We are a people that remembers.  Remembering is so important to us that we have not one…but two days on the Jewish calendar designated as Yom HaZikaron: a Day of Remembrance.  We recite Yizkor, our liturgy of remembrance, which we will share together in a moment, not once….but four times over the year.  We are commanded to remember and remember and remember.

It becomes hard work, after a while.

The late Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, complained about it, when he wrote:

Let the memorial hill remember instead of me,
That’s what it’s here for.  Let the park in-memory-of Remember,
Let the street that’s-named-for remember,
Let the well-known building remember,
Let the synagogue that’s named after God remember
Let the rolling Torah scroll remember, let the prayer
For the memory of the dead remember.  Let the flags remember,
those multicolored shrouds of history: the bodies they wrapped
have long since turned to dust.  Let the dust remember.
Let the dung remember at the gate.  Let the afterbirth remember.

Let the beasts of the field and the birds of the heavens
Eat and remember.
Let all of them remember so that I can rest.


Unfortunately, however, remembering is not a task that Judaism permits us to abstain from.

Consider, for a moment, the greatest tragedy of the Torah.  The Book of Deuteronomy recalls that the evil Amalekites caught the Israelites unaware as they were wandering through the desert.  They massacred the ancient Israelite women and children in the very back of the pack, where they were left unguarded by the men who walked in front.


How often, when a great tragedy occurs in our life, are we inclined to try to block it out?  We try to forget about it because the pain and the hurt are so great.  And we try to forget about it because we want to move forward, and move on with our lives.

Yet our ancestors chose a different path.  The Torah is explicit: “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt—how […] he surprised you on the march […] and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you […], you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” (Deut. 25:17-19)

Why does our Tradition make this demand of us?  This demand that we shall not forget under any circumstances…?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the outgoing Chief Rabbi of England, writes that: “There is a profound difference between history and memory.  History is his story – an event that happened sometime else to someone else.  Memory is my story – something that happened to me and is part of who I am.  History is information.  Memory, by contrast, is part of identity."

And Sacks goes on: “Memory is the past as present, as it lives on in me.  Without memory there can be no identity.  Alzheimer’s Disease, the progressive atrophying of memory function, is also the disintegration of personality.  As with individuals, so with a nation: it has a continuing identity to the extent that it can remember where it came from and who its ancestors were.”

We Jews believe that our personalities are on the line, when it comes to the issue of remembrance.  We understand, if not consciously then subconsciously, that the very essence of who we are as individuals…and as part of the larger body of the Jewish People, is at risk if we don’t remember…the good times and the bad of our past.  Of the loved ones that came before us, and of the impact that they had on who – and what – we are.

The Baal Shem Tov once noted that “in remembrance lies the secret of redemption.”

I believe that he was right.  I believe that even though it can be painfully difficult to turn our thoughts back to the past, we have no choice but to go there….to return…to feel the pain and loss, so that we can experience the smiles and laughter…the pride and joy all over again as well…the way our loved ones had the ability to make us feel like we were the only ones who ever mattered.

We remember our loved ones now, as we remember them always, with Seder Yizkor, our Service of Remembrance.  [Click here for an online text of a typical Yizkor service.]

 


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