We are our memories.
As individuals and collectives. We remember the things that happened to us, things people say happened to us, and sometimes we get confused because we feel like we remember things we know we never experienced firsthand. That’s what being human is. And it’s what being Jewish is all about.
It’s about seeing the present through the lens of our past. Evoking memories that resonate with the history we are living. It’s about finding historical parallels and precedents, patterns, and paradigms, so that as we stare down the tunnel of our unknown future, the memories we conjure might illuminate the shadows.
But what we forget is as consequential as what we remember.
You see, over time, and usually unconsciously, we sort through our memories. We prefer some, reject others, and the curated selection we are left with gradually, instinctively, becomes our narrative. And then we end up holding on to that narrative for dear life, because it has been woven into our identity, and we fear that without it, we will lose ourselves.
Until one day, when we turn around and realize that we no longer share a narrative with the very people with whom we share a history. One day, we turn around and look into faces that look just like ours, and do not recognize the memories. We read headlines and talking points and wonder how it is that we no longer subscribe to the principles and values of people who dress and act just like us.
That’s the day we realize we have work to do. It’s the day we realize that if our memories don’t become more expansive, and inclusive, and diverse, we will all lose. So, we get to work remembering more. And we get to work understanding the memories that lie behind what feels unrecognizable.
The Lord said to Avram, “Go – from your land, your birthplace, and your father’s house – to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1)
We remember that God told Abraham to leave his native land and be a stranger in a new one. And we remember that He did the same thing to the people of Israel once they became a nation. We remember that Moses told those very people, as they were on the verge of returning to the land of their ancestors, that the experience of exile must remain with them. Forgetting what it feels like, Moses told them, was not an option. Because their memories of persecution and humiliation are the only guarantor that they will never persecute and humiliate.
“Do not oppress a stranger. You know what it is to be a stranger, for you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)
We need to understand the people for whom this memory is decisive. The people who want to live in a Jewish state that goes out of its way to protect the vulnerable in its midst. The people who listened to their grandparents talk about the searches and the beatings, and vowed to never become an oppressor. We need to understand how they spin memories of pain into acts of compassion. Their protests are our moral compass.
“I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great. You will become a blessing. And I will bless those who bless you, and those who curse you I will curse. And through you, all the families of the earth will be blessed.” (Genesis 12:2-3)
And we also remember that this land was promised to us. And that after thousands of years of inquisitions, and deportations, and pogroms, and sheep to the slaughter, we are home. We remember the people who gave their lives, and those who continue to do so, so that we can finally stop running.
So, we also need to understand those whose memories are laced with fear, and who quote these verses from that place. That fear was bequeathed to them over centuries, sustained by helplessness, and branded onto their skin by evil incarnate. And memories of fear do not disappear in 70 years. They certainly don’t disappear as long as we are surrounded by constant, contemporary reminders that, no matter what we do, we are still loathed. We need to understand the people who don’t want to see a cowering Jew ever again.
“When you work the land, it will no longer grant you its powers. You will be a fugitive wanderer over the land.” (Genesis 4:12)
But we must remember Cain too, and the revolting way he dealt with disappointment and divergence. We remember how someone different than him sickened him, how the land rejected him, and how he realized, after it was too late, that his sin was too great for him to bear. Cain did not own the land. We never do. We earn the right to live on it when respect for our shared humanity prevails over intolerance. There will always be shepherds and there will always be farmers. And there will always be the land, hoping we figure out a way to live on it together.
“Let the land not vomit you out…as it vomited out the nation there before you.” (Leviticus 18:28-30)
We haven’t always figured it out. We have gotten it wrong twice before. Twice, we had thriving cities and markets, roads and infrastructure. Twice before, we had an army, and security, and economic stability. We had leaders who met with foreign dignitaries, who spoke on our behalf, and who vowed to do whatever it takes to maintain our foothold.
And here’s where our memory play tricks on us. We remember the destructions and the exiles, and we blame things like Babylonian sieges and Roman engineering. We hide behind memories of malevolent conquerors and of Jewish last stands — abridged, simplified versions of our past. We prefer binaries, tales of “us” and “them,” because they are neat, and they absolve us of responsibility.
But if we want this third commonwealth to be different, we need stop pruning our memories, and remember all of it. We need to remember how we fetishized religion, even as our prophets begged us to see the bigger picture, and how we neglected to take care of our poor. We need to remember the triumphalism and vitriol that spewed from all sides, each sect insisting it knew the only, true Jewish way. We fought internally, despite ourselves, and set what we had built, aflame. So, we need to remember, as we try again, that it was never the enemies from the outside that did us in. Our memories give them too much credit for simply finishing the job we started.
This time around, let’s remember all of it. Let’s remember how much we have accomplished against all odds and thank God and thank each other that we are here. Let’s look for the people beneath the narratives and try to understand the memories they have distilled. Because we are our memories. But memories are elastic, and they can be jogged. New ones can be integrated. And we are our best when we allow our memories to be complex, and elaborate, and make room for more than one truth at a time.