Friday, December 26, 2014

History and Memory - The What and How of Remembering

(My remarks from Shabbat services on Friday, December 26, 2014)

As January 1st proves only a few days away, I imagine many of us find ourselves considering the transition from 2014 to 2015, how we want to shape the coming year for ourselves, our community and our world. And although at first, we might think that this secular New Year proves quite different from our Jewish New Year, the truth is the wisdom we apply to one most definitely can be applied to the other, specifically when it comes to Cheshbon ha Nefesh - our tradition of taking an accounting of our lives, the positive and the negative, as a conscious exercise to help guide us in to a better tomorrow,  because knowing where we've been can serve as a key asset in helping us determine where we are going.

But the process of reflecting on the past is not always an easy one, and too often we jump right in to the realm of history, solely addressing what we assume is the operative question: what happened? When really, if we want to approach our evaluation of the past as a vehicle to lead us into the future, the real question we should be asking ourselves is not only about the what -what happened in history - but also about the how - how will I remember what has happened in the past? How will I choose to shape my memories?

There is in fact a critical difference between history and memory.  History, the branch of knowledge dealing with past events, relies on empirical demonstration and rational thought.
Memory, on the other hand, has to do with our mental capacity for retaining or reviving impressions and it dwells in the non rational architectures of mythology.  History is something we are witness to, over which we have little to no control.  Memory is something we shape ourselves, sometimes consciously, sometimes not..

To demonstrate, let me share with you this example from my family.
When my son was three, we took him skiing with us in Colorado.   It was a disaster.  He hated ski school, his boots hurt his feet and legs, the snow was slushy, and his skis kept getting stuck along  the very small bunny hill run.  Each day, about 2 hours in, the ski school called us to tell us that Josh did not like skiing and that we should come pick him up.  The s’mores offered at 3:30pm each day when ski school was over were no incentive for him to keep trying.  And so, based on our analysis of the events at the time, of course, we assumed that that would be our first and last family ski trip.  History.

But something funny happened when we printed out our pictures from the trip about 2 weeks after we returned home.  When he saw the pictures, Josh started recalling how much fun he had had on our first ski trip.  That he was proud of himself that by the 4th and final day the boots didn't hurt as bad.  That eating s’mores after we were done skiing was great!  And then he asked us when we were going skiing again because he couldn't wait.  Memory.

Jewish tradition has in fact always stressed the need for us to understand both history and memory when considering how to both navigate our present and forge ahead into our future.  In fact, the presentation of the Exodus narrative in the Torah itself is a powerful example of this idea.   The books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers serve as the “historical” account of our ancestors enslavement, redemption and arrival at the border of the Promised Land.  The narratives are told from the perspective of those who were there experiencing it first-hand.  But then the book of Deuteronomy comes along and repeats the whole story again.  But not verbatim.  Where as many of the historical points are reiterated, the Deuteronomic telling re-frames many parts of the story to raise up certain ideals and teachings.  Why?  Because the contents of the book of Deuteronomy are what was told to the generation of our ancestors who weren't slaves ever, who weren't at Mt. Sinai themselves.  Deuteronomy is the story that we know best.   Deuteronomy is all memory. And it is because of that that it allows for intentionality; it has slant as well as direction.

Let’s look at this on a more personal level.  When something significant happens in our lives of which we feel we need to take note, something that we perceive may afford us an opportunity to break out of a negative pattern, we declare we will remember, we will not forget. We assume that recalling the event or experience as it occurred will be enough to help us change our behavior, our relationships, our choices.  But all too often, we find ourselves back in our same negative patterns, despite what we believe were our best efforts.  Because remembering history alone without the added value of memory remains a passive act, and doesn't actually allow us to do much of anything.

This is not to say that we do not need history.  If everything were left to dwell in the domain of memory alone, we would risk falling victim to what renowned Jewish historian Yehuda Kurzter calls “memory anxiety”, finding ourselves waxing so nostalgic about the past that we have no will to navigate into the future because it appears so dismal.

But when we combine the two, we find that firm grounding in history with an openness to the potential of memory to form and shape our understanding can yield ripe ground for transformation.

Take the Joseph narrative that we've been reading in the Torah for the past few weeks.  You know the story: Joseph’s brother’s, jealous of Joseph’s favored place in their father’s heart, throw Joseph into a pit and sell him into slavery.  Through a series of events, Joseph ends up second in command in Egypt, ultimately forgiving his brothers, being reunited with his beloved father, and saving the Jewish people.  

Toward the end of the story, Joseph and his brothers return to their home to bury their father, and a midrash describes that en route, Joseph sees by the side of the road that same pit where his brothers threw him so many years before.  He stops and spends quite a while staring into the pit.  When the brothers see this, they assume that Joseph is remembering all of the horrible things that they did to him so many years previous, and they fear that Joseph will seek out retribution since his memories have been stimulated.
Joseph does in fact recognize the pit and its painful associations, but instead of seeing that through a lens of bitterness, he now sees it as the source of blessing: without his brother’s throwing him into that pit, his incarceration in Egypt would not have happened, he would never has risen to power, he would never have been married to his wife and had his children; and, most importantly his would not have been able to help his family when famine struck their homeland.

In the words of a renowned Biblical scholar: “[Joseph] has gone to the trouble of returning to that place of his terror in order to bring closure to the old narrative. He makes the blessing for a personal miracle, claiming the site of his trauma as the site of redemption. By this act, he re-reads the pit as a space of rebirth, transforming pain into hope. The grave has become a womb.”(Aviva Zornberg, The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious, p.319) 

When rooted in history, memory does not permit us to rewrite history, but rather to re-read it. And how we re-read may indeed be one of the most powerful abilities we have to determine how we live our lives and how we relate to other people.  We may not be able to control what happens to us or even what we remember, but in remembering that we can control how we remember, we can in fact shape our thoughts, assumptions, beliefs.  And now is just as good of a time as any.  But if you aren't ready for that yet, the good news is that memories are available to most of us whenever we want to call them up.   We just need to remember that we are their owners, holders and shapers, and they have the potential to impact our choices and actions for the better, for ourselves, our community, our world.

Wishing you all a new year of great potential and blessing.