The Future of our Jewish Communities – Jewish Memory
“Any Jewish community that has a museum attached to it, I am worried about their future”. This is a quote from the Director of the Straus-Amiel Institute, Rabbi Eliyahu Birenbaum, who has traveled the world extensively, visiting hundreds of Jewish communities in all hemispheres and continents. He is referring mainly to older Jewish communities in Europe, that highlight a museum as part of their community premises. In Rabbi Birenbaum’s opinion, if the community is committed to the past, and not focused on the present or future – that community will ultimately fold. I tend to agree.
Avraham Infeld, the President Emeritus of Hillel International, has a famous talk called “The 5 Legged Table”. It’s a very worthwhile talk to listen to in its entirety, and I would like to highlight one of the legs of the table – “Memory”. Avraham Infeld shares a story that when his father, a renowned physicist in South Africa, wanted him to become a physicist like him, he sent young Avraham to Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Avraham enrolled in the department of physics and in his first class caught the eye of a beautiful lady from New Jersey, who was going to the Jewish History department. Avraham ended up graduating from Jewish History, and that lady from New Jersey is now the great grandmother to his great-grandchildren. Avraham’s father was irate, not because Avraham didn’t graduate as a physicist, but rather because he claimed that there is not Jewish History! There is only Jewish Memory, said Avraham’s father. His father wasn’t a religious Jew but was very dedicated to the Jewish people. What does the concept of Jewish memory mean?
The Hebrew word for memory is “Zicaron” or “Zecher” זכר. There are 52 Mitzvot that the Torah specifies are to be performed זכר ליציאת מצרים – “Zecher l’yetziat mitzrayim” or in memory of the exodus from Egypt. The Seder night is dedicated to telling the story of the exodus of Egypt, and on the other 364 days of the year we have to remember the exodus from Egypt, along with 5 other “zichronot” or items that are part of the shared memory, that we are obligated to remember daily, such as remembering what Amalek did to Israel in the Wilderness, the Shabbat, and what Hashem did to Miriam. At the end of every Yom Tov, we dedicate the final day of Yom Tov to “Yizkor”, where we remember our loved ones that passed, specifically dedicated to remembering Yartzeits of parents and other close relatives. Memory is an integral part of the Torah. But what is memory?
Rabbi Avraham Shiller, one of my teachers in Yeshivat HaGolan, asked us what is the one thing that every person remembers? His answer – a person always remembers their name. A name is the person’s essence and an essential part of who that person is. We live our name, and our name has intrinsic meaning. Rav Shiller then explained that “Zicaron” or memory is something that we live, with and becomes part of us. Avraham Infeld brings that point home that we only have shared memory, a collective memory, and not history. The Mitzvah of remembering the exodus from Egypt isn’t an exercise in historical facts, it is reminding us of the relevancy of the exodus from Egypt today. It is not for the past, it is for the present and future. Our memory is part of who we are today, in our present lives.
When we remember our loved ones during Yizkor, it is not a nostalgic exercise of remembering when times were better or simply giving honour to the deceased, it is much more meaningful. By remembering them, we are proclaiming that our loved ones that passed on are part of the collective memory of the Jewish People, and their values, teachings, and legacies live on through us and through their stories. They may no longer be with us in person, but their memory lives on forever and affects our daily lives. During Yizkor there is a custom for many to leave, but I learned from my father to stay in for Yizkor, even when his parents were alive. Yizkor is an opportunity to reflect on the values and teachings that our loved ones left behind and appreciate the lives of those loved ones who are still with us, young and old. What can we learn from them? How do their values affect my life today?
Similarly, with the Pesach story, the focus is on what is our “Exodus”? My wife asked me this year as I was cleaning our home for Pesach – “What is your Egypt that you want to escape from?”. It was a profound question and one that I thought about for several hours. What habits do I want to walk away from? Where do I get stuck in life, and how can I take steps to leave my personal “Egypt”? That is one of the many levels of making the story of the exodus from Egypt relevant in the 21st Century.
On a deeper level, we are part of something greater than us, we are part of a collective that spans centuries, and runs deep. A tree is only as strong as its roots, and we are only as strong as the roots we attach ourselves to. The Jewish People are as old as time itself, and by coming to Yizkor, and remembering the exodus from Egypt, we too connect ourselves to the generations of Jews before us who have continued the unbroken chain of faith and commitment to the Torah, Mitzvot, and the Jewish way, through the toughest of times, in order to be a link on the unbroken chain that is the Jewish People and their mission in this world. Are we going to be part of that chain or simply remember it in a museum?
The choice is ours whether to link ourselves to that chain, invest in our Jewish connection, our Jewish community, and our Heritage, or to watch it from afar, put it in a museum, and tell stories of how our ancestors used to keep the faith, only to be outside it. What choice will you make? The future of our Jewish communities depends on it. . Avraham Infeld has a point - Let’s celebrate memory, not history.
Yizkor Derasha Pesach 5782, Wellington Jewish Community Centre
Rabbi Ariel Tal