Why Remember?

Oct 11, 2008 at 11:18 PM


A d'rash on Parashat Ha'Azinu.

When I call out the name of Hashem, ascribe greatness to our God.  The Rock!  Perfect is His work; for all His paths are justice; a God of faith without iniquity, righteous and fair is He.   Corruption is not His – the blemish is His children’s, a perverse and twisted generation.  Is it to Hashem that you do this, O vile and unwise people?  Is He not your Father, your Master?  Has He not created you and firmed you?  Remember the days of yore, understand the years of generation after generation.  - Exodus 32:3-7

“You’re going to die today,” G-d says to Moses.  “So write down the entire Torah, and sing a song to the children of Israel before I strike you dead like I did to your brother.”  The Torah should say here “and Moses gulped.”  If you knew you were going to die today, how would you spend your last few hours on earth?  Would you jump off a bridge?  Gorge on chocolate desserts?  Declare your undying love to someone you’ve been too shy to approach?  Given a final opportunity to leave a lasting legacy, what words would you impart on the next generation?

Moses, upon hearing of his impending death, chose his dying words carefully. “Zechor yemot olam, binn shemot dor va-dor.”  “Remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past.”  Zachor.  Remember.  We’re commanded to do this at least 169 times in our Scriptures.  In our festivals, we remember critical events in the life of our people.  During Pesach, and every time we say Kiddush, we remember our liberation from Egypt.  On Sukkot, we remember our wandering through the desert.  On Shavuot, we remember the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.

Why are we commanded to remember?  What’s the value in constantly reciting events of the past?  Why did my grandparents, who survived the Holocaust, insist on passing on to their children and grandchildren the very traditions that landed them in the crosshairs of the Gestapo?  Why in the world did Moses feel that commanding the children of Israel to remember the past would prepare them for the future?  There’s a saying by the great Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav.  It is inscribed in huge stone letters on the Yad va-Shem in Jerusalem.  

In remembering is the secret of redemption.

Now, this all sounds very cute and Zen-like, but bears tremendous meaning.  We must remember, because God turns away from us when we forget.  Moses says as much a few verses down the page:  

You ignored the Rock who gave birth to you, and forgot God who brought you forth.  Hashem will see and be provoked by the anger of His sons and daughters, and He will say, ‘I shall hide My face from them and see what their end will be – for they are a generation of reversals, children whose upbringing is not in them.’  

A nation that does not remember the days of old, according to Moses, is a nation “bereft of counsel,” and lacking “discernment.”  (verse 28)  Forgetting, it turns out, is a recipe for falling off the derekh.

Apparently, our dedication to remembering the days of old matters quite a lot to Hashem.  It is in remembering that we gain wisdom, which guides us into the future.  According to Rashi, understanding the past helps us appreciate God’s power and presence today.  Remembering what God has done in the past maintains our hope that Mashiach will return.

Simchat Torah is fast approaching, and we’re almost ready to roll the Torah scroll back to the beginning.  The end is near.  What if we, as a community, knew that Simchat Torah was our last opportunity to gather and pray together?  What legacy would we leave, and what words would we impart on the next generation?  Let’s commit now, as a community, to do more in this new year to pass on our faith, our history, and our traditions to the next generation – the children, teenagers, and young adults in our midst.  Not because it’s a novel exercise.  Remembering the past is not just an interesting hobby.  Let’s not treat six thousand years of history as a cute piece of cultural trivia.  Let us remember together because remembering is vital to our survival as a people, our allegiance to the God of our ancestors, and our continued faith in the return of Mashiach.