Memorial Day and Shavuot

Memorial Day and Shavuot

It’s an odd repetition.

Last week was Memorial Day; the three-day weekend offered the chance to be outside, to eat a lot, and to remember the heroism of earlier generations.

This week it will be Shavuot, which in effect is a three day weekend that will offer the chance to be outside, to eat a lot, and to remember the foundational story of our people.

Okay, it’s not exact. On Memorial Day we eat barbecue. On Shavuot we eat dairy. On Memorial Day, we stay up late on Sunday because we don’t have to go to work the next day; on Shavuot, we stay up late on Saturday night to study Torah and wait for the dawn.

On Memorial Day, we think about being American. On Shavuot, we think about being Jewish. Both of those identities is crucially important to many of us — probably to a significant percentage of anyone who is reading this piece, because if being Jewish isn’t a vital part of your identity, why would you bother reading a Jewish newspaper? And to be American — well, American exceptionalism is a worldview that sticks with us, even at times, like now, when we well might reconsider it.

Both of these days offer the chance to move forward and also to look back, and to think about the duality of life right now.

On the one hand, although it’s getting hot, although it’s rained a lot recently, it’s been a glorious spring. The flowering trees gave a wonderful show, and now there are flowers all over.

On the other hand, this has been a season of death and destruction. It seems that the cumulative effect of the horrifying murders in Buffalo, and then the unthinkable killings in Uvalde, have stuck with us. Normally, we’re told, the most shocking story leaves the headlines, and then most people’s awareness, in three days. But it’s been longer than that, and still we remember them.

This week, the Daily, the New York Time’s morning podcast, did an episode on why it took the police so long to respond to the killer in Ugalde. Why did those 19 presumably big, strong cops stand out in the hall while children made desperate calls to 911, from the classrooms where their murdered friends’ bodies bled? There aren’t any answers, at least not yet, except that the officials at the top of the hierarchy were afraid, and officers who reported to them did not buck the chain of command. (And no, I would not have been brave enough to rush that room either. But I’m not a police officer.) So they waited for the janitor with the key.

At the end of the podcast, the reporters speculated that perhaps all of us Americans have fixated on the police response because we all have the same reaction. We’re all horrified. The underlying problem is the guns that killed the little kids and their teachers, but we can’t agree on what to do about it.

I think, though, that the reason that we’ve fixated on the police response is that the question of gun regulation, while vitally important, is abstract. But the reaction to the children’s 911 calls is visceral. Anyone who is a parent identifies with those parents, there at the school, kept away as their children were shot dead. Anyone who has been a kid, no matter how long ago, unwillingly but inevitably identifies with those children.

What to do? Maybe, just maybe, because this seems like it might be different, that it might have crossed a line, there can be some movement toward some sort of gun legislation. Background checks, maybe, or a reconsideration of the age at which someone can buy one. And who needs an AR-15? Hunters say that it not only kills an animal, but shreds it; the remains are not food but pure waste. They most certainly were not the weapons used by a “well regulated Militia.” Maybe, just maybe, some decency and sanity might prevail.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if next Memorial Day, we don’t have to remember any more slaughtered children?

Meanwhile, we hope that this Shavuot will be peaceful, that the chance to gather in person for all-night learning will provide the delight that it promises, and that we all get exactly as much cheesecake not as we need, but, just for once, as we want.