Friday, August 3, 2018

Remember and Don't Forget

According to rabbinic legend a fetus knows the entire Torah when in the womb. When the baby 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 immediately forget everything.

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. She felt it happening and 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, 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 you might be tested by hardships to learn what is in your hearts: whether you will keep the commandments or not.” (Deuteronomy 8). We must remember our history, the successes and failures, but especially the trials.

More than any other teacher, Annie Bleiberg, may her memory be for a blessing, taught me about the Holocaust. She colored in the details that the history books could not. She shared her story of survival, which was at times harrowing and other times miraculous, so that others might learn how hatred can metastasize into murder. She always reminded me that we must be on guard against antisemitism. She would say that we must treat every human being as in individual not as a category. This is why she told her story. She remembered the pain and the trials so that others might learn.

For Judaism remembrance is the key to learning.

Remembering is not instinctive. Memories must be inculcated. One can learn from others. But remembrance is best achieved by experience. Perhaps this is the reason for the rabbinic legend. You have to feel and experience to really learn. You have to look back and remember in order to teach.

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. I can still hear it in Annie’s voice.

May my lips never again be touched by an angel.

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