The Sanctification of Memory and the Jewish Emotional DNA

We Jews are funny about remembering things. We simply refuse to forget, bad news or good news.  On the Shabbat before Purim, each and every one of us has to listen intently to the story of Amalek’s treacherous attack on Israel’s weakest.  On Purim, “the days of Esther are remembered in every generation and generation, in every family and family, in every State and State, and in every city and city.”  Soon, we will hold an entire seven-day holiday – Passover – around reenacting the pain of slavery and the awesomeness of deliverance.

Why such insistence on active memory?  Remembering our bouts with near-extermination, in the desert or in Persia, can be anxiety-generating.  Recalling the eternal struggle with Amalek and evil does not exactly foster positive thinking and trust for humanity.  Why not just live and experience our freedom, instead of remembering year in and year out that we too should consider ourselves slaves leaving Egypt? Didn’t G-d make us wander for 40 years in the desert precisely to root out our slave mentality?  Are we really to concentrate for seven days on attempting to recapture it?

Purim and the other sanctifications of Memory that mark our calendar come to teach us that, far from burdening and keeping us down, the affirmative act of collective remembrance builds our Jewish emotional DNA.  That DNA binds us to one another as a nation and glues us to the chain of ancestors.  Remembering gives us a common language and common points of reference.   My mother’s affectionate nickname is Zeresh (Haman’s wife), and we all know that it’s because, well, she can be bossy.   When happy to give, I quote Ahashverosh’s response to Esther’s requests, “up to half of the Kingdom!”.

Beyond language, our memory-based DNA gives us common national emotions, even though we have been landless for 2,000 years and half of our people are in the Diaspora.  The Talmud, in Tractate Megillah, captures this point in a powerful story that is part of the rabbinical discussion of why we must remember Purim and Esther. The Prophet Daniel has a vision of the suffering and future redemption of the Jews, all the way to the End of Times.  “I alone saw the vision,” Daniel says  “And the people who were with me did not see the vision.  Yet a great fear fell upon them and they fled into hiding.”

Daniel’s companions, the Talmud explains, were three great Prophets – Chaggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.  Although they did not actually see Daniel’s vision, we are told, they could still feel the great fear that Daniel experienced because, like every Jew, an individual Angel (“Mazal”) was assigned to each Prophet.  That Angel could perceive for the Prophet the same vision as was accessible to Daniel’s eyes .

The Talmudic Angels’ collective vision of Jewish history reflect our collective emotional DNA.  The generational act of remembering has inputted so much emotional data into our subconscious that we can share the Jewish national experience, even if not all of us were there.  We can feel as a nation that the fractures in Israeli society could lead to a civil war of the type that broke up our nation thousands of years go.  We know a spark of Haman when we see one – as in the Polish slander that Jews too perpetrated the Holocaust.   This Purim, may we pause and listen to the lessons from Jewish history that our Angels see for us.

Hag Samea’h!

About the Author
Ari Afilalo (afilalo@camden.rutgers.edu) is a professor of law at Rutgers Law School in New Jersey. He grew up in France, the son of a Jewish Moroccan family, in an ethnically mixed working class neighborhood. He has published extensively in the field of international law. He is the current president of the West Side Sephardic Synagogue in Manhattan.
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