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Rabbi Freedman

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The story is told of two elderly women who were enjoying the sunshine on a park bench in Centennial Park.  They had been meeting in the park regularly for over 12 years, chatting and enjoying each other’s company.  One day, the younger of the two ladies, turns to the other and says, "Please don’t be angry with me, but I am rather embarrassed.  After all these years, what is your name?  I am trying to remember, but I just can’t."

The older woman stares at her friend and looks somewhat distressed.  After a full two minutes, with tears in her eyes, she finally speaks and says, "How soon do you have to know?"

Memory!  When we have it, I fear we take it for granted; when we lose it – sadly, we are probably not even aware of the loss.

So what is memory?  Superficially, we might answer by suggesting that it is simply the ability to remember information about our lives; who we have met, where we have been, what we  have learnt, what we can do, what makes us happy, what brings us fear or anxiety.

What is so frustrating for all of us, except perhaps the odd genius we come across who is endowed with an amazing ability to recall instantly all manner of facts and figures, names and numbers, is that our brain, in relation to memory, is not a perfect processor, and is affected by many factors. 

The ways by which information is encoded, stored, and retrieved is by no means perfect and so does not operate at all times just as we would wish.  In addition the bad news, just like our PC at home, is that our own personal motherboard can also be corrupted.  Old age, ill health, physical and psychological trauma can all affect the accuracy and capacity of our memory.

But in any event that simple response, that memory is just the ability to remember information about our lives, might well be described as inaccurate or incomplete.  

The suggestion that “nostalgia isn’t what it used to be”, should act as a warning – that in Judaism memory must be safeguarded and valued, appreciated and used carefully.

Lauralee Sherwood writing on this subject back in 2015 agrees that memory is the faculty of the brain by which data or information is encoded, stored, and retrieved when needed, but then adds something highly significant.  She suggests, it is the retention of information over time for ‘the purpose of influencing future action’.

So memory is more than just retrieving information; it is in fact fundamental to an understanding of who we are as individuals.  It is not only the faculty that holds our knowledge and our wisdom, but it guides our relationships and transforms our personalities.  Effectively memory, the means by which we recall the past, becomes the very trigger for action in the future.

Lose one – and you will lose the other.  

Many of us have had family members who have suffered from Alzheimer’s.  It is so distressing to see that they cannot remember the past, because it also means that they cannot look forward into the future.  In my own case, my dear mother a”h would get so excited at the thought of our family visiting her in the UK.  She would count down the days to our arrival.  Sadly once she lost the ability to remember, she also lost the ability to look forward – and gone for ever was the excitement and anticipation of seeing us again.

So in this period of the Jewish calendar, The Three Weeks, when we employ our collective memory to remember the destruction of the Temple, the collapse of Jewish independence and the onset of two millennia of exile and powerlessness, memory is employed to remind us who we are as a people, what we have endured, the tragic history that binds us together, and the miraculous nature of our survival; effectively it helps us to know to whom we belong.  But beyond this, within Judaism, it encourages us to change, it inspires transformation, it imposes on us an obligation for innovation - memory is not passive, it is active.  Our memory of the past influences our future.  

As we enter the Three Weeks between the Fast of Tammuz and Tisha B’Av we do so for a purpose, first and foremost to remember the past, but also, surprisingly, to prepare for the future; to strengthen ourselves, fortify our resolve that such destruction did not occur in vain, and do whatever is in our power to ensure that it will never happen again.

This seems to be implied by Heinrich Graetz, the greatest of our nineteenth-century Jewish historians when he wrote, “Judaism is not a religion of the present, but of the future, when the knowledge of God and the reign of justice and contentment shall have united all men in the bonds of brotherhood.”

There is a Chasidic legend which describes how the founder of Chasidism, Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (otherwise known as the Baal Shem Tov or simply the Besht) undertook an urgent and perilous mission to hasten the coming of the Messiah.  

He realised that the Jewish people were suffering, that they were beset with misery and hardship, and constantly endured intolerance and injustice.  They had to be saved, and swiftly.  According to this strange legend, this was not the right time for the Jewish people to find salvation, and so, for having tried to meddle with history, the Baal Shem Tov was punished; banished along with his faithful servant to a distant island.  

In despair, the servant implored his master to exercise his mysterious powers in order to bring them both home.  

