By Rabbi Sholom Estrin, Staff Chaplain at Piedmont Atlanta Hospital
“David, the King of Israel, lives and endures” (Rosh Hashanah 25a).
These words from the Talmud kept coming to me as I sat in prayer asking G-d to guide me in finding the right message to deliver to grieving military families on Memorial Day 2016. Each time I rejected the thought, doubling down on my prayers and contemplation, yet I was left only with the above words from this popular song taught to young Jewish children. Rather than questioning G-d’s guidance, I felt compelled to relay the following words of comfort during my chaplaincy fellowship, supporting veteran soldiers receiving treatment at the VA medical center in Atlanta, Georgia. I share it now as this message continues to hold as much relevance today as it did then.
We are all familiar with the different rituals associated with mourning the loss of a loved one, which ranges from the classic solemn convoy of cars escorting a hearse to the full-throated jazz funerals of New Orleans. But if there is one thing that is done the same across this country—no matter the age, ethnicity, or religion—it is the military honor given to our veterans. Whenever I see this sacred tradition by the honored guard which includes the flag presentation to the next of kin, the playing of taps and the three-volley salute, it reminds me of General Douglass MacArthur’s famous farewell address. I have always been somewhat mystified by the cliché that “old soldiers never die, they just fade away,” thinking that it must be a romantic idea akin to Norse funerals for their Viking chieftains, the boats aflame and floating away into the abyss.
As I pondered the above statement about King David, I found new meaning and depth to those very lyrics. When one thinks of Biblical characters, the idea of a warrior is generally associated with David. We are first introduced to him as a young shepherd boy who slew the giant Goliath. After King Saul appointed him to lead a battalion, David’s soldiers outperformed Saul’s own men, igniting a jealous rage in the king. Even after all of Israel accepted David’s reign, he still wasn’t safe as his own son plotted to overthrow him. The days of David’s rule are remembered primarily for the battles he fought. This evokes the image of an old warrior hardened by years of beating the odds and overcoming all obstacles.
On the other hand, when one thinks of David’s legacy, one is reminded of the long line of Biblical kings stemming from his dynasty, and that he was a brilliant lyricist and musician who wrote some of the most beautiful poetry in the form of Psalms—not something one would expect from a lifelong soldier. And yet it is David that we proclaim still lives and endures. True, the Bible never said that he passed away, rather “he returned to his fathers,” but that is not the reason for the statement that David endures: It comes from Psalm 61. From there we learn of David the shepherd as he stood ready to defend his flock. Anguished over the thought of his mortality, he wondered who will be there to protect his subjects. In what he deemed as the next-best option, David asked G-d that his struggles should not be in vain nor his efforts short lived, and pleaded for G-d’s promise that everything he fought for will endure. Three thousand years later, David’s name still invokes strong emotions, his message inspires, and the words he wrote continue to soothe many anxious souls. Yes, David, your presence is very much alive and well among the living.
On Memorial Day we gather to pay tribute to members of our community who have recently passed. Though we do not commemorate the lives of each person separately, to the grieving families I offer my deepest, most heartfelt condolences. Your loved one was a beloved husband, father, grandfather, brother, or uncle. To me—and my colleagues—your loved one was not just a patient but also a friend, someone we looked forward to seeing at work. I speak for my fellow chaplains when I say that we feel honored to have been part of their lives, trusted to provide spiritual guidance and care.
To each family member, we thank you. We know how the effects of war linger long after active duty ends, which is something you lived with and struggled through alongside your warrior as you provided support and encouragement.
Due to the nature of the Memorial Day service, these gatherings often include those who did not have the privilege to know many of the individuals honored. But they come to pay their respects and recognize the courageous participation in the services, for if not for these soldiers’ commitment to our country it would not be possible to enjoy the freedoms we sometimes take for granted.
So it is not only from a sense of duty that we need to hold a memorial, nor is it simply the soldiers’ valor that we praise. Rather we come together to comfort each other and lift our spirits, for we are all in mourning. In truth we are a family, and we join the veterans’ families in their sadness, for with their heartbreaking loss we too have lost one of our own.
Article originally published in the Pesach 5781 issue of the Warrior.