We think Judaism has an obsession with food, and thats true. But it also has an obsession with remembering. Every holiday is all about remembering, no matter how much we think its about food. Every ritual is about remembering who we are and where we came from. We are commanded today, like on Yom Hashoah, to remember even the horrible things others did to us.
We must remember that we were slaves in Egypt; we must remember the Sabbath to keep it holy; we must remember our enemies like Amalek. Remember: don’t forget! The Torah uses a double imperative, as if fearful that remembering is not enough, as if “not forgetting” is necessary too. Is this a different action, to “not forget?” Is it the same as “remembering?”
I’m not sure, but if you are dealing with a parent who is in any stage of dementia, you get the feeling that forgetting is an action; that a little more each day is being forgotten not passively but as a process. The root zachor—remember—appears 169 times in the Tanach and scholars argue that the English translation of the word as “remember” is too small in scope. The word zachor implies a level of action. Not just remembering, but also not forgetting. Indeed Moses' last great swan song in Deuteronomy cries out "O Israel, remember and do not forget" like a kind of holy refrain, a kind of parent’s cry “don’t forget me when I am old and when I am gone.”
Jews live and breathe in the world of memory. In his book Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi writes, "Only in Israel... is the injunction to remember felt as a religious imperative to an entire people." Memory is incumbent upon the Jew because memory is the beginning of action. Moses begs the people not only to remember, but to act so that the work he started is someday, someday finished. It’s not enough to sing with Barbara Streisand about “misty water-coloured memories of the way we were” without having a map for the way we will be. Memory is incumbent upon the Jews but it is of no value if it doesn’t move us from the past into the future.
So what are we to remember? Ancient facts and figures, seas parting and plagues visited and kings of yesteryear? The way we were back in the shtetl? No. We think we should remember our history, but history is what happened and memory is what it means to us. Remembering history is of value only if it helps us to reconnect to what it means to be a Jew in the present tense, in the present time and space we occupy. It makes sense to go backward only to refashion what we once knew. We can’t really remember our history because at best what we have of it is a reconstruction anyway. “Memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin,” writes Barbara Kingsolver in her book Animal Dreams. We remember the past as we think it was but not necessarily as it actually was; so when we celebrate a past we celebrate what we thought that past might have been rather than what we know for sure it was. In fact, we might well be celebrating what that past ought to have been. I recognize that when I remember my mother doing Israeli dancing with me at camp many years ago I am conjuring a scene that may never have really happened the way I picture it. When I reconstruct the memory of her at her office desk working, I am remembering a productive, busy, and smart woman who ran a whole department. Perhaps in reality she was frustrated, made to feel inadequate, unsure of herself, unskilled. But that is not the way I am remembering at all. Yerushalmi writes, “What is Jewish memory, after all, but deliberately constructed mythical nostalgia that binds one to a past even in radically reinterpreting that past? Jewish memory scoffs at the definition of memory as a first-order photographic capture of experience lived. Instead, Jewish tradition ironically celebrates temporal distance from the actual event being remembered, translating the event into ritual, nostalgia, and myth. Jewish memory is not made more correct by its historical accuracy. This translation of event to practice bridges the chasm of past and future, and renders a specific historical event into an ongoing event of significance.” In other words, the real faith of Judaism is our ability to take a memory and translate it into a ritual which has everlasting value, and is not tied to whether or not a specific event actually happened precisely.
Thats why I always talk to the school kids about the difference between “small t truth” and “big T truth” when they ask me if the Red Sea “REALLY” parted, or if such-and-such a thing “REALLY” happened. It doesn’t matter if it is true with a small t, historically proven and factual. It matters with a big T- what does it teach us? Did Amalek “REALLY” attack us from behind? Our memory is about the strong preying on the weak, and we call it Amalek. It’s the translation of event to practice that Yerushalmi speaks of.
We radically refashioned our memory of what the Temple in Jerusalem was, while ensuring its future, when we invented the synagogue. We radically refashioned our memory of what ancient Israel was, thus ensuring its future, when the modern state was born in 1948 as a democracy. We continue to refashion Shabbat, the holidays, a Jewish home, and in refashioning our memories we both lock them in and free them from shackles.
Judaism lives in the present only when it reinterprets its past— without losing its memory. But we have to be very careful that we don’t become a people with too much memory: living only in the past, past glories of Israel and past achievements of our ancestors; past ways we looked and dressed and prayed and past rules which made sense then but not now. Florida columnist Jan Glidewell once wrote, “You can clutch the past so tightly to your chest that it leaves your arms too full to embrace the present,” and that’s how I sometimes feel at Jewish events. We need as much passion to re-form our Judaism, re-new it, re-think it re-energize it while re-membering it. We have too much memory if it traps us in the past without a raison d’etre for a Jewish future other than “not to forget.”
Our generation of grandparents may not speak Yiddish, our own parents may have known little of Jewish tradition or culture, and many of our kids are tied with the thinnest of thread to the idea that they are Jewish. The Judaism of memory doesn’t work for converts to Judaism, who didn’t “stand at Sinai” but entered on their own, devoid of Jewish nostalgia from not having grown up Jewish. It doesn’t work for the Jew from a small town, the Jew isolated, the Jew on the margins. A central question for Jews today is do we suffer from Jewish amnesia?
It is incumbent upon the Jew to remember, as today’s portion tells us. But it is also incumbent for us as modern Jews to move beyond memory, beyond the glorification of our remembered victimhood that today’s portion reminds us of. Finding the fine balance between remembering the past while moving away from it is what Shabbat Zachor challenges us with.