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September 14, 2015

Memory: The Day of Remembrance (Rosh HaShanah 5776)

Rabbi Lisa Rubin

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

In the second century, there lived a religious leader in a country confronted by aggression and conflict from a neighboring empire. The aggressors began a slow psychological attack over several years—peddling their ways and pressuring people to join them. The religious leader saw the erosion of his country beginning and decided to take the law into his own hands. He committed political terrorism and ultimately started a guerrilla war. The group he led was known for, and ultimately named for, the violent and ferocious tactics they used in fighting. They won this particular struggle, but a mere two years after their victory, triumph turned to tragedy. The group’s leader was killed and the remaining followers fled into hiding or were executed. In addition, their story would not even be included in the main historical book of their people.

Now hold on to that tale for a moment and listen to this one:

There was once a religious leader—who, along with his five sons, was increasingly angry about religious persecution and assimilation attempts by a neighboring empire. He and his brave sons launched and led a rebellion to fight for religious freedom. Many joined in the fight, but still this tiny army of renegade fighters was outnumbered. But against all odds, they won—defeating their enemy, reclaiming their religious institutions, and crediting God for a small miracle that enabled them to celebrate their victory for eight days. It was decreed that there would be a holiday celebrated each year to remember this story of heroism and hope.

You may recognize both these stories as the account of Chanukah and the Maccabees. The disparities in the two versions highlight the difference between history and memory. We don’t tell that first historical account very much. But we collectively remember the second story year after year as a Jewish community. We’d be hard pressed to find a child who isn’t familiar with it.

Judaism is concerned—some would say obsessed—with memory. Collective memory has been, often by necessity, the lifeblood of our people since biblical times. We have even had a group of professional memorizers who preserved and passed on our religion orally from generation to generation. The writer Jonathan Safran Foer said, “Jews have six senses: touch, taste, sight, smell, hearing… and memory.” 1

It is not that history isn’t important to Jews. It is. But there are gaping holes in our history, and the Talmudic rabbis (the founders of the Judaism we know) weren’t interested in filling in the gaps. The Bible recorded the history of the ancient Israelites. After the biblical canon closed, with the exception of Josephus Flavius in the first century, Jewish history as we think of it would not be recorded again until the Middle Ages. After Josephus, it would be fifteen centuries before another Jew would call himself a historian.2

The reasons for this are many, and it will not be the point of this sermon to review them.  But it is interesting to think about the implications of this transition from history to memory. Yosef Yerushalmi wrote a well-known meditation on this subject, and he suggests that “if the rabbis [of the Talmud], wise men who had inherited a powerful historical tradition, were no longer interested in mundane history, this indicates nothing more than that they felt no need to cultivate it. Perhaps they already knew of history what they needed to know. Perhaps they were even wary of it.” 3

There is not even a word for history in Modern Hebrew. But the word for memory, zichron, comes from zakhor—to remember, and resonates strongly with Jews. “Zakhor” appears in the Bible over 150 times.4 A flood of associations come to mind about remembering. The Ten Commandments include “Remember (zakhor!) the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” 5  Moses says to the Israelites, “Remember (zakhor!) the days, consider the years of ages past…” 6  The Shabbat before Purim is called Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of Remembrance. And perhaps the most prevalent and memorable of all: Remember that you were slaves in Egypt…

At the end of Yom Kippur, we have a whole service, Yizkor, devoted solely to remembering. And today, Rosh Hashanah, is the least historical of any Jewish holiday, but we still call it Yom HaZikaron—the Day of Remembrance. Without an historical event associated with it, what exactly are we remembering? On this most meditative and reflective of days, memory plays a critical role in self-assessment. But recalling the past is not dealing with history in Judaism—it’s dealing with memory. Again, it is worth considering why and how Jews made the switch, and what that switch means for us.

Yehuda Kurtzer writes, “The distinction between history and memory does not merely describe how we talk or write about the past, but characterizes in a much deeper way who we actually are, that memory is an essential feature of Jewishness. We are a people of memory. Perhaps if we change how we think about our past, we change who we are.” 7

Where history is about recording facts and timelines, memory is about transmitting stories and culture. Where history is about evidence and proof, memory is malleable and evolving. Where history seeks certainty, memory is flawed and fragile. History is thorough; memory is selective. History is cerebral; memory is sensory.