“Impossible,” the Besht replied. “My powers have been taken from me.”  

“Then, please, say a prayer, recite a litany, work a miracle.”  

“Impossible,” the master replied, “I have forgotten everything.”  

Distressed, they both fell to the ground weeping.

Suddenly the master turned to his servant and asked: “Remind me of a prayer — any prayer.”  

“If only I could,” said the servant. “I too have forgotten everything.”

“Everything, absolutely everything?”

“Yes!  Well that is, except the alphabet.”

At that, the Besht cried out joyfully: “Then what are you waiting for?  Begin reciting the alphabet and I shall repeat it after you.”

So together the two men began to recite, at first in whispers, then more loudly the letters of the Hebrew alphabet over and over again; each time more vigorously, more fervently, until finally the Besht had regained his powers, just as he had regained his memory.

This I am sure you agree is a strange story.  But I mention it because of a fascinating comment made in relation to it by Elie Wiesel.  Perhaps as a Chasid himself, from the Vishnitz tradition, he understood a spiritual dimension to this folktale, which others might have missed.  He said the following:

“I love this story, for it illustrates the messianic expectation — which remains my own.  But I love it most of all because it emphasizes the mystical power of memory.  Without memory, our existence would be barren and opaque, like a prison cell into which no light penetrates; like a tomb which rejects the living.  Memory saved the Besht, and if anything can, it is memory that will save humanity.  For me, hope without memory is like memory without hope.”

What was Wiesel trying to teach us?

As Rabbi Sacks explained:

“Throughout history there have been many attempts to ground ethics in universal attributes of humanity.  Some, like Immanuel Kant, based it on reason.  Others based it on duty.  Bentham rooted it in consequences (“the greatest happiness for the greatest number”).  David Hume attributed it to certain basic emotions: sympathy, empathy, compassion.  Adam Smith predicated it on the capacity to stand back from situations and judge them with detachment (“the impartial spectator”).  Each of these has its virtues, but none has proved fail-safe.

Judaism took, and takes, a different view.  The guardian of conscience is memory.”  

Time and again the word zachor - remember, appears in the Torah:

Remember this day, when you came out from Egypt  (Exodus 13:3)
Remember Shabbat to keep it holy  (Exodus 20:8)
Remember what the Lord your God did unto Pharaoh  (Deut. 7:18)
Remember what the Lord your God did to Miriam  (Deut. 24:9)
Remember what the Amalekites did to you  (Deut. 25:17)

Remember the days of old  (Deut. 32:7)

As Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi notes in his great work, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, ‘Only in Israel and nowhere else is the injunction to remember felt as a religious imperative to an entire people.’   

Civilisations begin to die when they forget, so Israel was commanded, REMEMBER.

Historian and theologian, Jacob Neusner once wrote:

“Civilisation hangs suspended, from generation to generation, by the gossamer strand of memory.  If only one cohort of mothers and fathers fails to convey to its children what it has learned from its parents, then the great chain of learning and wisdom snaps.  If the guardians of human knowledge stumble only one time, in their fall collapses the whole edifice of knowledge and understanding.”

Without memory, opportunities for social, physical, intellectual, moral and spiritual advancement range from minimal to none.  That is why we remember both our victories and our defeats, our triumphs and our setbacks – for only when we know the path that has been taken, can we assess how we proceed and the route we should take.

And memory has one other great virtue, it unites generations.  The path taken may have been walked upon by my grandparents, while the route that lies ahead will only be ready in time for my grandchildren.  Uniquely, memory is the greatest gift we can bequeath our children, namely the knowledge of where we have come from, the skills we have learnt, the successes that we have achieved, the dangers we have overcome, the misfortunes that have distressed us, the failures that have disappointed us, the losses we have sustained, the battles fought – some won, some lost.

None of the things we value — freedom, human dignity, justice — was achieved without a struggle.  None can be maintained without conscious vigilance.  A society without memory is like a journey without a map.  It’s all too easy to get lost.

Rabbi Sacks speaks for all of us when he said, “I, for one, cherish the richness of knowing that my life is a chapter in a book begun by my ancestors long ago, to which I will add my contribution before handing it on to my children.  Life has meaning when it is part of a story, and the larger the story, the more our imaginative horizons grow.  Besides, things remembered do not die and that is as close as we can get to immortality on earth.”

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi David Freedman