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Ruminations on Memory and its Transmission to the Next Generation

Every year, the days between Passover and Independence Day are a period of rumination for me regarding the purpose of personal, familial, and national memory. Twenty-four years have passed since my son Uriel Yitzchaq of blessed memory, an infantry officer in the IDF, passed away, and I wonder what elements of my family story, prototypical of the Jewish-Israeli narrative of this generation, shall be remembered in my family in the years to come? What part of the heroic account of the “Holocaust and Renewal” generation shall remain in the collective memory of later generations?

Our generation is unique in the annals of Jewish history. It is a generation in which the famous line from Psalms has come to pass: “He raised us from the dust, he will raise up the destitute from the refuse heap”. From the darkest valley of the shadow of death, from the crematoriums of Auschwitz, our parents dusted themselves off, rose from their mourning, and with great courage made their way to the land of their dreams, to a country with a glorious past, but with a present and future shrouded in uncertainty.

Historical Memory in Judaism

Historical memory is a central motif of Judaism. Deuteronomy 32:7 instructs us to “Remember the days of yore, learn of ancient times, ask your father and he shall tell you, your elders and they shall recount for you”. The Jewish circle of life revolves around memory. In our daily prayers, morning and evening, the memory of the exodus from Egypthas the pride of place. This is not, however, the only memory mentioned in the Torah. Other positive commandments to remember remain as scriptural edicts and have had less of an influence on history, such as: “Remember and do not forget how you provoked the Lord your God to wrath in the wilderness;” (Deuteronomy 9:7) or “Remember what the Lord your God did to Miriam on your journey out of Egypt;” (Deuteronomy 24:9), and finally “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey out of Egypt,” (Deuteronomy 25:17).

Why did the commandments “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8) and “Remember the day you left Egypt, the house of bondage” (Exodus 13:3) have such an active resonance in the collective Jewish memory, and other commands to remember were left at the wayside? Rabbi Yehiel Michal Epstein (Novardok 1829- 1908) answers in his book Arukh Hashulkhan, Orach Hayyim, part five:

Remembering the Sabbath and Passover obligates one to remember not only past but also the present, as it says, “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy”, in other words make us holy now, entirely and completely, as though today was the day that the creation of the world was completed. And thus it is with Passover, “Remember this day that you left Egypt, and eat nothing leavened…” in other words, I am not telling you to remember the past, but rather remember this day every year, when it comes to pass. For this reason the Torah added the imperative to “keep” the commandments to observe the Sabbath and Passover. In the other biblical commandments which instruct us to remember, keeping or observing does not apply, but the Sabbath and Passover must be actively kept. On the Sabbath we are commanded not to work and on Passover we are commanded not to eat leavened products, and it is thus apparent that remembering and keeping are two facets of one commandment with one intention.

The Sabbath and Passover are so entrenched in the Jewish consciousness because the command to keep and observe was part of the command to remember. Keeping or observing is the ritual component of the commandment (the celebratory meal and its symbols, the traditions and the laws, the communal prayer, etc.) which leads to memory, preserves the active component of the commandment, and keeps the commandment relevant to a changing reality. Without the command to keep the Sabbath and Passover, it is doubtful that these holidays would have been any different than any of the other scriptural commands to remember, which remain in scripture but have no resonance in the present.

Ever since the Jews returned to their land, more memorial days and more holidays have been added to the calendar, most importantly Holocaust Memorial Day, and the Memorial Day for IDF soldiers. I wonder what the fate of these memorial days will be in subsequent generations. Will they be like the passive commands of the Torah, or like the many memorial days for past massacres and martyrdom (such as the massacres of 1096, the massacres of 1648 and so many others) which are part of the general passive memory of hardship, or perhaps these days will be actively remembered and commemorated in subsequent generations?

How can we ensure that seminal events such as the Holocaust and the resettlement ofI srael be preserved in the collective memory for many generations to come?

In order to answer this question, we must take stock of the holidays and memorial days which are actively observed and which continue to influence the course of our lives, as opposed to other holidays which were once relevant, but are now relegated to history books and are not actively observed. For the sake of argument I shall use the memory of the exodus from Egypt as a prototype of active memory.

The Memory of the Exodus from Egypt

For over 1,940 years (following the destruction of the Second Temple), we have reenacted the same ritual (with generational variations) on the 14th day of Nissan, namely the Seder ritual, in memory to the seminal of events which took place on the dawn of the 15th day of Nissan, when our people left Egypt and were made free.

This ritual relates to time, specifically to the ability to look at the past and to feel what our forefathers felt, as the Mishnah in Pesachim instructs (10:10): “In every generation the individual must see himself as though he was emancipated from Egypt.” Every year we must experience the lofty sentiment of emancipation, we must feel as though God had taken us out of Egypt personally. As the Talmud in tractate Pesachim 115b says: “Rava said, he must say: and he took us out of there”. One must also dream of future salvation because “in the month of Nissan we will be redeemed in future times” (Bavli, tractate Rosh haShannah 11a).

How does one do this? How does one create a memorial ritual that will help preserve the spirit of the nation and provide hope for the future even in difficult times? How does one transmit experiences and etch the significance of emerging from slavery into freedom onto the palimpsest of personal and national memory, especially to the generation following the destruction of the temple, when the survivors of this tragedy still walked among them? How did they try to transmit this tradition from one generation to another?

In Tosefta Pesachim (10:12) we find an account of a Seder that took place many years after the destruction of the Second Temple:

An account of Rabban Gamliel and the elders who were sitting around the table of Bitus the son of Zunin in Lod, and were discussing the laws of Passoverthe entire night until the rooster crowed – they got up from their places, they conferred and went together to the house of study.