But just because memory is elastic and flexible doesn’t mean that it lacks integrity. Our memory informs who we are and how we see the world. Everything about us is fundamentally a function of what we remember. 8  Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote, “What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.”  Interpreting the world and acting in it are rolled up in the task of remembering. 9  Most of how we think and react to things (arguably the central part of our personalities) is bound to memory and context.

The hit animated summer movie, Inside Out, suggests a vital link between memory and personality. Each memory of the main character is formed according to what personality trait dominates the moment. The personifications of joy, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust are not only responsible for creating new memories, but also for how memories are accessed. In real life, accessing our memories includes having perspective of what happened and how we communicate what happened. This says a lot about us. And it is the same for communities.

In Moonwalking with Einstein, a wonderful book about memory, Joshua Foer teaches: “Memories are not static.  Somehow, as memories age, their complexion changes.  Each time we think about a memory, we integrate it more deeply into our web of other memories and therefore make it more stable and less likely to be dislodged.  But in the process, we also transform the memory and reshape it—sometimes to the point that our memories of events bear only a passing resemblance to what actually happened.” 10  Neuroscientists validate this: “Every time we recall an event, the structure of that memory in the brain is altered in light of the present moment, warped by our current feelings and knowledge.” 11  This is one of the theories behind news anchor Brian Williams actually thinking he was in that helicopter!

It’s challenging to think that remembering something changes what is remembered, but if this weren’t the case, psychotherapy would be very different than it is.  One aspect of effective therapy is to help us not only to selectively remember, but to rewrite and reframe our personal narratives.  Seeing things differently helps us move forward.

On a societal level, we can understand this as both Jews and as Americans.  I started this sermon with Chanukah, but as Jews, we have many stories to tell, most of which barely resemble history at all.  Jews are masters of interpreting tragic events to influence a better outcome in the future.  Think of Masada in Israel and the legend we learn as tourists.  The year is 73 CE and the Tenth Roman Legion is closing in on the last stronghold of Jewish rebels—the fortress on top of Mount Masada. The Romans get to the top only to find that the entire community—nearly 1,000 people—have committed mass suicide rather than be taken alive. 

For centuries, this famous historical event was cast in a terrible light—a tale of zealot extremists; a tale of destruction and death and defeat. However, Zionists in the 1940s reframed the tale of Masada, transforming the ethos of suicide and devastation into one of resistance and triumph.  Such a symbol was vitally needed to build a nation of strong and proud soldiers that would resurrect the ancient dream of a homeland.  Ari Shavit, in his book My Promised Land, describes that in this case, the Hebrew past gave depth to the Hebrew present to enable the establishment of a Jewish future. 12  To this day, Masada—the memory, not the history—is engraved on the collective Jewish psyche.

And Jews are certainly not the only nation built on legends.  I distinctly remember in American studies in grade school learning about Paul Revere’s midnight ride, Betsy Ross’s American flag, and how the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776.  I got to college only to discover that the Paul Revere story was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s literary version of events, that Betsy Ross’s “design” of the flag was a family myth, and that the Declaration was actually signed on August 2—and wasn’t ratified for another seven years.  There is obviously variability in remembering and teaching the past.  But we depend on it even if it hasn’t been passed down to us perfectly.

Of course, there can be no present or future without a past. And often, these three are totally interchangeable in Jewish life.  Chronology is not always important.  We shatter historical time every instance we repeat a ritual or recite a myth that relives an event from the past.  Here’s Yerushalmi again: “Not history, but only mythic time repeats itself.”  He says that if history is real, then things like the Red Sea can be crossed only once, and our community cannot stand twice at the base of Mount Sinai.  Subsequent generations, he explains, need the memory embedded in the event so that the event can live again.  If there can be no actual “return to Sinai, then what took place there must be borne along the conduits of memory to those who were not there that day.” 13

This has huge implications for all of us, because we were not physically there when our nation started, but we are commanded to see ourselves as if we had been.  God says, “I make this covenant… not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here…and also with those who are not with us here this day.” 14  The legend is that all Jewish souls stood at the base of Mount Sinai to receive the law. 15  We all “remember” it.

