We gather today for Shavuot and Yizkor to remember our loved ones who are no longer with us to celebrate the festival with us. This year, we have added reason to focus today on remembering our departed. June 6, 1944, exactly 70 years ago tomorrow, was D-Day, the day on which the Allies made their momentous assault on Nazi-occupied France. It happens that June 5 was the initial date set for D-Day, but it was not actually executed until the 6th. So, from one perspective, today is the anniversary.
Words are inadequate to describe the epic scope of this decisive battle that foreshadowed the end of Hitler’s diabolical dreams of world domination. Operation Overlord, the official name of what is commonly known as D-Day, was the largest air, land, and sea operation undertaken before or since June 6, 1944. The landing included over 5,000 ships, 11,000 airplanes, and over 150,000 service men.
After years of meticulous planning and seemingly endless training, for the Allied Forces, it all came down to this: The boat ramp goes down, then jump, swim, run, and crawl to the cliffs. Many of the first young men (most not yet 20 years old) entered the surf carrying eighty pounds of equipment. They faced over 200 yards of beach before reaching the first natural feature offering any protection. Blanketed by Nazi fire power, they found themselves in hell. One local D-Day veteran, Sol Kaslow, was quoted in the Palm Beach Post saying, “I was struck by the smell. It was the dead bodies, and the ammunition had a certain odor. And that stayed in my mind.”
When it was over, the Allied Forces had suffered nearly 10,000 casualties; more than 4,000 were dead. Yet somehow, due to planning and preparation, and due to the valor, loyalty, and sacrifice of the Allied Forces, Fortress Europe had been breached (from: http://www.dday.org/history/d-day-the-invasion/overview). From that day forward, the Allies methodically pushed the Nazis out of France, back into Germany. Eleven months later, the Nazis were finally defeated. Seventy years after D-Day, this singular moment in history stands out for the courage of the thousands of men who sacrificed so that the world would be freer.
The confluence of Shavuot and D-Day this year is a chance to reflect on the values represented by both Judaism and America. Judaism promotes a strong sense of communal obligation, calling upon us to reach beyond our own self-interest for the benefit of all. Certainly, the heroes of D-Day served in this spirit. The heroes of D-Day also represented the American ethos of freedom. They bravely faced the most maniacal enemy of freedom in history in order to preserve our freedom.
Jewish tradition champions freedom. In fact, on Shavuot, we celebrate the completion of the physical freedom achieved in the Exodus from Egyptian slavery to a new found spiritual freedom. Shavuot commemorates the receipt of the Torah – a pivotal moment when Jews collectively entered a covenant that transformed us into a people – a community bound together by shared obligation and commitment to freedom. Shavuot adds another important element for our contemplation: hesed, lovingkindness. The Torah provides us with our essential toolkit for bringing hesed into the world. In case we missed the point, the book of Ruth that we read on Shavuot emphasizes the centrality of sharing lovingkindness with others.
A strong case can be made that Jewish values and American values are very different. Judaism emphasizes obligations and communal loyalty, while American society emphasizes individualism and personal autonomy. This valid distinction occasionally produces tension, but that’s for another day. Today we acknowledge and celebrate how Judaism and American values share much in common and complement each other where they don’t.
Many Jewish Americans feel the bond between Judaism and American freedom intuitively. Alan van Capelle, Director of Bend the Arc, a Jewish public policy advocacy organization writes that Jews’ belief in the promise of America “is in our DNA – that it is something we couldn’t escape even if we wanted to – and that we don’t want to escape it because it enhances our lives, infusing them with meaning.” He adds that a strong sense of purpose, of being part of something greater and more important than ourselves, is the reason the Jewish community withstood thousands of years of adversity and continues to grow today.
For Jewish Americans, even if we don’t realize it, there is a direct link between our sense of covenant at Sinai and the numerous proud examples of tikkun olam, repair of the world, that American Jews have led the way in carrying out. At our Tikkun Leil Shavuot, many of us heard inspiring examples of Jewish Americans within our own community who have made a difference. Rabbi Sid Shanken shared his moving account of when he was a freedom rider fifty years ago in the summer of 1964. We also heard Linda Geller Schwartz of NCJW and learned of the outstanding work her organization is doing to combat human trafficking. Our ongoing efforts to emulate people like Rabbi Shanken and Linda Geller Schwartz honor the sacrifice our troops made on D-Day and the freedom for which they were fighting. Our efforts to repair the world also honor our commitment to Torah, our precious gift that we received on Shavuot.
We should never know from another D-Day, but the D-Day of 70 years ago reminds us of what our nation stands for and for which so many of our troops died. We can never fully repay the debt we owe to those who served our nation in World War II, but we must try. Our payment of that debt is to ensure that everyone can share in the social and economic opportunity of our nation and enjoy equal rights and liberties. Achieving the promise of America is what our troops fought for 70 years ago, and what we owe them today. The promise of America is the bridge between Shavuot – which reminds us of our obligation to build a society rooted in hesed, lovingkindness – and the anniversary of D-Day – which reminds us that Americans have been willing to die in this effort.
As we recall our loved ones during this yizkor service, we honor their memory for the Jewish values and the American values that they stood for. May the memory of our departed loved ones inspire us to strengthen our country so that future generations may benefit the way past generations have benefitted from the American project. And may the memory of our departed bring us closer to the best of Jewish values that our loved ones represented so that we can impart a Jewish tradition of meaning for generations to come.