“The Power of Memory and Remembering”
By Rabbi Robin Hoffman Foonberg, ’13
This past year, my sweet Mom was diagnosed with early stages of Alzheimer’s. Her memory loss, while so far mostly about appointment times and lunch dates, led to confusion and frustration and a little bit of fear. Thankfully, there are wonderful medications that are helping her regain some control of this difficult situation and she should be able to continue to lead an independent life for another ten years or more.
A popular saying today is, “the past is history, tomorrow is unknown, so live in the present.” For people like my Mom, the past becomes even more important, as her long term memory is sharp and strong, but her ability to process short term memory is slightly impaired. She has many memories of her past and loves to share them, but her present is getting a little fuzzy.
Our Jewish tradition appreciates the power of memory and understanding the past. Yes, it is “history,” but it important history that we share, retell, and learn from. In fact, Jews spend a great deal of time remembering our past. We are taught, “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt.” “Remember the Sabbath Day.” “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has made you travel in the wilderness . . .” Four times each year we gather to recite yizkor, to remember our loved ones who have died. And of course, on Shabbat Zachor just before Purim, we read, “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt.” (Devarim 25:17-19).
There is power in memory and remembering. We are able to see images, imagine familiar smells, and tell family stories. We feel good when we sit with our memories. We connect to each other and to our history through memory. Our communal memory is ignited during our Pesach seders when we tell and retell our Exodus story. Our communal memory responds to the sound of the groggers as we read the Megillah and remember Esther’s plight.
Our communal memories come alive when we reenact them through mitzvot. We all remember the moment at Sinai when we open the Ark on Shabbat morning. We remember the ancient practice of giving an offering to the Kohanim at the Temple when we take Challah. And we remember the desecration of the Temple when we light our Chanukah lights.
In the language of Holocaust education, we teach, “Never forget.” Why don’t we say instead, “Always remember?” If we are commanded to remember Amalek and, by extension, Haman, why not Hitler as well? Remembering that evil exists, keeps us vigilant in the fight to ward off evil. Our memories will serve us well if we use them for good.
Elie Wiesel said, “I marvel at the resilience of the Jewish people. Their best characteristic is their desire to remember. No other people has such an obsession with memory.” We remember as a people the destruction of the Temple. We remember the glory days of our time in Spain as well as the hardship of eviction. We remember how Esther won her battle against Haman and we remember how the Jewish people ultimately won the war against the Nazis. We memorialize the fallen and we learn from the mistakes. We don’t wallow in our lachrymose history. As Elie Weisel said, we choose to be resilient – to pick ourselves up, to dust ourselves off, and to remember who we are and how we want to live our Jewish lives.
The memories of our difficult times have taught us how to survive, how to maintain our relationships with each other and with God, and most importantly, what we need to teach future generations.
May we always remember our ancestors who fought for their faith.
May we always remember the heroes and heroines who teach us courage.
And may we always remember our parents who teach our family stories and traditions with love.