Reflections at Arlington National Cemetery

With two of our four children home over the December holiday break, my wife and I decided to go “old school” with them and take a road trip.

Once upon a time, when all four of our children were at home, vacation road trips were an annual adventure. With all of us packed into the minivan along with our luggage, we looked like a modern version of exiles from Anatevka, schlepping almost everything we had with us to cover any possible contingency. To this day, some of our funniest and most treasured family stories center on the adventures and misadventures of those trips. There were plenty of both.

This most recent trip brought us back to Washington, D.C., where the endless museums of the Smithsonian- all open on Saturdays and all free- are the perfect way to spend a Shabbat afternoon. Staying in a hotel a comfortable walking distance from the National Mall, we took full advantage of some unusually mild weather, and had a wonderful time.

On our last day there, looking for one more thing to do before we headed home, we decided to pay a return visit to the National Cemetery in Arlington. We had all been there previously, more than once, but it seemed almost disrespectful to be in DC and not pay our respects at one of America’s most sacred spaces.

Probably more than most other people, rabbis have an appreciation of cemeteries and their nuances. We spend a disproportionate amount of time on their sacred grounds, and despite the fact that the bottom line is the same at all of them– people are buried there– no two cemeteries are exactly the same, or have the same feel. Older, newer, more crowded, less crowded, urban, rural, or a host of other differences… every cemetery has its own distinct and idiosyncratic character.

Within that fundamental truth, Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia has a unique feel to it.

Obviously, the fact that President Kennedy is buried there, as are his brothers Robert and Edward right near him, is enough to make a pilgrimage there worthwhile and important. It is still, after all these years, moving beyond words to stand at that sight and contemplate what might have been, especially this year, as we marked the fiftieth anniversary of his assassination.

Even more powerful is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where a guard in dress uniform marches in solemn tribute, 24/7, in all weather and seasons, to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for this country. It is still, after all these years, mesmerizing to watch him pace back and forth, twenty-one precisely measured steps in each direction, as if no one or nothing else in the world mattered. On the back of the tomb are inscribed the words “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.” Truly– in that space, that is all that matters. So moving…

But the truth is that virtually every inch of Arlington National Cemetery is sacred, and significant. One couldn’t help but have the feeling that, much like the museums of the Smithsonian, it is almost criminal to pay a relatively brief visit to these sites. They are each deserving of hours of sober reflection.

On our way towards the exit of the cemetery, as we passed a bench titled the “Korean War Contemplative Bench,” and were struck by a familiar quotation by none other than Herman Wouk, the author of some of the finest fictional works ever produced concerning World War II. The quote on the bench, which is, I believe, the very same quote that open’s Wouk’s epic work War and Remembrance, is on that very theme: “The beginning of the end of war lies in remembrance.”

Both The Winds of War and War and Remembrance are favorites of my family. We’ve read the books, and actually watched the epic mini-series of both of them more than once. No one understood both the nature of war and the challenge of remembrance better than Herman Wouk, and it seemed almost as if we had been destined to see this bench before we left the cemetery….

Every cemetery has its own special character. Arlington is unique. Our family’s “road trip” ended as it should have. Arlington reminded us of the freedoms that we take for granted in this country, like being able to go where we want, when we want, for whatever reason we want. Brave men and women died defending the cause of freedom. Remembrance of their sacrifice might not end war, but as Wouk wrote, it is, at the very least, a beginning.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.