Devarim Comments Off 51

between history and memory

As Moses’ final speech to the children of Israel draws to a close, he becomes more and more concerned with the question of continuity.  How will the Jewish people ensure that the story of their journey and their mission will not fade away? As we saw last week, the last two of the  commandments are  both different approaches to ensuring that Moses’ teachings are handed down  to future generations: the seven-yearly public reading of the Torah, and the commandment to every individual to write a Torah for themselves.

In this week’s reading, Moses is still troubled by the challenge of continuity, and he introduces his final song by stressing the importance of preserving the past:

Remember the days of old,
Consider the years of  many generations;
Ask your father, he will inform you, Your elders, they will tell you (Devarim XXXII:7)

In relating to the past there is a crucial difference between memory and history. History is about the facts, about what happened. Memory is about the relationship between the past and ourselves; it is the past as it reflects itself in our identity.

This difference is hinted at in Moses’ final words. The first half of the verse speaks of history:

Remember the days of old,
Consider the years of  many generations;

“The days of old”, and the passing of “the years of many generations” are history in a distant and objective sense. The second half of the verse, though, suggests that an objective understanding of history is not sufficient:

Ask your father, he will inform you,
Your elders, they will tell you

Here Moses tells us that we have to engage with the past, to ask questions and feel a personal connection to it, to realize that it is a message to us from our parents and ancestors. Here he speaks not of history, but of memory.

The challenge of taking the past and transforming it from history to memory permeates almost every aspect of Jewish life. The major events of the calendar are attempts to give historic moments immediacy, and bring them to life, such as the recreation of the Exodus on Seder night, or the destruction of the Temple and exile on Tisha b’Av. Similarly many Jewish life cycle customs  are focused on remembrance, from the naming of babies after departed relatives, through the breaking of a glass at a wedding to recall the destruction of Jerusalem, to the Kaddish and Yizkor prayers said in memory of the dead.

There is another crucial difference between history and memory in Jewish thinking. History is an academic discipline, one which is satisfied with simply knowing about the past. Memory in the Jewish understanding carries with it an obligation to learn lessons of the past and enact them in the future.

The classic commentator Rashi (France C11th) suggests that this idea is also reflected in Moses’ words. “Remember the days of old”, he suggests, is a call to the Jewish people to recall the events that have taken place it he past. The continuation of the verse: “Consider the years of many generations”, relates, in Rashi’s view, not to the past but to the future. It expresses our obligation to consider the implications of the past for the future.
This conception of Jewish memory, recalling the past so as to affect the way we relate to the future, is reflected in the use of the word  “Zachor” – “remember” , in the  Bible. Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, has pointed out that there are three occasions in the Book of Genesis in which God is spoken of as remembering:

• “God remembered Noah” and brought him out of the ark onto dry land.

• “God remembered Abraham” and saved his nephew Lot from the destruction of the city of Sodom.

• “God remembered Rachel” and gave her a child.

Every time that God remembers, Jakobovits concludes, it is not to dwell on the past, but to act as an impetus to protect the future.

This then is the Jewish concept of memory: a process that begins with history, but never ends there. It calls on us not just to recall the past, but to internalize it, and to be ever aware of its message for the preservation and advancement of Jewish life in future generations.

In others’ words

“The Jewish people have a long memory, the memory which united the exiles of Israel for thousands of years: a memory which has its origin in God’s commandment to our forefather Abraham: “Go forth!” and continued with the receiving of the Torah at the foot of Mount Sinai and the wanderings of the children of Israel in the desert, led by Moses on their journey to the promised land, the land of Israel.”

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Address at United Nations General Assembly, September  2005

On a lighter note

One night, Mollie and Izzy are sitting around the apartment and Mollie says “I think I’m going to go down to the corner and get myself an ice cream sundae.”
Izzy says “Sit, darling. I’ll go down and get it for you.”
“Forget it, Izzy. With your memory, you’ll never remember what I want. I’ll go myself.”
“Don’t be ridiculous! There’s nothing wrong with my memory. Now tell me what you want.”
“All right, all right. I want three scoops ice cream: cherry vanilla, chocolate chip and pistachio. I want colored sprinkles…not chocolate sprinkles …Izzy…maybe you’d better write this down…”
“Don’t worry. I got a brain like a steel trap. Just tell me.”
“All right. I want hot fudge sauce. Wet walnuts…not dry walnuts.
Two cherries…one on the chocolate chip and the other one on the pistachio….Izzy…you sure you got all this?”
“I got it. I got it. Is that it?”
“No. I want a banana sliced in half, across the sides and some toasted coconut on the top. Izzy, maybe you should repeat it back to me.”
“Don’t worry….it’s all up here,” he says, pointing to his head.
Two hours later, Izzy comes back upstairs carrying a paper bag. He gives it to Mollie. She opens it up and takes out a bagel! “I knew it!” she says.
“I knew it! I knew you would never get it right!” She looks at him accusatorily, and says, “So tell me…where’s the cream cheese?”


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