By: Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild, Rabbi of ‘
‘ Liberal Jewish Community, Vienna
Remembering the Future
Remember what they did to You! Remember what they did to Us
!” In Deuteronomy 25:17 to 19 Moses is of course addressing the adult children of those who left Egypt and who were attacked so unexpectedly just after they had safely crossed the Sea – the attack and the way it was warded off is described in Exodus Chapter 17. For Moses, for our tradition, this counts not as an act of war but as a war crime – for the attackers came from the rear, they attacked the weak and the old, the civilians, not the armed men at the front of the column. An early taste of the ‘Total War’ propagated by Goebbels.
Many have commented on the logical inconsistency of the command – ”
You must remember to wipe out their memory, never forget to remember to forget
” and so forth – but this inconsistency actually underlies so much of Remembrance. We want to remember, without being weighted down by the remembrance. In terms of ‘Good’ remembrance, we want to remember lost loved ones as they were in happier times, not when broken down and weakened by illness or geriatric decrepitude; In terms of ‘Bad’ remembrance, we want to recall the appalling crimes, injustices, cruelties and brutalities committed against us by our enemies – without sinking into terminal depression. We are only in a position to remember because ”
mir senen do
” – ”We are still here.”
And yet – Remembering is also a political act, one that usually brings us few new friends. There are many who still seek to forget and to make others forget and who are even prepared to eliminate those who stubbornly refuse to forget. There are many who say that the need to remember has passed, we have a new generation, they need not be burdened with the remembrance of things they never knew. There are those with guilty consciences who are still in denial and carry their own internal struggle and externalise it – attacking and insulting those who deny their version of events, who insist on recalling and recording what really happened. So much of recent history is still forgotten or unrecorded – every now and then another cache of documents, another diary, another previously-unknown mass grave is discovered – and then we have to incorporate these new facts into what we remember.
As a Rabbi working in Europe barely a day goes by without some new information on the past or new opportunities to stand, Siddur in hand, by some plaque on the wall or in the street, or by some wreath or some grave or some memorial. There are places where people used to live and places where they died and the various places in between –’Sammellager’, deportation sites, transit camps, police cells and the like. There are the reminders of destroyed synagogues, there are the mouldering cemeteries. Then there are the books, more and more every year, describing what happened to individuals and their families – some written as memoirs and autobiographies, some by descendants or those who simply find it important to research what one can, to chase whateever scattered clues are left, to create a reminder that someone, once, lived upon this earth even though they have no grave and no descendants. Sometimes it is truly hard to look forward because there is just so much Past – indeed, more of it with every passing year. Judaism tells us to make a balance – to remember the war crimes but also to plant and to sow and to live – there is a time for all things, a season for all moods –
”A time to weep and a time to laugh,
A time to mourn and a time to dance…” (Ecclesiastes 3:4.)
– the day of Remembering – precedes Purim and the main commandment for Purim is, strangely, in total contradiction, to Forget. To get so drunk that we are unable to remember any more the difference between Blessing and Curse. To make so much noise that we cannot even hear the name of the one who planned to destroy us all. The cathartic relief of having survived despite the enormity of the threat leads to jollity and abandon. Just as Yom haZikaron precedes Yom haAtzma’ut. We all need a time to laugh, too.
What is important about Moses’ command in Deuteronomy is the issue of Memory being transferred through the generations. The people of Israel need to know from where they have come and they need to know what their parents and grandparents endured and survived. Maybe they were themselves there, as children, or maybe they have been born since. They will in turn face their own challenges, they will have to acquire their own land, build up their own families, live their own lives. Moses represents the generation of the Eye Witnesses who have to go, to leave the world behind, but who seek to ensure that the lessons are not forgotten and the history be respected. Without a knowledge of the past there can be no healthy future. Europe – and not only Europe, but here is where I work – is full of nations which still deny what happened and what roles they played. Memories were suppressed, interest turned instead to a shallow consumerism, and now a generation is growing up which simply does not know what can happen when nationalism and racism gets out of hand. They are in danger of repeating the mistakes of the generations before them. It is a real danger.
Our task as Jews is partly to ensure that we, at least, remember our history; that our children learn our history so that they can pass it on to their own children, laDor vaDor; but also that we live to the full the benefits of our faith and that we teach others, too, to take their own history seriously and to extract from it the lessons that will help them live, and not die.