This weekend, Jews in synagogues everywhere will read from the section of the Torah that tells of the 10th and final plague God sends against the Egyptians, the origins of the Passover holiday and ritual, and the Exodus from Egypt. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out in his anthology Lessons in Leadership, that, in these dramatic moments just before liberation, it is telling what God, through Moses, chooses to say to the Children of Israel: not a speech about liberation, or a roadmap toward the destination ahead, or a warning about the challenges of freedom, but, rather, an injunction to remember and to ensure our children remember:
“And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ You shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the LORD, because He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses.’” (Exodus 12:26-27)
“And you shall explain to your son on that day, ‘It is because of what the LORD did for me when I went free from Egypt.’” (13:8)
“And when, in time to come, your son asks you, saying, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘It was with a mighty hand that the LORD brought us out from Egypt, the house of bondage.’” (13:14)
Why does God, through Moses, spend this significant moment instructing the Children of Israel to remember their story and to teach it to their children? Because memory, more than anything, shapes who we are. Our stories, the way we think about our past, forms the way we see ourselves in the present and how we determine the ways we will shape our own destiny.
Only an individual who links her life to the story of a nation with an intertwined destiny will know that she is part of and responsible to others. Only a people that sees itself as borne of the journey from slavery to freedom, from oppression to liberation, from degradation to dignity, will know that they must eradicate oppression, pursue justice, and champion the dignity of the marginalized. She who forgets these stories might accidentally stumble upon these commitments, but is much more likely to betray them.
This is what Czech author Milan Kundera meant when he wrote, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Forgetting, that is, deliberate attempts to undermine memory and persuade people to forget or to misremember their own story, is a well-worn tactic of oppression. That’s why the Exodus narrative opens with an act of forgetting: Pharaoh forgets, perhaps deliberately, about the contributions of the Israelite Joseph who had saved Egypt (1:8). Pharaoh’s strategy has been adopted by totalitarian regimes throughout human history. Contemporary political columnist Charles P. Pierce points out that in the book Lenin’s Tomb, David Remnick argues that the Soviet regime acquired and retained its power by requiring its citizens “to fight against their own memory, to unknow what they clearly knew.” Perhaps more infamous in this regard is Hitler, who was propelled to power through a sustained effort to convince Germans of a distorted, twisted, and falsified historical narrative. Forgetting who we are and where we come from is the surest way to subvert our highest ideals and hurtle toward a tragic and dangerous destiny.
That’s why the constant barrage of revisionist histories, false claims, and deliberate untruths (excuse me, “alternative facts”) coming from the new Trump administration matter. The fantasies and lies that have become the lingua franca of the president and his surrogates are part of a conscious strategy to undermine memory and persuade us to forget or misremember our own story so that a new past may be created that will invariably shape our present and our future.
When the president’s spokesperson asserts, for example, that the seven Muslim-majority countries included in the recent executive order banning travel were listed because “they have a recent history of training and exporting and harboring terrorists,” it is not a gaffe. Nor was it a mistake to invent on national TV a terrorist attack in Bowling Green, Kentucky involving Iraqi-born militants. These must be seen as lies strategically crafted to justify what would otherwise be recognized on its face as a discriminatory policy.
When the president asserts that refugees are pouring into our country without proper vetting, or that Syrian Christian refugees have a harder time emigrating to the United States than their Muslim peers, or that undocumented Mexican immigrants are wreaking havoc on the lives of American citizens, or makes a statement about Black History Month that utterly erases the struggles and the triumphs of black Americans, or issues a statement about International Holocaust Remembrance Day that fails to mention Jews or anti-Semitism, it is not because he doesn’t know the facts (alright, well, perhaps it is partially because he doesn’t know the facts). These must be seen for what they are: lies. They are attempts to retell a history that justifies laws and actions that would otherwise be seen as clearly bigoted, prejudiced, oppressive, and cruel.
This assault on memory is an assault on who we are and who we are called to be. It is an attempt to exert control – power – over our lives and our future by reshaping the story of which we are all a part. And Americans of conscience – including and especially Jewish Americans – have a responsibility to be the force of memory that pushes back against forgetting. Truth, after all, is understood by the Jewish tradition to be nothing less than the seal of God (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 69b). We thus have a primary religious obligation to seek and speak the truth (Exodus 20:7), for only with truth can God’s presence be made manifest in our world. And only by truthfully remembering our stories will we remain bound to the sacred responsibilities they engender upon us.
Let us, once again, commit ourselves to never forget.