An Army Chaplain’s Memorial Day of Hope
How one cantor gained a new view of the holiday, and a belief in a brighter future
The soldiers participating in the run had been given colored glow-sticks (chem-lights, as they’re called in the Army), and it was the flickers of these colors in my peripheral vision that roused me out of my trance. I watched as they finished the final mile and came into view of the memorial, and you could feel them realize that they had unexpectedly come upon a holy place. Sweaty and winded from the run, visible only by the colored chem-lights that dangled from every part of their running clothes, they explored the memorial in whatever way seemed most natural in the moment. Groups of them clumped together to watch the slideshow while others wandered around the glowing cemetery, silently communing with memories of the friends they would never see again.
The service was short, not more than 25 minutes. Conducted entirely in the dark, illuminated only by the soldiers’ chem-lights, the podium, and the slideshow, it was completely without formality or fanfare. We recited the 23rd Psalm, read passages from the Prophets and the New Testament, and listened to a short memorial message from the command chaplain. A quartet of female soldiers sang “Amazing Grace,” and I chanted El Male Rachamim, after which an honor guard fired memorial volleys and a bugler played taps to conclude the ceremony.
But then something happened that was truly as magical as it was spontaneous. As the crowd dispersed, a soldier walking among the rows of white lanterns removed his chem-light and placed it inside one of the paper bags, which now glowed with color. Another soldier followed and another and another. The whiteness of death and loss literally started to dissolve in a rainbow of memory and hope. “Like the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud on the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness all around,” described the Prophet Ezekiel, in the haftorah portion for Shavuot. “Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.”
I had always associated Shavuot with Revelation and Memorial Day with duty, but I had never associated either of them with hope. And yet when Ruth’s eyes saw nothing but sorrow and death in her family, her heart believed in a brighter future ahead. Her embrace of Judaism was more a prayer for what could be than a reaction to what already was. As I watched the chem-lights twinkle, I realized that was the soldiers’ prayer as well—for a time when friends and loved ones would never be separated by war again. Perhaps in a strange way it’s easier to be optimistic after you’ve actually sacrificed or lost something. I hadn’t known. As it turned out, God did create that Memorial Day specifically for me.
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