According to rabbinic legend a fetus knows the entire Torah when in the womb. When the fetus is born, however, an angel kisses the baby on the lip, producing the recognized indentation, and the child forgets everything. Now this child must spend a lifetime learning Torah. It is a curious legend. The rabbis imagined that we begin life knowing everything but then forget.
Years ago as my grandmother withered away in a nursing home, we watched her mind become increasingly vacant. Her body remained strong years beyond her mind’s forgetfulness. On the day that we brought her great granddaughter for a visit she attempted to bite her. The adult had became the infant. My young daughter looked at me with questioning eyes. I remember especially the early years of Nana’s dementia. She understood that she was forgetting more and more. In fact when she learned that she would soon become a great grandmother she remarked, “What good will that be if I don’t have my mind.” She knew that her dementia was growing increasingly worse. There grew a terror in her eyes. And then she forgot everything.
For our Jewish tradition forgetting is a cardinal sin. We are commanded again and again to remember: zakhor. In this week’s portion, Ekev, Moses admonishes the people: “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, that He might test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts: whether you would keep His commandments or not.” (Deuteronomy 8:2) We must remember our history, the successes and failures, but especially the trials.
My son Ari recently returned from a youth trip to Israel, Prague and Poland. In Poland he visited the Warsaw ghetto and Auschwitz. I was overwhelmed looking at his pictures. Only from Ari did I come to appreciate the vast expanse of Auschwitz. There was photograph after photograph. There was this angle and yet another. I had never before appreciated the vastness of the Auschwitz complex, so many buildings built only for the purpose of murder and the destruction of my people. I have of course read many books and visited many museums. I have looked at many photographs in these museums and books. But only through my son’s eyes was able to comprehend that there are miles and miles of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Remembering is not instinctive. Memories must be inculcated. One can learn from others. But remembrance is best achieved by experience. The great historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi argues that Judaism believes forgetfulness is terrifying. Zakhor, remember, we are commanded. We must always remember the long way we have travelled. To forget is to be that newborn infant, although touched by an angel, just beginning a lifetime of rediscovering and relearning.
We are the Jewish people because we remember. Our future is dependent on hearing this command and regaining this terror of forgetting. Perhaps this feeling will help us to learn more, to experience more. I forever see it in my grandmother’s eyes. May the forgetfulness of her later years be my inspiration. May my lips never again be touched by an angel.