The Passover Haggadah tells us a similar story on the face of it, but it is actually quite different:

An account of Rabbi Eliezer (ben Horkenos), Rabbi Yehoshua, and Rabbi Elazar the son of Azariah, and Rabbi Akibah, and Rabbi Tarfon who were sitting [around a table] at Bnei Brak, and who recounted the story of the exodus from Egyptthe entire night, until their students told them: “Honored teachers, it is time to recite the morning Sh’ma.”

Rabban Gamliel, the head of the Sanhedrin, a man of rules, a cerebral man, was of the opinion that following the destruction of the temple, the best way to ensure that the memory remained fresh in people’s minds was the innovation of new ritual, the basis of which is learning – such as learning the laws of Passover the entire night. And thus as long as they recall and study the laws of Passover every year at the Seder, the memory of the Exodus from Egypt would endure.

In contrast, his brother-in-law Eliezer ben Horkanus who was a guest at a different Passover Seder in Bnei-Brak, together with four other sages of that generation, who were “recounting the Exodus from Egypt the entire night”, realized that in order to preserve this memory, in order to ensure that “had the Lord blessed be He not taken us out from Egypt, our children and children’s children would have been enslaved subjects of Pharaoh in Egypt”, one could not simply study. To preserve the memory one needed to create “a memory experience”, a type of experience that is possible only through story, imagination, and delving deeply.

In practice, the Passover Seder paradigm advocated by Rabbi Eliezer (although this particular Seder appears in the Passover Haggdah and in no other source) was the one that was adopted. Every year we retell the story of the Exodus. The ritual is enacted through a story and through questions and inquiry, rather than through study. Rabban Gamliel’s idea of the Seder was observed only in a short restatement of the rules by which one is supposed to organize the Seder: “Whoever does not say the following three things during Passover, does not fulfill his obligation, and these are: “Passover, Matzah, and Maror.”

Yehudit Rotem in her fascinating book, “When will you come to me?” (Kinneret, Zmorah-Bitan, 2012) sharpens our understanding of the Hebrew term: “Sippur” (story), and she writes as follows:

This word has two meanings in Hebrew: “Story” as a noun, and “telling” as an act. In the narrow field of semantics these two meanings are close to one another, close but distinct, and we should not exchange one for the other… In English the distinction is quite clear.

Many stories form the backdrop of each and every nation, but these stories are not necessarily expressed in the world of action.

The story of the Exodus from Egypt accompanies us on a daily basis in our prayers: When we put on our Tefillin (phylacteries), when we recite the song on the sea, in the third paragraph of the Sh’ma prayer where it says: “I am the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt”, in the blessing after meals, in the evening prayers, and in the “truth and belief prayer” (Emet ve-Emunah): “You killed all their first-born and you redeemed your first-born Israel and parted the sea for them”, and so forth.

On the night of Passover, however, we are commanded to tell; we do not pray, but rather we are supposed to actively recount the exodus from Egypt. We are commanded to tell the story and to share our experiences with others, as the Talmud says (Pesachim 116a): “If he is a wise man then his son asks, and if he is not a wise man, his wife asks, and if not, he asks himself.” The story grows with each retelling, and every person who recounts it uses his imagination and his knowledge to enrich his own experience and the experience of those who are listening. In this way the recounting became a steadfast tradition, and eventually became the Passover Haggadah.

The goal of retelling the story is to entrench it in the collective memory, to ensure that “you remember that you were a slave inEgyptand that the Lord your God took you out of there.” This miraculous memory accompanied the Jews in their darkest times in the death camps and encouraged them to believe that there “was hope for their future” and “that their children would return to their land.”

Will the 27th of Nissan, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and the 4thof Iyyar, the Remembrance Day for IDF soldiers, be part of the collective memory of the Jews in generations to come?

The answer to this question depends on what we pass on to the next generations. The March of the Living, libraries, museums, and school ceremonies are all important components of learning about the Holocaust and the Return, but they are not enough to entrench this memory as “an active memory”, as an influential memory. Only if we can transmit the narrative to the next generation, the grand saga of the Holocaust and the rising from the ashes, in such a way that each man, woman, and child can recount it in simple language through a ritual framework, will it find a secure place in people’s hearts and minds.

Seventy years have passed since the murder of European Jewry and we have yet to settle on one memorial day for this event, which was as tragic as the burning of our temple. Observant Jews have yet to agree whether the appropriate day for remembering the Holocaust is the 27th of Nissan or the 10th of Tevet, which was set by the Chief Rabbinate as a day for communal Kaddish (since my space is limited, I will not elaborate upon this depressing state of affairs). Sadly, for many Jews in Israel and in the diaspora, the memory of the Holocaust is passive and without moral value, and it therefore has no effect on their lives. I fear that a similar future is in store for the 4th of Iyyar, the Memorial Day for IDF soldiers (at least in the diaspora). These memorial days still lack a narrative, a great saga, which could perhaps be distilled on to one scroll – a Holocaust Scroll and an Independence Scroll, which would be part of a religious ritual in most synagogues inIsrael and the diaspora. In 5765 (2005) The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement published its Holocaust Scroll, written by Professor Avigdor Shinan, as well as a series of prayers for Holocaust Memorial Day, edited by Rabbi Professor David Golinkin. This is a blessed initiative, and one hopes that this scroll and the ceremony accompanying its recitation, shall become the basis of a religious ritual that will be accepted by all streams of Judaism.

Passivity leads to apathy, and this is very unfortunate since the fate of passive memories is to disappear. Will we be able to transmit our story to subsequent generations? Only time will tell.

Shmuel Glick is a Professor of Jewish Law and Talmud at the Schechter Institute and is Director of the Schocken Institute in Jerusalem.

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