Churchill, Roosevelt and the Book of Ruth — a thought for Yizkor

The coincidence of Yizkor and Memorial day is very rare indeed.
A few years ago Erica Brown wrote a wonderful article, comparing how poorly Memorial day does in comparison to Yom Hazikaron in Israel. While Israelis have a day of truly painful, sometimes traumatic national grieving, here Memorial day has become largely about sales, barbecues and so on.

But this year, we are celebrating Yom Tov, and we are about to recite the Yizkor prayer for our own beloved relatives. None of us are at the beach, its an opportunity to engage with the real meaning of Memorial day.

I remember my first Yom Kippur at Lincoln Square, 10 years ago. I was handed a yizkor card, one that included a prayer for fallen U.S. service men and women

Assuming it was for Jewish members of the armed forces, that is what I announced.
Later on after Musaf, the late Mark Wald, who did so much for our shul and taught me so much, came over and politely explained to me that without the sacrifice of these hundreds of thousands of Americans, we wouldn’t have a synagogue or religious freedom to recite yizkor at all.

And that’s a very poignant thought to hold as we are about to say yizkor.

I don’t often get a chance to tell stories about my home town, especially not ones that involve Megilat Ruth, that we read earlier today, but here is one, the outcome of which affected directly every single one of us here.

This year we are marking 70 years since the end of the war in Europe. It was a long, bloody conflict. And for the first 2 years Britain fought alone, and at seemed certain not to survive.

In 1941 Roosevelt sent one of his most trusted advisors to Europe, to get a sense of the situation of the ground. His name was Harry Hopkins. Roosevelt was under immense domestic pressure not to enter the war. But he knew that if Britain and Russia collapsed, the history of the world would forever be altered.

First his envoy went to Russia. Then to Britain. He met Churchill, and was given a tour of the armed capabilities of the British army. His mission was to report on how badly American intervention was needed.

On the last night of his visit, historian the late Martin Gilbert tells us, Churchill and Hopkins were given dinner in Glasgow by the Regional Commissioner for Scotland, Tom Johnston, at the Station Hotel. After dinner, Hopkins replied:

“I suppose you wish to know what I am going to say to President Roosevelt on my return. Well, I’m going to quote you one verse from that Book of Books … ‘Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.'” Then he added very quietly: “‘Even to the end.'”

Observers present saw the Prime Minister in tears. He knew what it meant.

We of course read those verses as being about conversion to Judaism. They are taken to be a prototype for the kind of instruction we tell someone wishing to become Jewish.

But the manner in which Hopkins quoted the Ruth the Moabite is a legitimate, deeply accurate reading too.

America did not have to enter world war two, at least the European war. Since the civil war, almost every American casualty has been fighting a war far from American soil – to protect freedom and democracy, rather than defend the homeland.

What made Ruth determined to stay with Naomi? It couldn’t have been self-interest, Naomi had nothing to offer her – not children, not money, not a home, not even food.

It seems, as Naomi will so often reflect – it was Ruth’s chesed – her simple inability to let this lady go off into the world to meet her unknown fate. Yes, Ruth was younger, and stronger, could have every justification for turning away from Naomi and living her own life. Yet her sense of Areyvut, of responsibility, did not permit her to do so.

It was that same sense that I believe caused Roosevelt to wish for America to enter World War 2, that was the message that Hopkins took to the president, that Churchill understood. A sense of mission, of common purpose, of shared destiny.

And that same sense of mission that caused so many 10s of thousands of brave young men and women to give up their lives – a sense that in this world, there are moments of decision. Whether as individuals or as countries, we have to decide “do I live by my values, or do I not?”

In this light, when one thinks of the gigantic military cemeteries in Normandy and elsewhere in Europe, rows upon rows of American soldiers buried in foreign lands – surely that is what Ruth means when she says

בַּאֲשֶׁר תָּמוּתִי אָמוּת וְשָׁם אֶקָּבֵר
‘Where you did I will die, and there I will be buried’.

When Harry Hopkins said in 1941 “thy people shall be my people”, there was no state of Israel – Jews were being slaughtered in their millions.
Since the creation of the State of Israel, she has had no stronger and loyal ally than the United States of America. And we should not forget that fact even for one moment, even during the intense politics of our day. Today Israel and America can indeed say to each other, and please G-d will always be able to say to each other –

כִּי אֶל אֲשֶׁר תֵּלְכִי אֵלֵךְ וּבַאֲשֶׁר תָּלִינִי אָלִין עַמֵּךְ עַמִּי וֵאלֹהַיִךְ אֱלֹהָי:
Where you go I will go, where you dwell I will dwell, your people is my people and your G-d will be my G-d.

As we remember now our own dear parents and grandparents and other relatives – many of whom themselves served in the military, let us take time to remember those for whom memorial day was named. In total over 1,300,000 soldiers – including on both sides of the civil war – fell in action.

May we never forget our own families, and may the merit and sacrifice of these men and women stand as eternal merit in the eyes of their maker. Vayanuchu bashalom al mishkoveteyehm – may the rest in peace , and let us say amen

About the Author
Born in Glasgow, Scotland. Holds a BA in Economics and an MBA. Former Rabbi of Cambridge University and Barnet Synagogue in London. Appointed Senior Rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan in 2005.
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