Like many of you, I enjoyed my Memorial Day weekend. I appreciated the long weekend to spend with family and friends. I spent Memorial Day weekend, like many of you on the beach and at the pool, lounging in the sun, and grilling burgers and hot dogs. Yet, this was a completely different experience from how Israelis observe Memorial Day.
I remember how I spent my first Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, while living in Israel. Walking down the street, I stopped in silence, as did all other pedestrians, just as those in their cars pulled over and got out. A siren blared throughout the nation, acknowledging those who have fallen, protecting their land and their people. Here too, on Memorial Day we honor those who have done the same, yet as Americans, Memorial Day has turned into the unofficial start of summer, an excuse to jump in the pool and have a barbeque. Let us not forget the reason for this day though, honoring those who have served.
So too, that is the job of Department of Veterans Affairs: to honor those who have served. The VA serves those who served in World War II and the Korean War, as well as those who spent the past decade fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and throughout the world. The role of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs is to honor veterans and take care of them. They have failed.
On Friday afternoon, Secretary of Veteran Affairs, Eric Shinseki, met with President Obama at the White House and handed in his resignation. Shinseki said he did so because he didn’t want to be a distraction. He did so following Democratic and Republican congressional leaders calling for such an action. It was reported in November that there have been military veterans dying needlessly at VA hospitals because of long waits and delayed care. The truth is problems with the VA and long waits date back decades, but this issue was brought back under the microscope last month when it was reported that a Phoenix VA facility used secret waiting lists, to cover up the significant problem. The latest report about the VA suggested a link between employee bonuses and covering up wait times at VA hospitals. It is clear that Shinseki needed to resign. What such a resignation doesn’t do though is fix a system, and fix a culture, in which we neglect those who have risked their lives, or in the case of Memorial Day, fallen, protecting our freedom.
Last week, we began reading the book of Numbers, Sefer Bamidbar, and in the very beginning of the book, we have a census taken to prepare for an army. Moses is counting soldiers. The Torah portion Bamidbar also lists where each tribe should stand, a mention of military formations.
This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Naso, which concludes with the most well-known blessing of our text. We read in Birkat Kohanim the blessing of all blessings.
I want to focus on the last words of the blessing:
V’yasem Lecha Shalom. May God grant you peace.
We begin with blessings of of praise and protection, of happiness and grace. But we conclude with a blessing, with a prayer, for peace. That is what he hope for. That is what we strive for. So how is it possible that the book of Bamidbar begins with assembling the Israelites’ military preparing for battle, and yet, only one Torah portion leader, only a few chapters later, we pray for peace. How can we focus on the military, preparing for battle, and immediately after, pray for peace?
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, of blessed memory, emphasized that we live in a world of polarities: the fixed and the spontaneous, the joy and the sorrow, the celebrations and the periods of mourning. So too, we cannot experience peace, appreciate peace, and truly pray for peace, without knowing the reality of violence, of battle, of war. We do not pray for war. We do not run into battle. We fight when we must. As Golda Meir once said: We do not rejoice in military victories.
We praise God for survival, but we do not revel in the reality of war, be that as Jews, as Americans, as humanity. Rather, even at times of war, even as soldiers throughout the world work to protect us, we strive to fulfill Isaiah’s prophetic vision: that we will beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks. We pray for the time when we will have no need for weapons, we will leave in harmony.
Yet until that day is achieved, as long as we as a nation and as a people count the heads of young men and women, to prepare for battle, as long as we set up military formations, as long as we send our young men and women to the four corners of this earth, we must protect them when they return.
The blessing of “May God bless you and Keep you,” is not just when one is sent off into battle, but rather when veterans return home. May we protect them. May we give them the services that they need. May we ensure their safety, security, and health, just as they have fought for ours. And may the sirens in our hearts and souls blare, as we remember the lives lost. As we go about living our lives as our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, continue to strive to keep us safe, stationed here and abroad, may we always remember that it is our job to fulfill God’s blessings, it is our task to make such prayers a reality. It is our job to bring peace to this world. May we always mourn those fallen and properly take care of veterans when they return home, but may we also fulfill God’s promise: V’yasem lecha Shalom. May God grant you peace. May God grant all of us peace. And let us say: Amen.
– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky