Remember each veteran’s story on Memorial Day

By Rabbi Jonah Zinn

Last year, I found myself in St Louis on Memorial Day making arrangements for our upcoming move to town. My hosts invited me to join them on their annual Memorial Day visit to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. This visit was one way they chose to honor the men and women who died serving our country. 

Every time I visit Jefferson Barracks or another military cemetery, I am moved by the rows of white headstones standing in silent tribute. These monuments honor the sacrifices made by so many. 

My Memorial Day visit however, was different. While a large United States flag flies over the cemetery every day, each grave is decorated with a small American flag on Memorial Day, providing a different visual and emotional experience. These small flags next to each grave marker help us understand an important Memorial Day lesson that is reinforced by our Torah portion this week.

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In Parashat Bamidbar, God instructs Moses to take a census of the community, counting all males 20 years old and older who will help defend the camp. God then tells Moses and Aaron how to deploy the men to defend the camp, explaining, “The Israelites shall camp each with his flag, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance” (Numbers 2:2). 

The great Hasidic teacher Aaron Ben Asher of Karlin understands this verse to mean “every Jew must know and think that he is unique in the world, and there was never anyone exactly like him – if there were someone like him, there would have been no need for you to come into the world. Every single person is someone new in the world, and it is her duty to improve all her ways, until all of Israel has attained perfection.”

Understanding the uniqueness of every human life is also important as we prepare to commemorate Memorial Day.

While we often focus on themes of freedom and sacrifice on this day, we must also remain mindful that each of the individuals we remember had their own story. Just as our ancestors camped each with their own flag, so do our war heroes each rest under his or her own flag. 

This flag not only represents our country but also the personal relationship each soldier had with the nation he or she died defending. 

This Memorial Day, may we pause to recall their personal stories of service and sacrifice, to understand what motivated their service, so that we all can seek to better honor their memory in our own lives.

Rabbi Jonah Zinn serves Congregation Shaare Emeth and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.