Never Again: History or Memory?

The command to remember, Zachor, appears in one form or another nearly 200 times across the Hebrew Bible. For Professor Yosef Haim Yerushalmi, who taught at both Harvard and Columbia as one of the 20th century’s towering Jewish intellectual leaders, this indicates the centrality of memory to Jewish identity and to the Jewish faith.

We remember the Sabbath. We remember the Exodus. We remember being strangers in Egypt. We remember standing at Sinai. And so on. Even into modern and contemporary times, the most poignant of services for so many is Yizkor, the memorial service. In the State of Israel, two of the most arresting moments on the calendar each year are the moments of silence during Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day, and Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.

And yet, Professor Yerushalmi begins his most famous work, entitled Zachor, by warning us about the unreliability of memory:

“Memory is always problematic, usually deceptive, sometimes treacherous,“ he writes. “We ourselves are periodically aware that memory is among the most fragile and capricious of our faculties…Yet the Hebrew Bible,” he continues, “Seems to have no hesitations in commanding memory. Its injunctions to remember are unconditional, and even when not commanded, remembrance is always pivotal.”

For an illustration, just look to this morning’s Torah portion, in which the Israelites complain to Moses about the manna that God provides for their sustenance in the wilderness. The Israelites claim that the manna is not as good as the food they remember eating while slaves in Egypt.

“Zacharnu et hadagah asher nokhal bimitzrayim chinam – We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt..Now there is nothing but this manna before us!” For our sages, this episode is more than the people remembering how tasty the Egyptian fish was.

Instead, they understood that the key words in the people’s complaints are “that we used to eat free in Egypt” – words that are actually very difficult to understand. The food wasn’t free – they were slaves!

In the Midrash, our sages read the word “free” as meaning “free from the obligations of the Torah.” In Egypt, the Israelites felt as though their food came without strings attached. They were slaves before they ate it, they were slaves after they ate it, and they didn’t owe their Egyptian masters any more for having eaten it.

In contrast, the Israelites felt that eating the manna DID come with strings attached. The manna meant that they owed God their gratitude and their fidelity. It meant that, by sharing the experience as a nation, they were bound ever more closely to each other. And they were right: the memory of the manna, a collective memory passed down through the centuries, continues until today. Our tradition has it that the first blessing of Birkat HaMazon was composed by Moses as thanks for the manna, so that we “remember” and relive that experience of enjoying and appreciating God’s providence every time we enjoy a meal.

What the rabbis are really getting at with their interpretation is that memories are at their most powerful and meaningful when they attach strings, when they come with responsibilities, with obligations. Our memories may not always tell us exactly what happened. None of us actually remembers the Exodus, or the manna – or where we left our cellphones. But our memories tell us who we are in the world – they connect us to something larger than ourselves, and they give us direction towards what to do next. None of us actually remember the manna, but our memory of it continues to obligate us to respond with that sense of gratitude.

As Professor Yerushalmi explains, that is precisely the difference between history and memory. History is more objective, but also more detached. History is about describing what happened and the context within which it took place. Memory less about what happened, but more about why it matters. The best histories are exhaustive and comprehensive. Memories are always selective – and less accurate. Go to any family gathering and listen to the familiar stories that get told and retold – you’ll hear 5 different versions of what really happened, and which details were the most important. Histories are recorded in books and placed on shelves for reference. Our memories live within us, and they guide us through life.

The line between memory and history was especially fraught this week. In particular: is the phrase “Never Again,” an expression of history or of memory? From the perspective of history, “Never Again” may be understood as a statement of fact, a tautology, a truism. The scale and scope of the Shoah, everything that went into its execution, its context within the most devastating war ever fought in human history – everything that has been so meticulously documented by historians over the past 70 years – by all conceivable measures, never again. It is inconceivable that it could ever happen again, at that level, on that scale. That is why historical comparisons to the Holocaust always, and by definition, will always fall short of what happened. A Congresswoman from New York learned that this past week.

On the other hand, the memory of the Shoah means something else. The living memory of the Shoah, in the words of Elie Wiesel addressed to his childhood self as he received the Nobel Prize in 1986, meant his commitment, “to never be silent wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation.” He was not saying that any human suffering and humiliation is at all comparable to what he experienced. But he was describing how the memory of what happened to him shaped his identity and gave him purpose. When survivors share their own experiences, when we visit museums and memorials, when we recite elegies on Tisha B’Av, we’re doing more than learning history – we’re cultivating memory. And memory is less about what happened – it is more about who we are now, how we see the world – and what we have to do next. That is the source of the moral force behind the Japanese-Americans detained in the 1940s protesting at the Southern Border today. That is the moral force behind the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum expressing first concern, and then alarm, over the plight of modern-day refugees. Not “Never Again” from the perspective of history, but “Never Again” from the perspective of memory.

Memory is much more subjective than history. Professor Yerushalmi was right when he wrote that memory is problematic, deceptive, and treacherous. But the Israelites in the wilderness didn’t fail because they misremembered how good the food in Egypt tasted. They failed because they wanted their food – and their lives – memory-free: without any strings attached. As we navigate the moral hazards of the moment and how our own collective memory (as Jews, as Americans) obligates us to respond, their story is a lesson we cannot afford to forget.

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