Dara Horn in her bestselling book “People Love Dead Jews” regales the reader with countless stories about the lives of dead Jews or vanished Jewish communities. Her agenda, as she reiterates numerous times, is to ensure that we indeed do not forget the lesson of the Holocaust. But she wants to reframe the way in which we ‘remember’. She wants us to remember not the ‘grace’ of the world, not the sugar coated happy ever after of the Jewish story, but rather the horror and the evil and the nightmare as it was and is. Not to look away, not to make a nice frozen museum of a place where Jews once lived, nor to plumb the story for universal lessons on humanity. Instead, she wants us to sit with the horror and the evil and be cognisant of the fact that the world will always love stories of dead jews far more than they love stories of living ones (and by the way the fact the book is a bestseller proves her point).
This week's parsha talks about dead Jews too. It tells us in no uncertain terms that if we ‘forget’ that God has given us the land, has inspired us to our success and has made a covenant with us which we are mandated to keep and ‘remember’, he will destroy us and remove us for the land to which he has bought us. There are three words that repeat themselves continuously throughout the narrative; שכחה – forgetting, לב/בך– your heart, and וזכרת – remember. Like in Dara Horn’s book, the question of how we ‘remember’ and what we ‘remember’ sits at the heart of the narrative. Only for Dara Horn, and many others, memory of the Jews is centred on narratives of persecution and destruction. The torah proposes something utterly different. Listen to two examples of what Moshe tells the people:
“וְזָכַרְתָּ אֶת-כָּל-הַדֶּרֶךְ, אֲשֶׁר הוֹלִיכְךָ ה אֱלֹקיךָ זֶה אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה--בַּמִּדְבָּר:
Remember the entire journey that your God took you on these forty years” (8:1)
וְזָכַרְתָּ, אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ--כִּי הוּא הַנֹּתֵן לְךָ כֹּחַ, לַעֲשׂוֹת חָיִל: לְמַעַן הָקִים אֶת-בְּרִיתוֹ אֲשֶׁר-נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ, כַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה –
Remember Hashem your God, since he is the One who gives you your strengths to achieve greatness in order to establish His covenant with you that he swore to your forefathers on this day”. (8:17)
Two principles guide the narrative of memory; memory of a journey; and memory of a power above you. In other words; humility and perseverance. To build in the future we must know the road is long, the work is great but if God is in our HEARTS and we are committed to his covenant rather than to our own individual success, everything is possible.
It should therefore not surprise us that this week’s Torah portion opens with the words
“וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן, אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם, אֹתָם--וְשָׁמַר ה אֱלֹקיךָ לְךָ, אֶת-הַבְּרִית וְאֶת-הַחֶסֶד, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע, לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ.”
which loosely translates as: “As a result of listening to and keeping these laws and this covenant you shall be rewarded”, or in other words – on the heels of your compliance you shall receive benefit. It is a strange turn of phrase. Why use the word ‘עקב-ekev’ which means heel? It is reminiscent of our forefather ‘יעקב- Yaakov’ – who was named for coming on the ‘heel’ of his brother Eisav. Yaakov (also named ‘Yisrael’ – from the root – Yashar – straight) constantly oscillates between ‘behind’ – ekev, and ‘in front - yashar. Part of national destiny is to constantly oscillate between the past and the future, between memory and forgetfulness. Yaakov wanted to ‘forget’ his past, to repress the ghost of his brother Eisav, the act of betrayal that continually haunted him. Part of his encounter with the ‘ish’ at the Yabok was an encounter with his past. With the memories of a moment that he sought to forget. Only after, could Yaakov face his brother and come out complete and at peace. Sometimes we must face memories of things that we want to forget in order to move forward. It is those types of ‘memories’ that Dara Horn and others are addressing. We must integrate the bad, the pain, the horror as it is, in order to move forward and in order to integrate the past with the present and the future.
But our national memory is not exclusively about trauma and tragedy. It is also about God’s care, compassion, grace and mandate to act in this world. It is about remembering the journey, the promise, the covenant, the love. On the ‘heels’ of this memory, we can build and create meaning that transcends material happiness and immediate gratification. What we remember and how we remember will depend, as this Parsha seems to suggest, on what we hold in our heart. When our hearts are filled with ‘Goodness’, when our hearts are not swayed by the culture of the time (idol worship), when our hearts sing us the song of our people rather than the song of our success, we will indeed possess the potential be a blessing to ourselves and others. Rabbi Sacks in his book Future Tense reminds us of this in a poignant passage:
“..this small, otherwise insignificant people has, with surprising consistency, been a blessing to the families of the earth. And though it has fought a losing battle for four thousand years, it still lives and breathes and sings, refusing to despair, still bearing witness, without always knowing it, to the power of God within the human heart to lift us to achievements we could not have reached alone or without the faith of our ancestors. Jews are a small people. Every one of them counts. And the Jewish task remains: to be the voice of hope in an age of fear, the counter voice in the conversation of humankind.”.
Parshat Eikev reminds us to ‘look behind’ in order to build in the future. It reminds us of what the consequences of ‘forgetfulness’ will be if we do not heed to our covenantal duties and to the memory of ‘God’s’ presence in our national narrative. But above all it reminds us that memory need not be constructed on a narrative of evil, pain and tragedy but rather on obligation, a journey of love and a commitment to a shared future, with God and with our fellow Jews. The Jewish story is far more than just dead jews. It is about a living, breathing, beating heart that has been hewed and shaped on thousands of years of memories – some good, some bad, but all a part of our national narrative.