Sermon: Three Score and Ten

June 6, 2014
Temple B’nai Chaim
Rabbi David A. Lipper

In the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, this message from General Dwight D. Eisenhower was sent to ships laden with troops, as they rapidly advanced towards the western shores of France.

You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.

It was the beginning of the end of World War II: Wave upon wave of allied troops storming the coast of northern France to liberate the country and its people from Nazi occupation, in the largest seaborne invasion in history.   Braving everything from heavy seas to machine gun fire and grenades, soldiers clambered ashore at beaches codenamed Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword and began to fight their way inland. Thousands died in the attempt; today their bodies fill military cemeteries along the Normandy coast.

It is hard to imagine what was going through the mind of my great uncle, an 18 year old young man from Texas, who stood shoulder to shoulder in a landing craft headed for Omaha beach as bullets whizzed over his head and water erupted with explosions all around him. Little could that soldier for whom this was his first combat mission, imagine that at the end of the day, on that great battlefield stretching up the coastline of France, nearly 20,000 people would lay injured or dead. The US lost 1,465 men on the beaches of Normandy that day. But Ike’s message of the importance of this day carried the troops forward. Uncle Haskell never spoke of his experiences on Omaha beach until the 50th anniversary, 20 years ago, when he returned to that spot to pay homage to his fellow recruits.  

The lesson of appreciating the tremendous sacrifices of those who gave their lives in the defense of our freedom is something that I have been very passionate about. It’s why I have read the list of war deaths from Afghanistan and Iraq since 2003.   All too often we take those sacrifices for granted sitting here in our beautiful sanctuary. I choose not to.

As many of you know, I travel to Washington DC often. One of my regular stops is Arlington National Cemetery. Anyone who has ever walked in Arlington National Cemetery, or any military cemetery, and has seen the symmetrical rows of headstones, has a sense of the enormity of the sacrifice. There is a tendency to view the graves, and to forget that each one represents a single, individual, unique life.

The most moving time for me is the changing of the guard at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. 24/7, these specially chosen men and women stand guard over the cemetery. Their actions honor the memories of all those who are buried there. Each year, the number of veterans we see diminishes. And now, with the WWII Memorial, older Americans, many in wheelchairs or walkers, slowly traveling down the path, recalling memories of horrible conflict. With tears streaming down their faces, they remember and weep as they recall names and places of battle. And the names and faces of friends and relatives who made the supreme sacrifice.

Historian Gerhard Weinberg has described the struggle of World War II as being about territory and also “about who would live and control the resources of the globe, and which peoples would vanish entirely because they were believed inferior or undesirable by the victors.” We Jews certainly understand the implications of these comments, for we were one of the people deemed inferior, and doomed for extinction and extermination.

Throughout our nation’s history, American Jews have answered the call to serve, and have fought gallantly and died nobly in service to their nation. And how many Jews escaped Europe, only to be conscripted into the US army and sent back to help fight the war. We did so proudly. Their story is beautifully told at the Jewish War Veterans Museum in Washington, an inspiring and wonderful place to visit if you have never been there.

In March 2012, Dora and I visited the Normandy beaches, including the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach. Visiting the cemetery was an emotional experience. The cemetery is immaculately maintained and, in some ways, very beautiful. But I was overwhelmed by the vastness of more than 9,000 gravesites and the realization that nearly all the soldiers buried there were killed as young men.

As we walked silently down the well groomed paths, I could not help but notice the graves marked with Stars of David. There are 149 of them scattered among the crosses, each one indicating the burial site of a Jewish soldier killed in action in Normandy. And you have a list of each Jewish serviceman who died on that day. I believe that Jews in the United States should be thankful for those among our people who fought and gave the ultimate sacrifice in Normandy.

Although I myself am not a US military veteran, I did serve in the Israeli military. It has given me a lifelong appreciation for what the men and women who serve our country do. My father served in the Army overseas following the Korean War. He was never in combat but proudly shared photos of his time in the service. I will be forever grateful for the sacrifices men and women make for us. While we may be the nameless, I choose to use my life to give voice to their names and honor their lives.  

Today, June 6, marks the 70th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy and the battle at Omaha Beach – Three Score and Ten. Tonight we will remember and recite Kaddish for the Jewish soldiers who gave their lives on the beaches in Normandy – including the 149 whose graves are at Omaha Beach – and elsewhere, so that we might live in freedom. It is a freedom we should never take for granted.

And I conclude with this poem from our prayerbook. It was written by an Israeli poet named Hannah Senesh, herself a military hero … Yesh Kochavim

There are stars up above,
So far away we only see their light
Long, long after the star itself is gone.
And so it is with people that we loved
Their memories keep shining every brightly
Though their time with us is done.
But the stars that light up the darkest night,
These are the lights that guide us.
As we live our days, these are the ways we remember.

May we remember the sacrifices of so many young men and women and live our lives with humility and grace as we bring honor to their memory.