Thursday, December 19, 2013

Shemot and Remembering Our Values

Suffering begins with forgetfulness.

“A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” (Exodus 1:8)

Thus begins our story of slavery. It was not of course that the new king had forgotten Joseph. The two men undoubtedly never met. It was instead that he forgot all that Joseph had done for Egypt. Generation after generation had failed to teach that it was Joseph who had rescued Egypt from famine. The new king never heard the telling Joseph’s story.

Our redemption and freedom begin with remembrance.

“God heard their moaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” (Exodus 2:24)

Forgetfulness brings on suffering. Remembrance leads to salvation.

This is why remembering is one of the key building blocks of the Jewish faith. Judaism values memory. We are commanded to remember the Sabbath: “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy” and the evils Amalek did against us: “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way out of Egypt.” Zachor is the command our people recites over and over again. Remembrance is the principle around which we observe our holidays and organize our Jewish lives.

This command is embedded within ritual acts. When we lift up the kiddush cup and thereby sanctify Shabbat we remember the Sabbath as a reminder of both God creating our world and freeing us from Egypt. Think especially about our celebration of Passover. We celebrate our Seders in an effort to make us feel that we were slaves and are now free. It is not supposed to be about the food, however delicious it may be, but that the taste of these symbolic foods reminds us on the one hand of the bitterness of slavery and on the other, the sweetness of freedom. The single most important phrase of that celebration is: k’ilu, as if. “In every generation one is obligated to see oneself as if he went out from Egypt.”

The notion is that we must re-enact and re-live the past in order to feel it and take it into our hearts. Memories are given life in our tradition. Remembrance is codified as mitzvah. Forgetfulness is deemed a sin.

Let us apply this theory to some modern examples. We tend to forget the good people do for us and focus instead on a slight. Like the new king who saw only the growing number of Israelites and forgot all that Joseph had done for Egypt, we forget the good and dwell on the bad.

In our own country we are only beginning to realize the extent to which the NSA listened in on our private conversations. The fear of terrorism has made us forget American values. We also allowed torture to be used against our enemies. Despite evidence to the contrary, and the sensationalism of Zero Dark Thirty and Homeland, we permit torture to be done in our name. We forget the values that make our country great. Life and liberty are our universal dream.

Fear crowds out remembrance and leads to forgetfulness.  Forgetting the values that animate our faith, our country and our lives may very well lead to  ruin.

Forgetfulness leads to suffering.

Only remembrance can guarantee redemption.

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