David Sedley
Rabbi, teacher, author, husband, father

Parshat Ki Teitzei — Elephant of deliberate forgetfulness

View of the Elephant of the Bastille. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
View of the Elephant of the Bastille. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

On the afternoon of July 14, 1789, French revolutionaries stormed the Bastille in the heart of Paris. The medieval fortress held only seven political prisoners at the time. But to the rioters it represented all that was wrong with France, the monarch and the inequality that had led to massive food shortages and starvation along the populace.

We all know what happened next – the overthrow of the monarchy, the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the execution of Louis XVI, the Revolutionary Wars and the Reign of Terror under Maximilien Robespierre and his Committee of Public Safety where many lost their heads to the guillotine.

Basically, all kinds of chaos were happening everywhere, until eventually Napoleon Boneparte, who had been a successful military leader returned to Paris and became ruler of France.

On May 18, 1804, Napoleon declared himself emperor of the new French Empire. It was a bold move and required that he make sure the revolutionaries who had deposed the king would accept an emperor. He skillfully managed to give the people the semblance of democracy. He held a referendum in November 1804, and 99.93% percent of voters (over 3.5 million people) voted in favor of the establishment of a French Empire, with him at its head.

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries by Jacques-Louis David. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

With the exception of less than a year when he was forced to abdicate and exiled to Elba, Napoleon remained as emperor until his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815.

But the memory of the storming of the Bastille remained fresh in people’s minds. The fortress itself had been removed, piece by piece, in the months following the revolution. But the open Place de Bastille was a constant reminder to Napoleon and the populace of what could happen if the ruler became unpopular. The new emperor needed something that would make the people forget the Bastille.

So, in 1808, he commissioned an elephant. Simon Schama, in his book Citizens : A Chronicle of the French Revolution, dubbed it “The Elephant of Deliberate Forgetfulness.”

And what an amazing thing it was. Standing 24 meters (78 feet) high, cast in bronze taken from the guns captured in the Battle of Friedland, it triumphantly displayed Napoleon’s victories and the might of France. Visitors could climb the stairs inside one of the elephant’s massive legs up to an observation platform designed as a glorious howdah to boast of the empire’s wealth.

In Les Misérables, Victor Hugo describes it:

The broad brow of the colossus, his trunk, his tusks, his tower, his enormous crupper, his four feet, like columns produced, at night, under the starry heavens, a surprising and terrible form. It was a sort of symbol of popular force. It was sombre, mysterious, and immense. It was some mighty, visible phantom, one knew not what, standing erect beside the invisible spectre of the Bastille.

Standing next to “The Fountain of Regeneration” the elephant was truly majestic.

Watercolour of the Elephant of the Batille by architect Jean-Antoine Alavoine. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Or at least, would have been. If they’d managed to build it.

There just wasn’t enough bronze to build the elephant, nor did the coffers of the French government have enough in them to build the structure as envisioned. Instead, in desperation, a full-size plaster model was made, built over a wooden frame. The model was completed in 1814 and was guarded by a man named Levasseur, who lived in one of the elephant’s legs.

A steel engraving of the plaster full-scale model of the Elephant of the Bastille. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

The plan had been to replace the plaster model with the real bronze elephant, but after Napoleon was defeated in 1815 at Waterloo the plan was mostly shelved. Jean-Antoine Alavoine, the architect, continued to seek support to complete the project. As late as 1841 and again in 1843 the Paris council discussed plans to construct the elephant out of bronze, iron or copper, but all the ideas were rejected.

The plaster elephant remained standing in the Place de Bastille until 1846. By that point nearby residents had spent more than two decades complaining about the monstrosity, which was decaying, collapsing and totally infested with rats.

The elephant of deliberate forgetfulness was itself almost entirely forgotten. Other than a few paintings, and an allusion in the movie Moulin Rouge to an elephant as the main attraction of France, the beast is only known from Hugo, who described his memory of it it in detail in 1862 in Les Misérables:

It was falling into ruins; every season the plaster which detached itself from its sides formed hideous wounds upon it. “The aediles,” as the expression ran in elegant dialect, had forgotten it ever since 1814. There it stood in its corner, melancholy, sick, crumbling, surrounded by a rotten palisade, soiled continually by drunken coachmen; cracks meandered athwart its belly, a lath projected from its tail, tall grass flourished between its legs; and, as the level of the place had been rising all around it for a space of thirty years, by that slow and continuous movement which insensibly elevates the soil of large towns, it stood in a hollow, and it looked as though the ground were giving way beneath it. It was unclean, despised, repulsive, and superb, ugly in the eyes of the bourgeois, melancholy in the eyes of the thinker… Being of the past, he belonged to night; and obscurity was in keeping with his grandeur.

In perhaps the greatest irony of all, today, standing atop the base that should have held the bronze elephant, is the July Column, commemorating the July Revolution of 1830, which dealt with the aftermath of Napoleon’s abdication and the successive revolutions that followed.

In this 1841 painting by Theodor Josef Hubert Hoffbauer, the Elephant of the Bastille can be seen to the left of the July Column in Place de la Bastille. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

They say an elephant never forgets, and the Elephant of the Bastille was not enough to erase the memory of the French Revolution which remained seared into the national consciousness.

Perhaps the most important and influential battle in Jewish history was when the Israelites were attacked soon after leaving Egypt by the tribe of Amalek. The nascent nation, fresh from the trials of slavery and unprepared for war, were ambushed by a nation whose primary goal was to show that despite the downfall of the Egyptians and the flight to freedom, the Jews were vulnerable.

The attack was in some ways a suicide mission. Amalek must have known that he could not possibly defeat a much larger nation. But the goal was to show that the Israelites were not invincible. It was not God who had brought the plagues on Egypt and split the sea to save His people. It was just an amazing run of good luck. And luck has nothing to do with God.

Bogdan Chmielnicki. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Amalek became the embodiment of evil — every person or nation who sought to destroy the Jewish people is identified as a descendant of the original Amalek: Haman, the Romans, Chmielnicki (Khmelnytsky) and his cossacks, the Nazis and even modern leaders — any person or nation who tries to deny the deep connection between God and the Jewish people.

In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, the Jews are paradoxically commanded to always remember what Amalek did, and also to erase his memory.

Remember that which Amalek did to you on the way, as you left Egypt. How he ambushed you on the way, and laid in wait for those struggling at the back, while you were tired and exhausted, and he did not fear God. But when the Lord, your God, gives you rest from all your surrounding enemies in the land which the Lord, your God, gave you as an inheritance to possess, you shall erase the memory of Amalek from under the heavens, do not forget.

Originally this was a cry to war, but since the end of the biblical period it has become a metaphor to “never forget.” And yet at the same time we have to “erase the memory.”

Amalek would have been forgotten centuries ago if it wasn’t for the stubborn Jews remembering their original cowardly attack. And unfortunately, for the past two millennia Jews have often been reminded of Amalek and his spiritual heirs, through anti-Semitism, pogroms, massacres and the Holocaust.

Sometimes the imperative to remember cannot be deliberately forgotten. Napoleon’s crumbling elephant is long forgotten, but the echoes of the French Revolution and the memory of the storming of the Bastille remain fresh in our consciousness.

Erasing Amalek by remembering our history and preventing his next attack must similarly remain constantly in our minds.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. He currently teaches online at WebYeshiva. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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