REMEMBER THE ----?
Rabbi David Walk
Throughout history people have been exhorted to great efforts in memory of some significant event or disaster. We Americans learned in school about 'Remember the Alamo!' or Remember the Maine!' But how many of us recall the battle cry at the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812? It was 'Remember the Raisin!' Personally, I prefer chocolate chips. Anyway, remember the something or other has a long history in human affairs. Our mothers tried this strategy on us during meal time when they would push us to finish our vegetables with the cry 'Remember those starving in…' That blank could be filled with many places, like China, India, Armenia, Bangladesh, depending on your time and place. However, no people have been required to remember so much over such a vast amount of time as we Jews. And that process of collective memory begins in this week's Torah reading with the following demand: 'This day shall be for you as a memorial, and you shall celebrate it as a festival for the Lord; throughout your generations, you shall celebrate it as an everlasting statute (Exodus 12:14)' and 'You shall keep this matter as a statute for you and for your children forever (verse 24)', and 'Remember this day, when you went out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, for with a mighty hand, the Lord took you out of here (13:3)' and 'It shall be to you as a sign upon your hand and as a remembrance between your eyes, in order that the law of the Lord shall be in your mouth, for with a mighty hand the Lord took you out of Egypt (verse 9). Actually, the Torah demands that we remember the Exodus from Egypt in fifty different verses. That's a lot of remembering for an event which took place 3300 years ago. So, this week I'd like to discuss what's up with all this remembering.
Before I talk about all of our remembering of the exodus, I must discuss an even thornier issue. How come we talk about God remembering? How can God forget? Our limited knowledge of God describes our Lord as the Omniscient One. That, sort of, precludes forgetting. The normal approach to God remembering is called dibra torah b'lashon b'nei adam, the Torah speaks in the language of humanity. In other words, God doesn't 'remember' per se, but we describe God's behavior as if the Deity were remembering at that point in time by fulfilling a previously made promise.
Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik (1903-1993) looks at the remembering of God in a totally different light. The Rav discusses this significant idea in The Emergence of Ethical Man, and explains: Zicharon as an attribute of God denotes not remembrance of the past but its presence; its perennial existence and everlasting reality (page 174). We are commanded to remember aspects of the covenant forged with our ancestors to keep us in constant awareness of God's eternal presence in our national consciousness and destiny. The deals between God and our forebears remains a constant in our communal thought. Our patriarchs negotiated these deals; we are eternally fulfilling them.
When last week's parsha explained that the Jews couldn't accept Moshe's description of God's relationship with the Jewish nation, and that they should have faith and be patient. The verse records that they couldn't listen because of kotzer ruach and hard work (Exodus 6:9). The kotzer ruach could be translated as 'shortness of breath' but probably should be rendered as shortness of spirit. They lacked the historical perspective to wait for God's redemption. Over the millennia we have built up the collective memory to understand that no matter how bad things are, we, as a nation, will survive.
George Freidrich Hegel (1770-1831) who was the great philosopher of history explained: without memory of the past there is no history, in the sense of the events that are meaningful to the collective, events experienced by a collective that is aware of them. Collective consciousness presumes collective memory (Philosophy of History). As a nation we are what we remember. The Rav adds: Our historicity is expressed in covenant constancy and identity. Not only do we remember the past but we relive and re-experience it…both past and present manifest themselves in anticipation and expectation of a future (p. 172). The Rav explains that we live today without losing the identity of Avraham or the vision of Messiah.
Now we can understand God's emphasis on certain names over the past few Torah readings. Two weeks ago, God informs Moshe to refer to the name ehiyeh, which means 'I will be'. Last week, God explains that we must know God by the ineffable four letter name, which could be translated as 'He will be.' The only thing that we can truly know about God is that the Deity is always there. The Rav explains that's why we have so many laws against magical incantations and ceremonies, because those ceremonies are to conjure God. But God is always here. Our job is to find God through all the static of the present. We do this through our memory of the past and our anticipation of the future.
There are many covenantal ceremonies in Jewish history (covenant between the parts, Mt. Sinai, Mt Gerizim), but only one covenant. God's words to Moshe are a dynamic historical force always in effect. Everything said to Avraham, Moshe, et al. was also being said to us. It's like the Neverending Story (okay, l'havdil); the book is speaking to us, individually.
Now we can fill in the blank in my title. The Rabbis taught us the answer in their most educational text book, namely the prayer book. Our Sages of old, when they organized our prayer services, understood that our prayers should inform as well as inspire. So, when they arranged the massive Musaf (additional) service for Rosh Hashanah, which is called in the Torah, Yom Hazikaron (Day of Remembrance), they ended the section about remembrances with the declaration: God Remembers the Covenant! And so should we.