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Parashat Hashavua

Drash on Parashat Vayeitzei 2018

Rabbi Kim Ettlinger
Temple Beth Israel
St Kilda, Victoria

Collective Memory

In this week’s haftarah today the connection between the Torah and Haftarah is close. The Torah speak about Jacob fleeing from Esau, and so too does the Haftarah.

If I was to ask one to define Torah, how might we respond? Perhaps, it is law, perhaps it is hisotry, perhaps it is our collective memory. Torah is the essential part of our Jewish existence. Without Torah, our memory of our existence as an Israelite people and then as a Jewish nation would be truncated.

Think of this opening verse of today’s haftarah as memory…

וַיִּבְרַ֥ח יַעֲקֹ֖ב שְׂדֵ֣ה אֲרָ֑ם וַיַּעֲבֹ֤ד יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ בְּאִשָּׁ֔ה וּבְאִשָּׁ֖ה שָׁמָֽר׃

Then Jacob had to flee to the land of Aram; There Israel served for a wife, For a wife he had to guard [sheep].

Hosea speaks about this part of Jacob’s life story and shares with the Israelites the sinful ways of Jacob’s descendants. Hosea is connecting the evil ways of the Israelites in his time which around 850 BCE and Jacob of the Torah, a couple of thousand years previously. We are seeing a biblical account of memory, or remembering.

Generally, memory may be defined as the faculty by which the mind stores and remembers information. However, I believe that Jewish memory is so much more… Jewish memory isn’t merely about remembering information, it is also about recounting what happened, remembering feelings and emotions and it is about remember as if we were present.

The 20th Century filmmaker Luis Buenel[1] in his book wrote “You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all, just as an intelligence without the possibility of expression is not really an intelligence. Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing.

We empathise with those who are aware that they are losing their memory. We see them struggling to hold onto memory… it is not easy and we are keenly aware it could easily happen to us. 

One theory to the foundation of Jewish memory is in the character Amalek… There is a deep conflict in the verse… “Remember what Amalek did to you, Blot out his name.” We are supposed to remember in order to erase him from our memory. 

Why Amalek? It is because he attacked the stragglers from behind… he went after the week, and that to God (and to us) is unconscionable.  

We have remembered Amalek throughout the generations… every time someone bad in history rises to wipe us out, we associate Amalek with that evil. This was true for Haman in the days of Queen Esther, and of course, Hitler.

Our collective Jewish memory is survival… Amalek represents the possibility of genocide for the Jewish people… if we truly forget Amalek, then we will die.

Even though we personally did not witness Sinai, we did not witness the Spanish inquisition, and for those of us who did not witness the Shoah… we must remember, not as a historical event, but as if we were there. Only remembering as if we were there will be survive as a Jewish people.

Our memory is not exact. When Moses recounts the story of Amalek, he embellishes, when God recounts Amalek to Saul, he too embellishes…. When Hosea recounts Jacob, that too is different. All these stories are recalled, but the essence, the meaning that is to be brought through the generations, does not change.

But it does ask us to think about memory in a way that moves us to question who we are both as individuals and as a people. We are pushed to think how we preserve memory in our families, in our community and as part of the Jewish people. 

Rabbi Dov Linzer, the former Rosh Yeshiva in New York said “Remember. Do not forget. We have a responsibility of memory and a responsibility of speech and of story. We, each one of us, will choose the story that we will tell.”

[1] [Bunuel, L. (1983). My Last Sigh. New York: Knopf. Quoted in Joseph Ledoux (2002). Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are. New York: Viking Press, p. 97]”

 

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