Shabbat candles: 7:58 p.m.
Torah: Deut. 1:1-3:22
Haftarah: Isaiah 1:1-27
Like most Jews, I grew up with memories of events that I never experienced. I remember being a slave in Egypt. I remember the Holocaust. I remember my family’s immigration journey to America. I remember the founding of the State of Israel.
I remember these experiences, not as historical events, but as elements of my own story. From American history, I know about the Revolutionary War, the Constitutional convention, and the Civil War, but I do not remember these events the way I remember episodes in the collective Jewish narrative.
This is not a new phenomenon in Jewish life. The Book of Deuteronomy opens with the Israelites standing on the edge of the Jordan River, poised to enter the Promised Land. Before moving forward, they must go back. Moses lets forth with a long speech reminding the people about key moments in their journey — the revelation of the Torah; the victories over other nations; and the treachery of the spies whose negative report about the Promised Land sowed fear among the people.
Yet, Moses’ phrasing seems odd: “God spoke to us” [Deut. 1:6]; “You… flouted the command…” [Deut. 1:26]; and so on. But the people standing before him are not the ones to whom these events happened! They are only the children and grandchildren of the generation that left Egypt and whom God ultimately condemned to die in the wilderness.
We might think that Moses should have phrased the story in the third person — that is, to remind the people what happened to their parents and grandparents. But that’s not how Jewish memory works. Rather, our ancestors’ stories become our own.
This mode of memory can be empowering. We feel ourselves to be part of a communal narrative stretching back thousands of generations. We understand that our actions today become part of our children’s and grandchildren’s narrative. We become part of something bigger than ourselves.
But carrying around thousands of years of memory can also be dangerous. We risk getting stuck in the past while the world changes all around us.
One of my favorite Midrashim imagines the Israelites’ response to learning that the entire generation that left Egypt would die in the wilderness, as the result of the report of the spies, a report delivered on Tisha b’Av. According to this Midrash, knowing their fate, each subsequent year the Israelites would dig their own graves before Tisha b’Av and then sleep in these graves on Tisha b’Av night. In the morning, they would get up and count who remained alive. And every time, they would find that 15,000 people (one-fortieth of the people who left Egypt) had died.
Finally, after 40 years had passed, the people again dug graves for Tisha B’Av, but in the morning everyone remained alive. Worried that they had gotten the date wrong, the people slept in their graves again the next night, and the next. Finally, after six nights had passed, they understood that their parents’ generation was entirely gone, and that everyone still alive would be allowed into the land. That day, according to Midrash, was Tu b’Av (15th of Av), which Jews still celebrate as a day of joy [Eicha Rabbah, Petichta 33].
That Tu b’Av morning, upon realizing that their parents’ reality was not their own, and they stepped out of the grave. They held on to the collective memory. And they moved on.
Living Judaism in the present means carrying the memories of the past while also responding creatively to the realities of the present. When we hear that “slavery” still exists among agricultural workers, sex workers and others, we don’t just say “Oh yes, we were slaves too.” Rather, we recognize that we, as a community, have the power to help end these abuses.
The Book of Eicha, read on Tisha b’Av, concludes with the phrase “chadesh yameinu k’kedem.” The standard translation understands these words to mean “Renew our days as of old,” that is, “Take us back to the good old days.” But I prefer to read these words as a prayer that our current days, as full as they may be with memories, become new again. Rather than get bogged down in the past, we draw upon our memories to respond in new ways to the present.
Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. Her most recent book is “Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community” (Jewish Lights).