Memorial Day, Shavuos, and the struggle to be better people

This year, Memorial Day falls on Shavuos. Shavuos marks the end of the 50 day period that begins with Passover


LOS ANGELES, May 25, 2015 — One person’s mourning is another person’s celebration, as two very different events occur on the same day. For Americans, Memorial Day is a day to pay tribute to our fallen soldiers. We honor heroes past and comfort the grief-stricken surviving relatives.

The most solemn of American holidays in 2015 is also a day of joy for Jews. This year, Memorial Day falls on Shavuos. Shavuos marks the end of the 50 day period that begins with Passover. Shavuos celebrates Hebrew God Hashem giving his people the Torah (Old Testament).

For American Jews, there is no conflict. We can grieve for those we lost while celebrating our most precious religious moment.

Both holidays appeal to the best of the human spirit. We revere those who fought and died so we could be free. We thank the lord almighty for creating our very being. Unfortunately, on this day we sometimes engage in behavior that falls far short of our noble ideals.

Many people see Memorial Day as just a day off from work and an excuse to have a barbecue. While this may seem callous, is it really so wrong to spend a day with loved ones eating hot dogs and hamburgers? Many Americans lament how polarized America has become. A holiday that brings neighbors across the political spectrum together in fellowship is a good thing.

Others choose to spend the day watching professional sports. Both hockey and basketball have playoff games. We root for our players to kill the other team, but this is not meant literally. Games are described as “do or die,” but most people know that sports is not war. The players on the losing team get to go home to their friends and loved ones.

While all of this may seem like over-glorified navel-gazing, the struggle to be better people is serious. Losing perspective is easy when first world problems crop up.

Memorial Day Shavuos weekend had me on a flight from Houston to Los Angeles. The connecting flight was in Atlanta, because airlines think this makes sense. Thoughts about America’s fallen soldiers and God’s gift of Torah took a back seat when an ordinary event was elevated to tragic status. Despite being promised a seat in first class, my upgrade did not come through. One person ahead of me was given the last first class seat.

This five hour flight from Atlanta to Los Angeles was going to be miserable. At that moment the darkest of thoughts was briefly pondered. If only one person in first class were to die before the flight took off, my upgrade would come through.

The moment briefly passed, followed by a moment of self-scolding for thinking such an awful thought. Then came the bargaining with God. What if the person who died was a really terrible person? Then would it be acceptable to think such a thing?

This was followed by an even worse thought. What if thirty years from now, or even next week, some other person in coach prayed for my death so they could receive the first class upgrade?

We all like to think that we are above such terrible thoughts, but we all have them. One of the most televised programs in American history was “Seinfeld,” a show about four incredibly self-centered people acting badly. America laughed heartily when Jerry Seinfeld felt justified about stealing a loaf of rye bread from an elderly woman. “Give me that rye, you old bag!” We hope during our laughter that we are better than that.

Just as the flight was about to take off, a flight attendant called my name. My first class upgrade came through.

Switching seats should have been a joy, but there was brief panic. Did somebody in first class drop dead right on the spot? It was explained to me that one person in first class missed their connecting flight. Were they dead? Flight attendants dislike bizarre questions. Upon being assured my upgrade was not the equivalent of blood money, it was time to relax.

No, this was not a flight filled with torment. The seat was fantastic. Hockey was on my television and basketball was on my laptop. By the time the games ended, the plane was ready to land. It was midnight, which meant only one thing.

No, sleep would not be coming soon. Shavuos means staying up late and studying Torah. If anybody needed to find his way to a midnight religious service and learn about what matters in life, it was me.

Soldiers fought and died so Americans could live in a first class nation. Jews fought and died for the right to protect and preserve a first class religion. We thank both groups of people for making the sacrifices that allow us to enjoy our lives in more comfort than we often deserve. We lament that they are gone. We never wish for deaths, be it a passenger ahead of us on the upgrade list or a player on an opposing sports team.

Well, sometimes we do, but then we quickly chastise ourselves and remember what matters.

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