Monuments & Memorials

Delivered June 1, 2017
Second Day Shavuot
The Hampton Synagogue

Five days ago, this congregation raised $200,000 and enabled the Temple Mount Sifting Project to continue the critical work of uncovering and documenting the archaeological evidence that connects the Jewish people – and the State of Israel – to the site of our holy Temples in Jerusalem. And yet it is certainly true that, for any of us, our connection to Jerusalem would be just as strong, just as intuitive, and just as obvious even if not a single archaeological relic ever saw the light of day.

After all, for century after century, Jerusalem has been at the epicenter of both the Jewish history and Jewish identity; for century after century Jerusalem and the Temple Mount at its spiritual center have symbolized who we are, the history we have lived, and what we stand for. Still, we all know the almost magical feeling of all of that focused on a real place we can visit, see, and touch.

This is all in striking contrast to another site of critical importance to the Jewish story – Mount Sinai. There will never be a Mount Sinai Sifting Project. In fact, let alone being unable to precisely identify the historical Mount Sinai, archaeologists and Biblical scholars do not even agree as to where they should be looking. We typically think of “The Sinai” as just north of Egypt, but some scholars suggest that the historical Mount Sinai is more likely near what is today called Mount Karkom, which rises from the Negev – in southern Israel. Still others suggest that Mount Sinai is actually near what is today northwestern Saudi Arabia!

In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses tells the Israelites, “zekhor al tishkach – remember, do not forget,” the events that took place at Sinai. Moses is echoed by the words of Arthur Danto, the artist and philosopher famous for a penetrating analysis of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. who explained that “We erect monuments so that we shall always remember, and build memorials so that we shall never forget.” But isn’t remembering something the same thing as not forgetting it? And aren’t monuments and memorials two slightly different words for essentially the same thing?

As Danto elaborates, monuments are about the past, and memorials are about the present. Monuments are how we mark those people, or places, or events that are indispensable to who we are, and what we are all about. For example, the Washington Monument. On the other hand, a memorial challenges us to consider the legacy of an event or personality in a more complicated and nuanced way. For example, the Vietnam War Memorial, which simultaneously honors the valor of those whose names are inscribed upon it while also leaving room for the questions that we still grapple with about the war, its purpose, and its legacy – in other words, what it teaches us, today.

Zechor, remember, evokes, like a monument, a sense of identity. It asks us to look back to the past and rediscover who we really are. Al Tishkakh, do not forget, challenges us, like a memorial, to reflect on the past, in all of its complexity and nuance, triumph and tragedy, positive and negative, and how it all reverberates into the present. It is no accident that when Moses invokes this formula, he is not just recalling the pomp and circumstance, the fire and thunder, and God’s voice proclaiming the Ten Commandments. He is also recalling the Sin of the Golden Calf.

Recently, a professor named Gary Shapiro argued in the New York Times that this distinction lies at the very root of the controversy that New Orleans recently faced as its leaders debated whether to remove the statues of three Confederate leaders. Those statues, depicting Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Pierre Beauregard, have stood for over 100 years, arrayed around a white marble monument to the “Battle of Liberty Place.” To be clear, this was not so much a “battle” as an attempt by confederate die-hards to overthrow, by force of arms, a duly-elected Republican governor ten years after the Civil War had ended. When these statues were first erected, they were explicitly monuments to the ideals of the Confederacy, including slavery and white supremacy. The shining white of the marble obelisk, the statue of Robert E. Lee that was dismantled just last week facing North, with arms folded defiantly – not especially subtle.

Today, though, with those ideals firmly rejected, Shapiro argued that those statues cannot survive as monuments, but only as memorials testament of a deeply-rooted and often painful history that continues to reverberate into the present. In the end, the very fact that vocal extremists insisted on preserving them as monuments and not memorials was all the more reason that the statues needed to be removed.

Perhaps, then, Jerusalem is more akin to a monument and Mount Sinai to a memorial. Jerusalem is a place of origins – a rabbinic tradition states that the world was created beginning from the foundation stone at the heart of the Temple Mount, and radiating outwards from that central point. Jerusalem is the timeless epitome of Jewish identity – there is no place like it on earth that tells us, just by walking its streets, who we are and where we come from.

Mount Sinai, on the other hand, was never allowed to become a monument, neither on the map nor on the calendar. As opposed to the Temple Mount, still our most sacred site two thousand years after the Temple that stood upon it was destroyed, Mount Sinai’s sanctity dissipated immediately following the revelation of the Ten Commandments. As opposed to the Temple, whose history was meticulously recorded in Scripture, the Torah does not even state the actual date of the Revelation at Sinai, nor that the holiday of Shavuot commemorates that event.

The overriding message of Shavuot, perhaps, is not about who we were, but who we are; receiving the Torah is not something we did, but something we continue to do. The Torah is not something just to Zakhor, to look back upon and remember. It is Al Tishkakh, something not to forget, something to engage with constantly through life in all of its complexity and nuance.

As we gather our thoughts before Yizkor, our thoughts naturally turn to the monuments we have built for our loved ones. For some, they may be physical monuments – a headstone, a childhood home, a picture or treasured object. For others, a monument may be a story, a favorite joke or a closely guarded memory. It’s what we return to remember where we came from, to transport ourselves back to our deepest self.

But, especially on Shavuot, we also think about the present. We don’t just recall the memories of our loved ones, but their legacies as well. We reflect upon how our lives continue to be changed and informed by the time we shared with them, even if they are no longer physically with us.

And, as we remember those who are no longer here, we consider our own lives as well. What monuments are we leaving for those who come after us – when those who follow us look back, just as we today are looking back, what will linger to describe what we were all about? And, perhaps even more importantly, what legacy are we bequeathing to the next generation – what are we doing today that will deeply matter for them? In the memory of those we remember today, may we live our own lives to make a difference for those around us, and for those who will follow. Please rise for the Yizkor service.

About the Author
Avraham Bronstein is rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, NY.
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