On Christmas Day, audiences across the world bade farewell to the 12th incarnation of the Doctor as Peter Capaldi bowed out of the long- running television series, replaced by Jodie Whittaker. While for many Doctor Who has become a part of people’s festive celebrations, this episode offered a distinctly Jewish message.
Before you read any further, in the words of River Song, I offer a caution for those who continue: Spoilers.
In advance of the episode we knew that the first and 12th doctors would be united for this adventure, as both men struggled with their impending regeneration, resisting the moment when a Time Lord “dies” and regenerates in a new body.
Relatively early on we were introduced to a shadowy organisation called The Testimony. In their own words: “We are what awaits at the end of every life. As every living soul dies, so we will appear. We take from you what we need and return you to the moment of your death.”
The question is: what are they taking and, most importantly for the Doctor, is their plan evil and does it therefore need to be stopped?
A little while later we discover that The Testimony possess no evil intent – its mission is to extract people’s memories just before the moment of their death, so “the dead can speak again”; ensuring memories are preserved beyond death.
What could be more Jewish than that?
As a community we say to the mourners zichrono or zichrona livracha – may his or her memory be for a blessing. We recognise while a loved one may be gone, they continue to live on in our lives through the memories that become a part of who we are.
It is no accident that the Hebrew root zachor, with a meaning related to remembering, appears 169 times in the Tanach.
We are told to remember a whole host of ideas, events and principles as though we are being commanded to constantly exercise the memory muscle. We keep that muscle at peak performance so that it is ready to remember the most important things in our lives when we utilise it to recall our loved ones and ensure that their memory lives on.
As Bill Potts, the Doctor’s companion shares: “What is anyone supposed to be except a bunch of memories?”
She recognises that a life is made up of the memories that we hold and that they in turn help to define who we are.
As individuals we are filled with memories, and as a Jewish people we are part of a chain of memories that stretches back for thousands of years. As Isaiah Berlin wrote: “All Jews who are at all conscious of their identity as Jews are steeped in history.
They have longer memories, they are aware of a longer continuity as a community than any other which has survived.” As a people we are the product of our memories, and every year on Pesach we assume our place in that chain of memory, remembering that we were slaves in Egypt.
Ultimately, Bill’s parting gift to the Doctor is to help him understand the centrality of memory. As she says: “I’m going to prove to you how important memories are.”
And without giving away one of the episode’s big reveals, she proves to the Doctor the truth of our words: zichrona livracha – that her memory is a blessing.
And with his memories restored and understanding the importance of the memories he possesses; only then is he ready to regenerate.
And what could be a more Jewish message than that?