To Articulate the Past

In this week Torah portion, Ki Tavo, the Scripture, describing the ritual of bringing the sacrifice of the first fruit, mentions the text which has to be recited in front of the altar, It starts with the verse, stark in its clarity “My father was a fugitive Aramean”. The commentators agree that here the Torah speaks about Yaakov, who, as Sforno puts is, “was for a while a wandering lost person without a home of his own”.

The wanderer and the fugitive, the pauper, as calls him Ibn Ezra in the commentary of the same verse, Yaakov and his progeny established, in the words of Torah from the same passage, “a great a populous nation”. Why then, in the moment of the great celebration, having achieved the promised land, being at the height of power and celebrating the richness of our bounty, we are forced forever to come back to our humble origins? Would not it be more logical to leave the trauma and shame behind, to forget about betrayal, poverty, and imprisonment in the foreign land?

Walter Benjamin, in his last completed text, “On the Origins of History”, states that, “To articulate the past historically does not mean to understand it “as it had really been”. It means capturing a memory as it flashes up in a dangerous moment.”.

This flash is perfectly described here in the Torah; albeit with even a greater insight than in Benjamin’s work. Standing before the altar, we are supposed to capture a negative memory even in the most glorious moment of our life. Human beings tend to eradicate the unwanted past. However, the Torah was not written in the Orwellian Ministry of Truth. We do not erase anything from our history, however traumatic might the memories seem to us.

About the Author
Nelly Shulman is a journalist and writer currently based in Berlin. She is an author of four popular historical novels in the Russian language. She is working on the fifth novel in this series and on her first English-language novel, a historical thriller set during the Siege of Leningrad. She a Hawthornden Fellow and an alumna of the Nachum Goldmann Fellowship.
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