Although there are many grumbles about the barbeques and sales, Memorial Day is still dedicated to honoring the memories of those soldiers lost in battle. But this year, Memorial Day poses an interesting conflict with the Jewish calendar as it overlaps directly with the holiday of Shavuot.
The Feast of Weeks, as Shavuot is sometimes translated, is a festival of equal caliber to both Passover and Sukkot. Whereas Passover has matzah and the seder and Sukkot has the four species and the temporary dwellings, Shavuot does not have any specific rituals that would make it well-known to those who did not observe it. Celebrated following a count of 49 days after the first day of Passover, Shavuot commemorates the experience at Mount Sinai, when the Israelites received the Torah.
The coincidence of Shavuot and Memorial Day is not without some significance. In addition to commemorating the giving of the Torah, Shavuot is also the anniversary of both the birth and the death of King David, who is known for his prowess as a warrior.
The young David's introduction to the world of warfare was unintentional. During the reign of King Saul, the Israelites were at war with the Philistines (as was frequent during this era of Jewish history). The two armies had withdrawn from battle after the dramatic announcement by Goliath of Gath, a giant who had yet to be defeated in battle, that he would fight an Israelite champion, and "If he is able to fight with me [Goliath], and to kill me, then we will be your servants: but if I prevail against him, and kill him, then you shall be our servants, and serve us" (I Samuel 17:9).
Into this tense situation came David, a youth following his father's instructions to bring provisions to his three oldest brothers who were serving at the front. When David heard why the soldiers were sitting in their camps, he went to King Saul and volunteered to battle Goliath. Although at first the king refused, citing David's youth, he relented when David argued that he had successfully protected his father's flocks from wolves and lions and that he certainly could protect God's people with Divine assistance. David used his slingshot and surprised Goliath with a rock to the head, bringing victory to the Israelites.
With Goliath dead, a full fledged battle renewed, and young David was in the heart of it. This was the start of David's glorious military career. After the Israelite victory, the women of the nation sang, "Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands" (I Samuel 18:7).
As king, David was one of the most successful military leaders in the history of Israel. According to the Midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 1:4), "[Some] say David waged 13 wars; [others] say 18. They do not disagree. Five were for his own needs, 13 were for Israel."
According to Jewish tradition, what made King David such an excellent military leader was the same quality for which he is considered the ideal King of Israel: his complete faith in God. In fact, the Midrash even credits his military skill as a result of his faith: "David said (Psalms 18:38), 'Let me pursue my foes and overtake them.' The Holy One, Blessed is He, replied 'I shall do so.' Thus it is written (I Samuel 30:17), 'David smote them from twilight until the evening of the next day'" (Pesikta Eichah Rabbasi 30).
It is more than a coincidence that King David's birthday/yahrtzeit is on Shavuot. For as much as he was a general and a politician, a husband and a father, a shepherd and a poet, King David was devoted to the Torah. In fact, he is attributed with creating the Book of Psalms, many of which he himself wrote. The Talmud relates that King David, knowing he was destined to die on Shabbat, begged God to let him die on the eve of the Sabbath (so that his body would not have to wait for burial). God replied by telling him that one day of David sitting and studying Torah was better to Him than the thousands of sacrifices that his son Solomon would (in the future) bring to the Temple, therefore God would not allow him to die even one day early. From that point forward, King David spent every Shabbat immersed in study, since the angel of death cannot approach one who is studying Torah. On his 70th birthday, which was on Shabbat, he paused from his studying to investigate a disturbance in his garden. When he climbed a ladder for a closer look, the ladder broke and "thereupon he became silent [from his studies] and his soul rested" (Shabbat 30a-b).
It's hard for us, today, to relate to biblical figures like King David. But as we face the upcoming weekend that is both Shavuot and Memorial Day Weekend, perhaps we can take the time to inspire ourselves and honor this great warrior in Jewish history by delving into the texts of the Torah that continually inspired him.
For those looking for some extra inspiration, an excellent first resource is the 'Jewish Treats: The Ten Commandments' ebook.
For more on the 49 days of counting between Passover and Shavuot, join the conversation and community by visiting the liveblog on HuffPost Religion, which features blogs, prayers, art and reflections for all 49 days of spiritual renewal between Passover and Shavuot.