This weekend we celebrate Memorial Day. It is on this weekend that Americans pause, take stock and remember those brave soldiers who gave their lives for our survival. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Parshat Naso and Memorial Day overlap this year. This has been a year, that has in many ways, tested the strength, and resolve of all Americans. The Parsha and Memorial Day highlight the concepts of loyalty and service to one’s nation or one’s people.
On May 5, 1868 Memorial Day was proclaimed a national holiday by General John Logan, national commander of the then Grand Army of the Republic. It was first observed on May 30th of that year to honor the memories of those who fell in the civil war. After World War I, this holiday was changed to recognize, not only the heroes of the Civil War era but to memorialize all fallen soldiers of our nation. Memorial Day has also become the season "opener" for the summer, and celebrates the wondrous gift of life with concerts and barbecues, plus commemorative events such as parades and flag placements at more than 260,000 gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery.
During this weekend of remembrance, as we honor America’s courageous soldiers, we Jews need also remember, with a sense of pride, our Jewish ancestors who contributed so much to the founding and defense of this great nation. One interesting hero in our country’s struggle for freedom is a Jewish American patriot named Francis Salvador. Francis was born in London in 1747 and emigrated, as a young boy, to the colony of South Carolina, to pursue business ventures in the ‘New World’. Despite his young age, his reputation grew and he was elected a delegate for the colony of South Carolina. When he was called to serve in the fight for liberty, Salvador took up arms. It is recorded that he bravely tried to save many individuals. In "Paul Revere" style Francis rode through the South Carolina countryside, broadcasting warnings, of an upcoming Cherokee Indian advance on the colony. He was captured, tortured and scalped at the hands of the Cherokee. He is thought to be the first Jew to die fighting for the cause of the American Revolution.
While we celebrate with cookouts or a relaxing day out, let us remember to appreciate those who have given the ultimate gift, their lives, and those who at this very moment place their lives between freedom and tyranny here and in Israel. Through the years our soldiers, both American and Israeli, have fought out of love of country, heritage and to safeguard our freedom. As we barbecue we must realize that our freedoms do not come cheaply. Recent terrorism and ongoing events worldwide have shaken our sense of security. Let us remember that, while being mindful of safety and security, we must not allow ourselves to become hostages to frozen fear and anxiety.
Following the events of 9/11 country singer/songwriter Allen Jackson felt compelled to write his song entitled, "Where were you when the world stopped turning?" It has been performed in Washington DC and at ground zero in NYC, plus at many gravesite burials. One verse in particular, poses some important questions for all of us.
Where were you when the world stopped turning, on that September day?
Teaching a class full of innocent children?
Or driving on some cold interstate?
Did you feel guilty, because you’re a survivor?
In a crowded room did you feel alone?
Did you call up your mother and tell her you loved her?
Did you dust off that Bible at home?
In our Bible, parshat Naso highlights the virtues of service to the Jewish Nation and the need for protection. It enumerates the identity, duties and responsibilities of the kohanim, and the offerings of the leaders of each of the 12 tribes. This Torah Chapter talks in detail of the kohanim, the priests, and instructs them regarding how to bless the Israelites. These well known blessings begin with the words "May G-d bless and keep you". One may ask if I am blessed by G-d aren’t I automatically protected? G-d told us that the blessings work. But, it is not enough just to be present to hear the blessings, but one must actively wish to receive the blessing, to be receptive to the transmission of the blessings from G-d. It is the duty and responsibility of the kohen to transmit these protective blessings to the people, yet he must desire to do so. Like a solider, being a kohen means having duty, responsibility, and a public honor.
Reading through Parsha Naso, one discovers that it is the longest Parsha in the entire Torah, 176 sentences in all. We see the offerings brought by the leaders of the tribes were identical. Yet, remember the Torah contains no unnecessary word or even letter. One is therefore forced to ask, "What is purpose of this repetition?" Since each leader’s task is identical to the next, shouldn’t the Torah simply have stated it once and applied it to all? Our sages tell us that G-d is recognizing each leader, individually. Each leader representative of his particular tribe, expressing that tribe’s special qualities and contribution to the whole, and ultimately showcasing each individual’s import to the entire people.
It would have been simple to have all the leaders bring their gifts at the same time, but it was the Almighty’s goal to show the Israelites that everything depends upon each person and his or her service and devotion to the whole. The emphasis is on the importance and value of the individual. The Jewish nation depended, as it always has, on every Jew fulfilling his or her responsibilities and destiny. In this way, each Jew is contributing to the welfare of the Nation.
There are times when we don’t understand the destiny played out in our lives or the lives of others. To our eyes it seems that many people have been in the wrong place at the wrong time only to have their lives cut short. Civilization is replete with many instances which seem to make no sense, and yet have impacted the course of history. John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963. Here was a man who envisioned great changes in America’s way of life. It seemed as if the world would change for the better. Then, in an instant, the gates of Camelot closed. There remain the very moving immortal words Kennedy spoke at his inauguration, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." A call to the individual… to use one’s uniqueness and creativity for the whole.
Judaism also emphasizes the value of life and the unique potential of every individual. This is illustrated by the statement, "Whoever saves one life saves the entire world" (Talmud Sanhedrin 37a). Our sages also teach that an individual’s single deed can tip the scales and make a positive impact on the entire world. In this tradition, it is our belief that each person’s contribution is tremendous, as we see from the description of the twelve tribes contributions. The Torah gives full recognition and honor to each and every tribe, similar to the display of the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, in which each nation is uniquely paraded before the world.
Our synagogue is a modern day copy of the ancient Temple. We can reach the goals for the future of our synagogue through good will, love, unity and personal involvement.
The message of parsha Naso shows how contemporary and "with it" the Torah is. In civilized countries today, there is an appreciation of diversity; there is a respect for differences and for representative democracy. It is inspiring to realize that these ideas have their roots in our Torah, written thousands of years ago. Let us pray that with the Almighty’s help we will all learn and practice the lessons of life - appreciation, consideration and respect for one another --as the biblical commandment instructs us, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself.’ And we will hope and pray for long and meaningful years to fulfill our unique mission on earth. Amen. Shabbat Shalom.