I have some questions about memorials as vehicles of remembrance. The root of the word for memorial of course derives from memory. How effective are these memorials in facilitating our remembering?
We live in a culture cluttered with memorials. There are roadside memorials. There are cemeteries. There are the Gettysburg and Vietnam War memorials. There is now the 9-11 memorial.
A student shared these feelings about her recent visit to this new memorial. “The waterfalls are awe-inspiring. This is kind of odd, especially juxtaposed against the tragedy that occurred there and also when you remember that you're in the middle of such a bustling part of the city. I found there a sense of peace that is soul-quenching.”
In Jewish life there are countless memorials to the Holocaust. In Israel there are memorials to the many battles. These are scattered throughout the city of Jerusalem. And there are now a number of memorials to terrorist victims. I hurry by a number of these as I walk through Jerusalem’s streets. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but we are all these memorials helpful?
Our collective response to tragedy and death is to build something. We build with such frenetic impulse that we appear to fear forgetting. In ancient times a gravestone was a pile of stones. And this is the origin of the custom to leave stones on a grave when visiting.
Given this human impulse you would think that the Torah would command that we build a memorial to what Amalek did to the Israelites. The Amalekites of course attacked the Israelites from the rear, and killed the weakest. Therefore the Torah is unflinching in its command to wipe out the Amalekites and their memory. But what of the memory of those who were murdered?
That is not what the Torah tells us to build. Instead the command is to inscribe all the words of the Torah on a stone. “As soon as you have crossed the Jordan into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall set up large stones. Coat them with plaster and inscribe upon them all the words of this Torah.” (Deuteronomy 27:2-3)
You could argue that all the words include the tragic stories, and certainly the command to remember Amalek and the details of what they did.
I don’t think this is the meaning. The monument that we are to first build is to the Torah. We are to inscribe all the teachings—the entire Torah. God insists that once we cross the Jordan we are not to look back at tragedy. We are only to look ahead. We are only to look forward to the laws and obligations of Torah.
It would be as if instead of the 9-11 memorial we there inscribed the words of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
That of course is what our enemies sought to destroy. I wish for us to always remember these words of Torah, these sacred words. I wish instead of beautiful and soothing, and even necessary, memorials we inscribed the words that we will forever be most important to us and our country. It is those words that we must never forget. Giving life to these words and our Torah will forever be the greatest and most lasting memorials to those who were murdered. It will the building that will continue to stand throughout the generations.