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History is never black and white

Destroying the monuments of history does not redeem the past; rather, what brings us forward is facing the past with moral responsibility, humility, and openness (Shelach)
The Gizah Pyramids in Egypt, built by slaves. (Ricardo Liberato, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.00.
The Gizah Pyramids in Egypt, built by slaves. (Ricardo Liberato, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.00.

Memory — zikaron — is one of the central facets of the Jewish religion. We repeat the imperative many times every day in our prayers; our holidays are acts of remembering historical events or periods; our fast days a solemn reminder of history as crisis, and many ethical imperatives are framed through the contextual reference of our time as slaves in Egypt. In transforming our individual memories into collective memory, Judaism transforms history from an academic, sterile study into  a cultural and educational imperative. But, equally, Judaism possesses in its treasure box an eschatological vision of messianic times that invites us to envision future redemption — keeping our eyes and hearts looking forward, focused on building a better more redeemed world.

This oscillation between the past and future, between memory and forgetting, finds significance in our relationship to paradigmatic evil — Amalek. The commandment to “remember Amalek” is balanced with the commandment “to forget Amalek.” We stand in the narrow place between memory and its obliteration. Remembering is redeeming and also painful, but for Jews, the act of memory is almost always couched in the imperative. That element of command teaches that we do not just “remember” for the sake of remaining victims of  yesterday; we remember for the sake of redeeming victims of tomorrow.

Over the last four months the world has unraveled. In postmodern terminology, it has “deconstructed,” “decentralized,” and totally ruptured on so many levels and in so many ways, but perhaps no more than what we have seen in America and now all over Europe in the last few weeks. Whose heart does not go out to the victims of racism and vilifying abuse? Who does not understand that under all the resultant aggression lies a deep wound, a scar from many hundreds of years of oppression, abuse, and, at best, indifference?

There is an underlying sentiment of deconstruction that litters many of the narratives (on both sides) and images we are hearing and seeing in these protests. A narrative that seeks to obliterate the spots that blacken our past, rather than confronting them and enduring a painful and difficult reckoning with them. We must see this as an opportunity to question the past but not to destroy it. The way we address history as a people, a nation, and humanity is central to the kind of society, country, and world we build.

Humans are complex precisely because they are NOT binary. Every person in history is just that — a person. A person who can be both good and bad, with perfections and imperfections, working within the cultural and political conditions to which they were born and functioned. (I am of course not talking about those that represented absolute evil).

History is made up of the good and the bad. The pyramids of Egypt — made by slaves, the Great Wall of China — made by slaves. I could go on. Today, we thankfully live in a world where slavery is rightfully understood to be absolutely intolerable, but the world we were bequeathed by our ancestors is a world in which some of the greatest advances of civilization were built on the back of slavery. And we should do everything in our power to educate ourselves about that world, to ensure we never go back to that place. We need to destroy the “evil” upon which that world was predicated, but we do not need to destroy everything that world created or the monuments we have to that world. We should not be like the generation that came out Egypt (and that we read about in this week’s parsha) idealizing slavery, distorting its evil, and abusing and rewriting history with a sentimental nostalgic romanticism: “We remember the meat, fish, watermelon we got freely in Egypt” or who cry after hearing the report of the spies: “It would be be ‘good’ for us to return to Egypt.” Instead, we need to see the past for what it was, stare it in the face, and attend to the wounds of its victims.

But equally we cannot get stuck in the mode of victimhood. We need to march forward to the Promised Land, as Caleb and Joshua implore of the people. We need to acknowledge the mistakes and aberrations our ancestors made while embracing the bedrock on which civilization and tradition are built (and our individual, national, religious identities — because our identities are formed both from positive and negative, affirmative and repressed experiences. Memory is based on identity, but it also creates identity). And perhaps most fundamentally we do not need to hold on to the Hegelian idea of history as progress, but rather admit that there are moments when history exhibits regression, that not every step is a march towards progress. Sometimes, we need to spend 40 years in the desert to remind ourselves that humanity can get stuck in old paradigms that need shifting.

So it comes as no surprise that Moses, in his final speech to the people of Israel, reminds them that one of the reasons their ancestors did not enter the land is that they failed to differentiate between good and bad. In other words, they saw events in a one-dimensional fashion, like children. They failed to admit nuance and complexity and to recognize that even the Promised Land has flaws that would entail struggle.

“Your children, that this day have no knowledge of good or evil, they shall go there (to the land), and to them I will give it, and they shall possess it.”

Only this generation that doesn’t know good and bad — doesn’t work in binary frames of reference — is mature enough to enter the land. Only a generation that understands that the reading of history is one of the most complex and nuanced studies, only a generation that appreciates the dual mission of embracing and exonerating the past, can move towards redeeming the future. The destruction of structures and monuments of history will not redeem the past. The only way that happens is when we face the past with moral responsibility, humility, and openness, straddling the fence of remembering the past and redemption of the future. Only then can we redeem it and advance to the Promised Land, not just as Jews but as humanity at large.

About the Author
Tanya White is an educator who teaches Tanach and Jewish Philosophy in Israel and abroad. She is currently pursuing a doctorate in Jewish Thought. She writes a weekly blog on the Parsha combining Jewish thought and current affairs at www.contemplatingtorah.wordpress.com
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