Holidays of Memory: Holding the Past in the Present

Photo of Rabbi Ben Richards
Photo of Rabbi Ben Richards
Rabbi Ben Richards

Admissions Coordinator for the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

Rabbi Ben Richards works as the Admissions Coordinator for the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of American Jewish University. Upon receiving ordination from Ziegler in 2018, Ben moved to San Antonio, where he served as associate rabbi at Congregation Agudas Achim, a delightful 600-member Conservative synagogue, for three years. Rabbi Richards grew up in the Conservative movement in the San Fernando Valley, learning and working in various capacities at Shomrei Torah Synagogue. He is passionate about rabbinic literature, music, and gratitude.

posted on May 27, 2022

Growing up in a relatively patriotic family in America, I had the experience of partaking in various American rituals and practices throughout the year: watching fireworks while eating pudding on the Fourth of July, seeing military heroes march in parades, and ceasing from the vast amounts of labor expected of me from a very young age (kidding). Every time we would celebrate these holidays, we would do it with joy and fanfare. Our focus was about the new, the changes, and the revolutions, centered on what was to come. This is probably why I struggled immensely to connect with Memorial Day, a holiday honoring those who served and serve in the US military, especially the unbearably long moment of silence. What place did sad memories have on the stage of public joy, growth and celebration? And yet as I’ve gotten older, Memorial Day resonates much more strongly than Independence Day. Perhaps the resonance is due to how present and relatable the mix of sad and happy is in our chaotic world.

Jerusalem Day, or Yom Yerushalyim, is a holiday that commemorates the reunification of a previously split Jerusalem, following the Six-Day War. It is a holiday I knew nothing about growing up, and continually forget (perhaps because of its lack of compelling rituals and foods). There is a particular irony in forgetting Jerusalem Day and thereby Jerusalem, about which the psalmist stated, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither.” (Psalm 137) Similar to the American Memorial Day, it is not flashy or overly joy-filled, but rather commemorates the sacrifices of countless lives in the hopes of peace and goodness in the future. These two holidays, just a day apart this year, are hard to make exciting, especially for a child filled with endless hope and a desire for fun. Yet I can’t imagine more relatable days for the adult who has seen a bit of life and recognizes that often things are not so black and white, not merely good or bad but a combination of the two. Both of these holidays focus on memory, but memories aren’t always happy or easy and they sometimes fade and change. Memories often dwell between the nostalgic and melancholy. When dealing with memory, how do we ensure that we honor the past but don’t get stuck there? So much of Judaism lives and operates through memory, that it isn’t surprising to find relevant lessons for our question in the long-preserved stories of our Sages.

When it comes to memory, commemorations, and holidays, we may be tempted to let them pass us by. Why dwell on a challenging past when we can point to the improvements and steps forward? In moments when we feel this way, we need to hold a bit more room for recognizing loss, failure, sacrifice and struggle. Like a Temple destruction commemorator, we need to find a way to leave a little of our souls un-plastered. On the other hand, we might seek to connect with memory to the point where we cannot extricate ourselves from what has transpired. In moments like this, we must remind ourselves that excessive mourning ensures that nothing new is ever built and nothing ends up plastered at all. Joy, hope, and the future must exist alongside sadness, being realistic, and the past.

It’s easy to advocate for a mixture and much harder to nail it. A person could be anywhere across the board in terms of how they memorialize, but I’d imagine that most of us struggle to leave anything un-plastered, eager as we are to escape reality for vacations and holidays. So, at this unique junction of two rather different yet importantly similar memory-based holidays, I bless us that we find ways to welcome in the occasional blemishes and challenges of the past, letting them guide us and inform who we are, all while continuing to be able to move forward and grow from the experience. Donuts are full of goodness and holes, buildings are a combination of plastered and un-plastered, and as the Israeli poet, Naomi Shemer notes, life is filled with “bitter and sweet”. “Over all of these things”, may God bless us.