Much of life is typified by its pace of change, which invariably takes us by surprise. The consistency of memory is vital in providing guidance, context and experience. This year, with Covid-19, we are faced with a stark reminder of how life can be fleeting and outside our control. Normal certainties and comforts we take for granted suddenly no longer apply.
This extends to many aspects of our lives, including important communal fixtures like the annual AJEX Cenotaph Parade that recognises and honours Jewish military service to the Crown. This remembrance event, now in its 86th year, has had to be adapted and will this year take place online. The event focuses not only on remembrance itself but also appreciates and understands the experience and sacrifice of previous generations. Reflecting on the past helps us to put into perspective the experience we are living through today in a helpful and reassuring way.
Memory has sustained us as Jews through a most challenging history. Our faith and people are founded on the collective memory of ‘Matan Torah’ – the revelation at Sinai and our shared experience over millennia from diaspora to diaspora. Scripture repeatedly exhorts us to ‘Remember’ (for example. Exodus 20:8/11, Deuteronomy 5:15 and 25:17). Indeed, the Torah commands us always to: “Remember the past days; understand the years of every generation…”(Deuteronomy 32:7).
When engaging with soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder in the aftermath of war in Afghanistan, I have seen how vital it is not to gloss over past experience, however painful. It is fundamental to support people to remember even the most traumatic of life events and then build rituals of memory in order to lay toxic demons and nightmares to rest. In this way, memory profoundly honours and supports both the living and the dead.
Former Prime Minister William Gladstone once wrote: “Show me the manner in which a nation or community cares for its dead and I will measure… the tender sympathies of its people… and their loyalty to high ideals.”
Those in professions that daily encounter death and loss have long understood the importance of channelled and ritualised remembrance, collective and personal. It is a therapeutic principle that enables us to reflect and remember rather than ignore or suppress, enabling us to live our lives in meaningful ways that honour those who have gone before us and learn precious lessons from their wisdom, deep experience and sacrifice. Moreover, it is indeed a truism that “those who do not learn the lessons of history are destined to repeat them…”
In light of the above, we must remind ourselves that memory is precious, and remembrance is not only a duty but a privilege. Our gain is to understand that no challenge is insurmountable and no effort hopeless – whether in crisis, war or even pandemic. Over our long history, our predecessors faced all of the above (and more) yet survived and even flourished. So, too, with God’s help, will we.
Remembering the remarkable Jewish survival and sacrifice of servicemen and women can strengthen us against the challenges we are currently facing. AJEX is built on this foundation and is recognised across our community and beyond as the definitive voice of Jewish Veterans’ Remembrance. The Armed Forces Jewish Community is the counterpart organisation, guarding the flame of continuing Jewish service. Together these two strands form a formidable association for the Remembrance of Jewish military service in the UK.
As we reflect on the past, may we always cherish memory and use it to fortify ourselves for the challenges of today and the future.