This week’s Torah portion Bamidbar is usually read on the Shabbat before Shavuot. So our Sages connected the two. Shavuot is the time we remember the giving of the Torah. Bamidbar means, “In the wilderness.” Judaism emphasizes the memory we received revelation bamidbar, “in the wilderness.” Why do Jews place so much importance on memory?
The first thing that came to my mind was the name for Rosh Hashanah in the Torah. It is not called Rosh Hashanah, it is called Yom Hazikaron – day of remembering. We are summoned to celebrate memory. What makes us Jewish is that we share common memories.
But, what about the difficult memories? What are our obligations some 80 years after the close of World War II? For some of us, never forgetting and “Never Again” means making every effort to protect Jewish lives and to embrace Judaism. We help Israel defend itself against terrorism and nuclear weapons, and we battle against antisemitism at home and abroad. Our synagogue and our homes offer children and adults alike a joyful, relevant and intellectually rich Judaism, and we focus our charitable giving and acts of lovingkindness on our fellow Jews.
For others, the memory of the Holocaust inspires a universal approach to pursuing justice and caring for the needy. The memories inspires us to battle against all forms of discrimination, and we seek to empower and give voice to those historically underprivileged. We remember what it is like to be strangers and slaves, orphans and refugees, and so we seek to remedy the plight of all who fall into these categories.
We have many beautiful memories to recover in Judaism as well. Not merely of the Holocaust, of pogroms and tragedies. We must also remember our great accomplishments and our great spiritual adventures. Shabbat reminds us that when we come to the synagogue, our purpose is not to cry over tragedies. We come to celebrate the memory of a glorious past that belongs to us and that we tend to forget.
Our ancestors followed God into the desert of Sinai where we accepted great moral teachings, and gave them to the world. We became a people of scholars and teachers and scientists. We stood against the world and said that God is one, that there is one humanity and one justice for all people. We are the heirs of a tremendous memory that must never be forgotten.
Memory deals not only with the past. It’s not static. It’s dynamic. That means that we not only think of what happened once upon a time, but we must remember what is happening now, and even more, that we must remember what will be in the future. Lewis Carrol wrote: “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backward.” Memory has to work forward. We have to think not only of yesterday, but of tomorrow. Memory makes both yesterday and tomorrow important. We must ask ourselves whether there will be a tomorrow.
We will not become a generation without memory if we remember to build Jewish memories for today. We have to give ourselves, our children, our families, Jewish memories, or the memories won’t be there.
In Judaism, we have this opportunity to create memories every day: through Jewish learning every day and especially on Shavuot and through other Holiday celebrations, songs and candles on Hanukkah, the glamour of a beautiful Passover Seder, the love that flows from a Friday night when spouses and children and dear ones sit together and recite the prayers that thank God for strength and courage. These things are the raw material, the stones and the mortar from which we can build a structure of beautiful memories.
We are what we remember: what we remember of yesterday, what we remember to do today, and what we remember about what will be tomorrow. Let us recover that Jewish memory and find it in a beautiful and inspiring way to “do Jewish.” JN
Rabbi Jeremy Schneider is the spiritual leader of Temple Kol Ami in Scottsdale, and vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Phoenix.