This will be an emotional weekend for American Jews who take both parts of our identity seriously.
Shavuot, marking the day when God gathered the Israelites around Mount Sinai, and gave them the Torah amid a multisensory storm of thunder and lightning and darkness and fire and the world shaking above and below them; Memorial Day, commemorating the members of our armed forces who have died to keep us free.
There’s Shavuot as a time to study all night, to pore over texts as mystical as the student can tolerate, and Memorial Day as a time of somber remembrance and gratitude.
There also is Shavuot as a time for picnics and cheesecake, and Memorial Day as a long weekend for festive meals with family and friends.
Each can be profound, if we let it be; each can be superficial, if that’s all we want; each can go unacknowledged, if that’s easier, although that would be a loss.
For me, Shavuot is most potently a reminder of time, and how it moves only in one direction. At the tikkun, it plunges on ahead, even as your body slows down. When you have a picnic in the same place with the same people every year for decades, you watch generations shrink and others grow. It’s a reminder of time as a spiral; we come back to the same place every year, but we’re not exactly the same. No, that’s neither original nor profound; still it’s both true and sobering.
Shavuot also is a marvelous example of the Jewish love for text, for study, for debate; for the joy of close reading. Who else would stay up all night doing that joyously? We do.
Memorial Day, too, is a day of mixed emotions. It seems to have started after the Civil War, that terrible time whose unpurged evils seem to be haunting us again. It’s meant as a way to bring us all together, if that still is possible.
It’s safe to say that most of us American Jews have not served in the armed forces, and most of us are not closely related to someone who has. That’s just a demographic truth. But we should be enormously grateful to the people who did serve. I know — another obvious although still-true truth. And to those young people who went off to war and never came home — to look at photographs of them is to feel your heart crumpled and torn. There is no way to thank them, but our gratitude should be endless.
And then, of course, Memorial Day also means that summer is about to begin. Endless sun and golden shadows and barbecues and vacations and beaches and the smell of suntan lotion and hot sand and grilled food and of overheating cars on the George Washington Bridge as it shakes under the weight of all those sunburnt revelers.
Because life is complicated, we can feel gratitude and excitement and sorrow and joy and longing and anticipation pretty much all at once, and this complicated weekend evokes all of those feelings.
We wish a chag sameach to those of our readers who will see this before Shavuot is over, and happy Memorial Day weekend to everyone.