After my last post, I received a number of responses asking me to flesh out and explain a little more what exactly I was trying to say about all this Jewish memory stuff. So with Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, coming on April 25, I thought I would explain myself a little better.
There is a beautiful vignette told by Jorge Luis Borges, about a man named Funes whose life revolved around remembering. After many years of remembering everything, he finally “determined to reduce all of his experiences to some seventy thousand recollections, which he would later define numerically. Two considerations dissuaded him: the thought that the task was interminable and the thought that it was useless.”
Funes’ predicament points to just how all-consuming but ultimately unfulfilling memories can become. The obsession with memory is something all of us relate to. As the historian Y.H. Yerushalmi, author of Zachor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, points out, the Hebrew word zachor appears in the Bible no less than 169 times.
Memory to be sure is not history. It is far more powerful, leaping over time periods and generating meaning from disparate human experiences and events. It collapses time. Many of us grew up in homes where the stories of Auschwitz and Egypt were historically intertwined. Pharaoh and Hitler were synonymous. For many, the lines between Hom Hashoah and Passover were a little blurry.
The Holocaust was constantly mentioned and remembered at ever seder table. We learned that in every generation evil exists and that each person is obligated, “chayyav,” to remember, but that in ever generation “bchol dor vador chayav adam lerot at atzmo keilu hu yatzah mimitzraim.” On this commandment those such as Maimonides claim that in every generation we must reenact our redemption from Egypt. In other words, remembering is not good enough; the story of Egypt and its message must become a present reality. Every year, this sentiment would be repeated over a few weeks later on Yom Hashoah. This year that present is the situation in Darfur, Sudan.
Sometimes memory can be narcissistic. We forget about others because we are too busy remembering about ourselves and all that we have been through. The greatest insult to the memory of those who survived Auschwitz would not be failing to put up another museum, or another plaque in honor of someone, but rather failing to prevent it from happening again under our watch. All the museums and plaques in the world can’t make up for the taking of one innocent life. What “Never Forget” means is not never forget, but rather never forget to act.
We all lead busy lives, and everyday there is another tragedy. We are prudent in how we live life. As Abraham Joshua Heschel so aptly put it, “a prudent man is he who minds his business, who is busy making money, buying a new car, and being proud of his success in society. And who among us is not practical and prudent? Our conscience dwells secure, we cast the blame on inevitable Fate. The rhetoric of indifference is highly effective. It is extremely easy to adjust to other people’s suffering graciously.”
Few of us are prepared to hop on Air Sudan and start doing sit-ins singing “Kumbaya” in the sweltering heat of the African desert. But we can commit ourselves to going to the rally being held in Washington, D.C., on April 30 being sponsored by the American Jewish World Service and a coalition of faith groups. If you can not make it, please go on line to the American Jewish World Service website and help prevent the death of another hundred thousand.
If there is one thing that the movie Hotel Rwanda taught us it was that ordinary people can make a difference. I know all of you have packed schedules, but this is truly a shat hadchak, a time of grave danger. Human life is at stake.