The poise and resilience of students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in response to horrific massacre of 17 students and teachers — both as the tragedy unfolded a week ago, and in the days since — have been nothing short of remarkable. They are whip smart, brave and articulate, and have not shied away from direct confrontation with lawmakers and pundits across the political spectrum. It is inspiring because they have been able to immediately channel their grief in constructive and determined ways, even while they carry the very real and raw memories of that fateful day.
Therapists who specialize in trauma hold that it is as much, if not more, what happens after the triggering traumatic event as the event itself that determines the lasting impact. The psychological memories of our darkest experiences, the physiological memories of anger and sadness not only can inspire us to make lasting change, but when we call them forth, we can be propelled by a communal imperative to never again be in such a situation.
Our Jewish communal imperative to remember is highlighted this Shabbat, called Shabbat Zachor — the Sabbath of remembrance. It is called that because of the maftir Torah reading from Deuteronomy 25: “Zachor — remember what Amalek did to you…how they attacked you… surprised you…cut down the stragglers in the rear…timheh — wipe out — the memory of Amalek. Don’t Forget.” (17-19)
We are commanded to remember, and also to blot out the memory. How can we do both? The liturgy of the High Holy Days calls God — Zocher kol hanishkachot — the One who remembers all the forgotten. It is powerful to think that our ability to remember and move forward in life with renewed purpose and direction is godly. The Torah imagines the Israelites being able to do just that. In the immediate chapters following the Exodus and the receiving of the laws, the people are commanded to build a sanctuary so that God’s presence can dwell among the people in their efforts to build community. We can imagine that in the chaos of leaving the persecution of Egypt, waiting for Moses to descend with the Law, and trying to structure their lives with rules and statues, the Israelites needed something to build together.
In the mind-numbing details of building the Tabernacle in the text of Parashat Tetzaveh, the Israelites were creating with the energy of resilience and forward-thinking resolve. For the collective Jewish consciousness, our enslavement is not the end of the story, or even the most important part. It is what we did with our experience as slaves and our liberation that is what remains compelling all these years later.
Our collective Jewish experience over the centuries has been to discern, to filter our experiences, to let some go and hold on to others, to assign priorities to memories and to call them forth when they are needed and to let them rest when they are not. We have been able impose perspective on our history and continue to grow as a people.
We can be transformed by how we choose to use our experiences and our memories. There is transformative power in taking our memories, the good and the bad, and remembering them for life. Not that they should burden us, but that they might relieve us of the burdens we carry and inspire us to live fully and deeply. Our memories should help transform the harshness of our reality and be a source of redemption.
May the memory of the students and faculty of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School be a blessing, and may the survivors continue to inspire all of us to stand up and be dedicated and determined to build the world with memory, love, and devotion to our highest aspirations.