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Parashat Bo: Memory- Bound

Updated: Jul 30, 2023

" 8 And thou shalt tell thy son in that day, saying: It is because of that which the LORD did for me when I came forth out of Egypt. 9 And it shall be for a sign unto thee upon thy hand, and for a memorial between thine eyes, that the law of the LORD may be in thy mouth; for with a strong hand hath the LORD brought thee out of Egypt.” This week’s parsha possess two parallel narratives. One about a tyrannical leader who suffers from amnesia, resulting in the affliction not just of the enslaved nation he holds at ransom but his own people and notably his own family and son. The second is about a slave nation on the threshold of freedom whose new leader, Moses, repetitively chants the same mantra again and again: 'And this day shall be for you as a zikaron - memorial'; 'And you shall observe this thing as an ordinance to you and

your sons for ever'; 'and you shall tell your sons on that day, this is done because of what the Lord did to me when He took me out of Egypt'; 'and it should be a sign upon your hand and a zikaron- memorial between your eyes''. Instead of enticing them with orations about the benefits of freedom, liberty, self-determination and individual rights he places on them the burden of memory as a moral and ethical imperative. In freedom is born memory. In memory is born identity. In identity is born responsibility. And that is the story of the Israe

lite exodus from slavery to freedom. It stands in stark contrast to the story of Pharaoh – an ostensibly “free” leader – the freest of all people, but who is in fact deeply and profoundly enslaved negating his moral responsibility precisely because he has ‘forgotten’. The juxtaposition of these two opposing narratives holds the key to understanding freedom. One is about a tyrannical leader whose self imposed 'memory loss' results in further suffering and pain for his people. The other is about a God who impresses on his people the unequ

ivocal act of 'remembering', both the pain of slavery so they are compelled to help others, (see Devarim 24:17, shemot 23:9, Vayikra 19:33-34) and the awe of redemption so as to be a willing partner in his covenant. We are told that his heart was hardened twenty times. The first ten, we are told 'Pharaoh hardened his own heart', the last ten his heart was hardened by God. We become enslaved when we lack the aptitude to assert agency over our actions, despite the fact we know they are self-destructive (think about addiction, compulsive habits and many other examples). The irony is not lost on the reader – Pharoah, perceived as the freest of all people, was in fact the most greatly imprisoned. He is imprisoned to the amnesia of his own doing. When our past experiences are empty of edifying content we have lost our freedom. The image of pharaohs hardened heart is one that reminds

us that no memory can penetrate the heart of this dictator. He is reactive rather than int

entional. Unable to use memory to learn from the past he makes decisions that lead to disastrous consequences for him and his people. A slave is a person for whom memory is insignificant. Time lacks any inherent value, since it belongs only to the ambit of the master. Memory has no significance since a slave lacks identity. As Oliver Sacks, the eminent Jewish neurologist, poignantly points out in his book “The man who mistook his wife for a hat” a person’s identity is comprised of the memories he possesses. A slave does not possess himself, let

alone a life story, hence memory serves no purpose and in fact can act as a burden. It is for this reason precisely God must teach the people the significance of memory. For as we know it is easy to take people out of exile but much harder to take exile out of people. To move a

people from slavery to freedom requires not only the physical transferral of the body but perhaps more importantly the psychological transformation of the mind. He teaches them the value of time through the command of Rosh Chodesh – time is a gift that must be sanctified and used for a purpose. He teaches them the value of memory as both an intrinsic ing

redient of identity and as a fundamental ethical imperative. By repeating countless times, the command to 'remember' and 'pass on to your children', God confers on the people p

erhaps one of the greatest possessions a man and a people can own – a story, a narrative and this is the THE journey to becoming a free people. Freedom depends on man's abili

ty to 'remember', both the good and the bad, since remembering, without distortion or nostalgia, allows man to make an informed and educated decision. Both the command of time an

d the imperative of memory are predicated on the assumption of choice. Freedom is not just something we are granted by external conditions, it is something we must acquire through internal choices. Once freed from the chains of external constraints – in Isaiah Berlin’s words ‘negative liberty’ - they must choose HOW to use that freedom, how to become liberated from within – positive liberty. That requires possessing time and sanctifying it,

possessing an identity that connects you with a story that is bigger than just yourself. One cannot read Parashat Bo with all its emphasis on memory and a 'sign on your hand and a

memorial between your eyes'(which according to the commentaries is referring to the tefillin in which we ‘bind’ ourselves daily to our covenantal history and duty), without reflecting on the tragedy and suffering our nation endured in recent history. The imagery of the Holocaust, the sign on the arms of the survivors, and the trauma written on the face of its victims, created for us a national 'remembrance' of catastrophe, not of redemption. Elie Wiesel, the noted writer, theologian and holocaust survivor elucidates poignantly on the imper


ive of memory, even painful ones: " Without memory, our existence would be barren and opaque… Stripped of possessions, all human ties severed, the prisoners found themselves in a social and cultural void. "Forget," they were told. "Forget where you came from; forget who you were. Only the present matters."…. Of course, we could try to forget the past. Why not? Is it not natural for a human being to repress what causes him pain....For us, forgetting was never an option. Remembering is a noble and necessary act. The call of memory, the call to memory, reaches us from the very dawn of history. No commandment figures so frequently, so insistently, in the Bible. It is incumbent upon us to remember the good we have received, and the evil we have suffered. " ('Hope, Despair and M

emory' Nobel Prize Lecture) The command for every generation to remember both redemption and slavery – both the good and the bad is always simple. How can we remember God’s 'saving hand', in front of 'burning children', or as the midrash portrays babies buried alive in the pyramids. But that is exactly what God demands we do, to remember the suffering, and the joy of redemption, maybe not at the same moment, for that is surely cognitively and theologically impossible, but to live with the dialectical tension created in the memory of tortured souls and the light of redemption. To imprint in our psyche, and mark on our

bodies, the vital task of remembrance. To live in the reality of what Irving Greenberg describes as, 'dialectical faith'1 for it lies at the very heart of our individual and national identity. "After Auschwitz faith means there are times when faith is overcome...we know have to speak of 'moment faiths', moments when Redeemer and visions or redemption are present, interspersed with times when the flames and smoke of the burning children blot out faith-though it flickers again....If Treblinka makes human hope an illusion, then the western wall asserts that human dreams are more real than force and facts…to deny either pole (nihilism or redemption) in our lifetime is to be cut off from historical Jewish experience. In the incredible dialectical tension between the two we are fated to live.”(Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire) That is what it is to be part of the Jewish people, a people bound by זכרון ,

not just history, but memory – th

e quintessential constituent of identity. We have seen how this oscillation between the memory of trauma and the memory of salvation that pervades our recent national history has its roots in this week’s torah reading – at the dawn of our nationhood sits the imperative of memory as a source of identity and an imperative of responsibility. Our prayer is that the 'moments' of redemption supersede the memories of suffering and that we are able to act on our memories for the sa

ke of our children, grandchildren and the generations to come.

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