In the deepest sense, remembering is not just about recalling what happened in the past. It’s about reconnecting with our spiritual essence, our Godly mission, our reason for being. It is a dynamic re-engagement with that which is embedded in our national psyche. By remembering in this profound way, we reorient our outlook, refocus our values – and regain our clarity of purpose.
Memories are profound. They are the basis of our sense of self. They define our history, our identity, our psyche, even the way we approach life. Memory is also essential to what it means to be a Jew.
The Torah discusses the concept of memory in multiple places, particularly in this week’s parsha, Eikev. For example, God tells the Jewish people, who are about to enter the land of Israel, and confront enemy forces: “You shall remember what God did to Pharaoh.” It’s a message of encouragement, and it’s one that draws on memory.
Later on in the parsha, there’s another reference. The Jewish people are called on to “remember the entire path” on which God led them for the forty years in the desert; how He looked after them and took care of all their needs in the face of great tests of their faith. Again, it’s a message of encouragement – in this case, to keep the mitzvot of the Torah, in gratitude for blessings received, and in remembrance that God always has their best interests at heart.
There are further allusions to memory, expressed in the negative – a warning not to forget the importance of the mitzvot, and not to forget God by straying after idolatry.
On a superficial understanding, the call to remember usually refers to something that happened to us in the past. And yet, the Torah is not just talking to that specific generation who directly experienced the Exodus from Egypt and the wanderings in the wilderness, as well as the great miracles that accompanied those experiences – it’s talking to all future generations. It is talking to us, today. The question is – what is it, exactly, that we are being asked to remember? When the Torah tells us to remember, what does it really mean?
On one level, it means there are certain key events which we, as the Jewish people, experienced – events like the exodus or the giving of the Torah at Sinai – that are part of our national memory, handed from generation to generation as established documented facts of our history. But it goes even deeper than that.
Perhaps the best way to approach this question is through the commandment to “remember the day of Shabbat to sanctify it”. How do you remember Shabbat? It’s not an event that occurred in the past. The Talmud says that it’s talking about maintaining an awareness of Shabbat during the week and preparing for it by setting aside food and other things in honour of Shabbat. It goes further, and relates to an idea I found in the writings of one of the great Chassidic Rabbis, the Gerrer Rebbe, also known as the Sfat Emet. He says that the world we live in is a “world of forgetfulness”. This needs explanation.
We are surrounded by so many distractions. We can easily forget that the purpose of life is to do good; to accumulate mitzvot and carry out our Divine mission. We live in our bodies and in a world in which we are easily enticed to pursue materialist aims and physical pleasures at the expense of all else. It is so easy to become distracted by the glittering objects and ephemeral experiences of this physical world.
How do we remember why we were sent here in the first place? How do we remember that we are a soul clothed in a body; that the soul and its purpose is primary?
Shabbat, the Sfat Emet explains, is the day for remembering exactly that. It is the day we remember who we are, where we come from, and what our true purpose is. On Shabbat, God blesses us with an extra dimension of our soul, and suddenly our spiritual memory kicks in; we remember that God created this world for the lofty purpose of using our free will to serve Him, and, through that, to achieve cosmic greatness. We remember what life is all about and what it is God sent us here to do.
This, says the Sfat Emet, is what it means to remember. It’s not just about recalling what happened in the past. It’s about reconnecting with our spiritual essence, our Godly mission, our reason for being here in the first place. And that is why the commandment is to “remember the day of Shabbat, to sanctify it”. Shabbat is the day we transcend “the world of forgetting” and reconnect with the world of remembering.
We can now apply these principles to our parsha. When the verse calls on us to remember what God did for us in Egypt and in the desert; when it urges us not to forget the mitzvot or God, Himself – it is telling us to go back to our essence. It is telling us to remember who we really are. When the Torah says that we should remember the Exodus and the giving of the Torah at Sinai, it is about reconnecting with our Divine vision and values, every day.
The Torah says there are six things we are called on to remember every day: the Exodus from Egypt; the giving of the Torah at Sinai; the heinous attack of Amalek; the sin of the Golden Calf; what happened when Miriam spoke disparagingly of her brother, Moses; and, finally, Shabbat. The common thread here is that these incidents define our Jewish values; they go right to the heart of who we are. Each of these moments in our history have a message for us today. They can shape our thinking, speech and actions every day with the values and ideas they imbue in us.
To be a Jew – to achieve greatness as a Jew – is to remember. To reconnect with a memory not of a distant past, but of our spiritual essence; with that which is embedded in our national psyche. In doing so, we reorient our outlook, refocus our values – and regain our clarity of purpose.