Our foundational stories, those we continue to share from generation to generation, are informed not only by what we remember but also through what we choose to forget. More so, often the stories themselves take on different paths as a result of forgetfulness. I assume you did not forget that it was in this manner that we left the unfolding anguish of Joseph’s predicament last week. After solving the dream of the chief cupbearer and beseeching that he return the favor by “mentioning me to Pharaoh, so as to free me from this place.”- He in fact; וְלֹֽא־זָכַ֧ר שַֽׂר־הַמַּשְׁקִ֛ים אֶת־יוֹסֵ֖ף וַיִּשְׁכָּחֵֽהוּ …did not remember Joseph; he forgot him.
Later in another critical juncture that had alarming outcomes, it is Pharaoh himself who did not know, forgets, Joseph. Shemot 1:8 וַיָּ֥קָם מֶֽלֶךְ־חָדָ֖שׁ עַל־מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־יָדַ֖ע אֶת־יוֹסֵֽף׃ .
In this week’s portion of Miketz forgetfulness is curiously predicted in a manner that in our present predicament is strikingly resonant. Interpreting the dreams of Pharaoh, Joseph states that 41:30
וְ֠קָמוּ שֶׁ֨בַע שְׁנֵ֤י רָעָב֙ אַחֲרֵיהֶ֔ן וְנִשְׁכַּ֥ח כָּל־הַשָּׂבָ֖ע בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם וְכִלָּ֥ה הָרָעָ֖ב אֶת־הָאָֽרֶץ׃
After them will come seven years of famine, and all the abundance in the land of Egypt will be forgotten, as the land is ravaged by famine.
The severity of the circumstances impairs our ability to remember the times of plenty, that too becomes an outcome of the famine or plague. Hence this forgetfulness is intriguingly foretold.
An additional reference to forgetting is made during a profoundly emotional ceremony that by design conjures memory through telling stories. In the better times we are instructed to recall our stories of suffering and with this hindsight it becomes integral to our very identity. In the passage describing our ultimate arrival to the Land of Israel, in the portion aptly called Ki Tavo, when you enter the Land, we receive the scripted declaration for the statement to be made when bringing the first fruits to Jerusalem. In a supplemental directive concerning the bringing of tithes the passage includes the following;
וְאָמַרְתָּ֡ לִפְנֵי֩ יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהֶ֜יךָ בִּעַ֧רְתִּי הַקֹּ֣דֶשׁ מִן־הַבַּ֗יִת וְגַ֨ם נְתַתִּ֤יו לַלֵּוִי֙ וְלַגֵּר֙ לַיָּת֣וֹם וְלָאַלְמָנָ֔ה כְּכָל־מִצְוָתְךָ֖ אֲשֶׁ֣ר צִוִּיתָ֑נִי לֹֽא־עָבַ֥רְתִּי מִמִּצְותֶ֖יךָ וְלֹ֥א שָׁכָֽחְתִּי׃
You shall declare before the LORD your God: “I have cleared out the consecrated portion from the house; and I have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, just as You commanded me; I have not transgressed Your commandments neither have I forgotten.
The tautology implies that the forgetting does not necessarily refer only to the commandments, rather to the events. It is my memory of enslavement that compels me to share my gifts, privilege, rights with the stranger, orphan and widow.
The Festival of Chanukah is victory over forgetfulness. You will recall that in the Al Hanissim prayer we recount how;
בִּימֵי מַתִּתְיָֽהוּ בֶּן יוֹחָנָן כֹּהֵן גָּדוֹל חַשְׁמוֹנָאִי וּבָנָיו כְּשֶׁעָמְ֒דָה מַלְכוּת יָוָן הָרְ֒שָׁעָה עַל־עַמְּ֒ךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל לְהַשְׁכִּיחָם תּוֹרָתֶֽךָ וּלְהַעֲבִירָם מֵחֻקֵּי רְצוֹנֶֽךָ
In the days of Matisyahu, son of Yochanan the High Priest, the Hasmonean and his sons, when the evil Greek kingdom rose up against Your people Israel to make them forget Your Torah. – We won because we refused to forget!
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l reminds us in “The Home We Build Together”; “Without memory, there is no identity, and without identity we are cast adrift into a sea of chance, without compass, map or destination.”