The confluence of Shavuot and the extended Memorial Day weekend offers the perfect opportunity to delve deeper into this learning-oriented holiday.
While nowhere near as rare — and certainly not as media-friendly — an occurrence as the Thanksgiving-Chanukah convergence of 2013, this year’s overlap of Shavuot and Memorial Day weekend is still notable for a number of reasons.
The confluence of the two holidays — the first since it last happened in 2012 — can be seen as the calendrical equivalent of combining chocolate and peanut butter to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
At first glance, there isn’t much in common between Memorial Day, which commemorates those who died while serving in the armed forces of the United States, and Shavuot, which began as a harvest festival before becoming more about celebrating God’s giving the Torah to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. Yet, they share more than a date.
They both are adversely affected by a lack of understanding by many. Shavuot, the two-day holiday that begins Saturday night, is one of the least understood holidays on the Jewish calendar, with no small amount of Jews unfamiliar with its significance beyond its offering a good reason to eat cheesecake and other dairy delights. Likewise, for a distressingly large percentage of the population, Memorial Day has become less about remembering and honoring our fallen military men and women, and more about serving as the unofficial kickoff to the summer season.
This year, why not delve deeper into Shavuot and, by extension, Memorial Day? There are few dates on the Hebrew or Gregorian calendar more learning-oriented than the Feast of Weeks, as Shavuot is sometimes called. It is the focus on learning and Torah that makes the holiday a natural for holding ceremonies for confirmation classes at synagogues around the United States.
For those not already inclined to observe the holiday with prayer and all-night learning, the extended weekend provided by Memorial Day offers the perfect opportunity to find a way in. We can learn more about the holiday itself — its roots and its reasons — and immerse ourselves in the myriad Saturday night learning marathons run by individual synagogues or communal collaborations, examining everything from Torah teachings to the mystery of the mikvah to yoga.
Learning more about Shavuot can also give us a deeper connection to — and appreciation of — Memorial Day. Just as celebrating Shavuot means reflecting on what the Israelites endured to get to the point where they became worthy to receive the Torah, thinking about the freedom represented by Memorial Day helps us understand the sacrifices that made that freedom possible.