In Israel, Memorial Day (Yom HaZikaron), leaves few untouched. A siren goes off, the country comes to a halt and even drivers stop their cars and stand at solemn attention. The day is one for public ceremonies and private reflections taking place at graveside or at small monuments erected in the very streets and neighborhoods where some victims fell.
Ironically, while I was in the United States for Israel's Memorial Day this year, I will be in Israel this coming week as our country marks our own Memorial Day. As is well known, even though this day touches a significant number of Americans very personally, a Happy Memorial Day is a fairly common greeting and for most not an oxymoron. Memorial Day is seen as more of an opportunity for general remembrance in the midst of a day of celebration, a reminder to be thankful, rather than the day of national mourning experienced in Israel, a country so intimately tied to the call on its citizens to be soldiers and its soldiers to be remembered by its citizens.
The fourth book of the Torah, Bamidbar, known in English as the Book of Numbers, begins with great attention paid to the counting of the Israelites, many of whom would be mustered for mandatory service as the people began their journey in the wilderness. Commentaries point out that the same word used for the counting of those present (pakad) is later used toward the end of the Book of Numbers (31:49) to denote a person's absence.
In this double meaning there is a hint about the importance as well as the limits of the kind of memorializing we do on a day such as this Monday. Just when we think we have checked off on our list the task of remembering those who serve and those who died in service to our country, we must equally remember how much is absent in our memory. Whether because of the limits of our national attention span or the reluctance to face the reality of the conditions under which our armed forces live during and after their active service, our country has not been accountable to its Veterans.
This Memorial Day these thoughts are far from hypothetical. The ugly ad repellant details of mismanagement and mistreatment of Veterans by the VA hospital system expose a systemic failure to be true to one of our most sacred pledges to those who dedicate life and livelihood to safeguard the freedoms and rights we do our best never to take for granted. It is as easy to decry this situation as it is to make grand statements about how important to us and to our country are those who serve. For me too. There is no substitute for making real and substantive changes in how those in need among Veterans as well as those they protect are not only remembered, but attended to with dignity. However, perhaps our own attention begins with the recognition encoded in the Book of Numbers. At the very moment we think we have taken a person into account, we must never forget how much more it takes to be accountable to them. Remembrance is the beginning of the task, not the end.
May the memory of those who died in service to our country be a blessing and may we be inspired by those who serve to bring justice, wholeness, and peace to a broken world and all of its inhabitants.