Parashat Haazinu (Deuteronomy 32:2 – 32:52)

By: Rabbi Ferenc Raj, PhD
Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Beth El, Berkeley, CA, USA;
Founding Rabbi, Congregation Bet Orim, Budapest, Hungary

Jewish Memories

“Our existence is not in vain. There is a Divine earnestness about our life. This is our dignity. To be invested with dignity means to represent something more than oneself. The gravest sin for a Jew is to forget what he [or she] represents. We are God’s stake in human history. We are the dawn and the dusk, the challenge and the test.” [The Earth is the Lord’s p. 109]

These are the powerful words of Abraham Joshua Heschel. While we may not all agree that forgetting is the gravest sin, I am sure we can agree that remembering is one of the major themes of Judaism. Just most recently, on Yom Kippur, we asked God to remember us:

Zokhreinu l’chayim melekh chafeits b’chayim.

With these words we invoked God to “Remember us that we may live, O Sovereign who delights in life. Inscribe us in the Book of Life for Your sake, living God”.

In this week’s Torah portion, Haazinu, we read once again Moses’ compelling and eloquent farewell song:

Z’khor y’mot olam binu sh’not dor va-dor

“Remember the days of old, Consider the years past; Ask your parents, they will inform you, Your elders, they will tell you.”

“Remember the days of old, BINU, Consider, reflect upon the years past;” Moses teaches us yet another lesson concerning remembrance. Merely remembering the past is not sufficient; it has to be done with “BINAH” consideration, reflection and understanding.  Our tradition teaches us that simply remembering the past is not enough; it must be followed by action.

We must remember that we are capable of, and called upon to do our share in improving the world and the lives of others. God has given us gifts, talents and skills to accomplish our tasks, and also the responsibility to get things done.

In George Eliot’s poem, the famous violin maker, Antonio Stradivarius, metaphorically expressed this teaching so clearly:

“God gives the skill,

But not without men’s hands.

He could not make Stradivarius violins

Without Antonio”.

I vividly remember my first American Rabbi and teacher, Theodore N. Lewis,

zikhrono li-v’rakhah

, of blessed memory, who used to say: “In Judaism remembrance is not mere recollection. For us memory is the constant generator of history, both human and divine. We are the guardians of memories of countless generations – the bearers of an undying faith and a living Torah.”

We are taught that in Judaism memory is a collective mandate, both in terms of what is recalled and how it is recalled. The very survival of our people depends on reflective memory. Perhaps this is why the late Simon Wiesenthal, an eloquent and tenacious witness to the Holocaust, chose the following words as the motto of his book,

Every Day Remembrance Day

. “There will always be Jews as long as they remember. There is no greater sin than to forget…”

The great 20th century American Jewish theologian Solomon Schechter used to say: “Leave a little to God.” We cannot fix everything. We are surely less than divine. But we can do much to repair the world and to right the wrongs. Solomon Schechter reminded us of our partnership with God, and of our responsibility to do our share. The early Hassidic rabbis took the duties of partnership and responsibilities, of Tikkun Olam, mending the world, so seriously that one of them, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov, boldly declared: “If someone comes to you and asks your help, you shall not turn him away with pious words saying: ‘Have faith; God will help you!’ You shall act as if there were no God, as if there were only one person in all the world who could help this needy individual – only you, yourself.” (Martin Buber: Tales of the Hasidim, p. 440) The message is clear and often repeated in Judaism: Pray as if everything depended on God; act as if everything depended on you.

Martin Buber’s advice must guide us every day of our lives and especially when calamities occur. There is a Jewish way to face them: not by asking “WHY?” but “HOW?” by searching for solutions as God’s co-partners in the unfinished work of creation. Let us realize that we are instruments of the Divine Providence and that God works through us.

We all know that disasters do not only take the form of hurricanes and earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tornadoes and tsunamis. Often our disasters are individual and personal: illness and disease, pain, loss, abuse, neglect, bigotry, violence, separation and loneliness. Sometimes our disasters are small in scale and other times, monumental. Sometimes they pass quickly; sometimes not. Pray as if everything depended on God; act as if everything depended on you. We all have the talent and the skills to help others bear their burdens and to find healing and peace. We have the tools, if only we would use them.

Jewish memories are collective ones. When we are occupied only with ourselves, then we are abandoning the Jewish values that call upon us to include others. The Hebrew Bible and our tradition so often remind us that we are indeed the keepers of our brothers and sisters. We must not be blind to others; we must really see them, we must recognize them, we must help them.

The Russian Yiddish writer Shmuel Halkin summarized this truth in a beautiful simile: “My glass is transparent and clean – through it you see the whole world: who weeps and who laughs. But when one side of it is covered with silver paint, worth a penny or a little more – the entire earth disappears from view, and the clean glass becomes a mirror; and no matter how clean the mirror, you see in it only yourself.” (Charles A. Madison: Yiddish Literature: Its Scope and Major Writers, p. 411)

May we all see the world through a glass that is transparent and clean, untouched by silver. May our vision be broad and inclusive. Help us, Our Heavenly Parent, to remember always that what we do will live forever, that the echoes of the words we hear and the words we speak will resound until the end of time as the new generations remember us. May our lives reflect this awareness; may our reflectivity bring us new insights and renewal; may our deeds bring no shame or reproach.