Jews, of diverse faiths, who unfailingly go out of their way to respect whatever version of my religion I choose to keep at any given moment in time.
It was good timing therefore that I walked into synagogue just in time for a certain special prayer - the prayer for the safety of the American military.
Here it is, in English and Hebrew (via the Orthodox Union).
May it be G-d's will that we know and interpret and perform His desires correctly. May He grant us protection from those who wish us harm. May He protect our soldiers, of all kinds. So that they can simply love their lives in peace, never having to know war anymore.