The implications are equally huge for converts.  I’m the director of conversion studies here, and almost every conversion candidate I work with—over fifty a year—rightfully wrestles with how they will ever share in the history that Jews are always commemorating.  They know we will all share a future, but still it’s true—we can’t give them a Jewish past.  But we can give them a Jewish memory.  Since, according to legend, we were all there to receive the tradition, they don’t join the community when they get out of the mikveh (the ritual bath); rather, they retroactively participate at Sinai.  They only now, for the first time, remember that core experience! 16  It’s like accessing a suppressed memory.  As Kurtzer notes, the function of Jewish memory is “to make major episodes of Jewish history feature in the consciousness of people who are not the direct descendants of their protagonists.” 17

While the modern age has brought about a revival in the study of Jewish history, I contend we should remain predominantly a people of memory—both communally and individually—and recognize the importance in doing so.

I say this for a few reasons. Our memories affect and transform us; they teach and motivate us. The greater part of our values, ethics, and morals have been reinforced through memory again and again through the ages.  I fear we are losing touch with our collective memories and therefore losing touch with Judaism.  I feel in this mode of rapid sociological shifts, we must maintain a strong connection to Judaism through memory.  Technology, too, is changing the way we remember things, which I’ll speak about on Yom Kippur.  We Jews have always used the memories of past experiences to derive a blueprint for the present and future.  It’s been our way, successfully, since the first century.

I want us to be knowledgeable about, and value, the past.  And any attempt to value the past must translate into values by which we live in the present.  The past must be serviceable to modern realities.  Foer points out, “Observing and remembering are interchangeable concepts, two words that are really one… For Jews, remembering is not merely a cognitive process, but one that is necessarily active.  Other people remember by thinking.  Jews remember by doing.” 18

Take Passover for example. The Exodus is the pivotal event that would change the course of Jewish history.  But we don’t study that history year after year.  Instead, we read the Hagaddah—our book of remembrance.  Each year, we live it anew through our collective experience as a people, having seders and telling stories.  This is the quintessential group memory by which we transmit our vital past down to the next generation.  It’s not only recalling, it’s reactualizing.  The Book of Exodus reports the past, but our memory transforms that past into purposefulness.  Each of us is mandated to regard the Exodus as a personal experience.  This reinforces the fusion between past and present.  Remember, the wicked child in the Haggadah is described as wicked because he does not see himself as the one that came out of Egypt.  He doesn’t remember it—he severs that sacred tie.

Rabbi Shai Held contends that “one of the Torah’s central projects is to turn memory into empathy and moral responsibility.” 19  In other words, appealing to our collective experiences—of slavery in Egypt, of attempted assimilation in Syria and Greece, of enduring persecution and hardship under Roman rule—our tradition seeks to change us into caring, open-eyed individuals who see the suffering of others.  We are given an imperative.

The articulation of this imperative is no clearer than the verse, “You shall not oppress a stranger for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” 20  I am commanded to remember something as part of the collective that didn’t happen to me personally.  I am commanded as part of the Jewish community to act on behalf of the enslaved precisely because I know what it’s like to be oppressed. 

And we can take it a step further and say individually we are commanded to use our memory for empathetic action.  In the course of our lives, we have all encountered some sort of vulnerability, exploitation, or abuse of power. We must harness those memories and remember to be kind and caring and fair. This way, knowledge of the past becomes a moral responsibility.  It conditions us to make better, kinder choices in the future.

I am the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor.  My “memory” of this tragedy pushes me to appreciate freedom of religion on a regular basis.  I am hyper-aware that we have the privilege of being Jewish, and being Jewish publicly.  Although not an explicit conscious reason, this gratitude must have figured into my career choice and my desire to proudly and passionately teach our tradition.  And our collective memory of the Holocaust has pushed our community into action on countless societal fronts.  The past in this regard has become serviceable to the future.

One more example. In 1964, three civil rights activists were killed in Mississippi by the Ku Klux Klan.  Two were Jewish: Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, both from New York City.  Before his death, perhaps recalling his Jewish roots and the story of Passover, Schwerner implored members of a Black church to register to vote.  He said to them, “You have been slaves too long, we can help you help yourselves.”‪ 21  Their disappearance and deaths outraged the nation, and many believe it helped gain passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. ‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

And thus Jewish action can become world redemptive.  Memory can strengthen one’s personal ethics, and one’s personal ethics can strengthen the world.  In Judaism, we have a repository of thousands of years’ worth of experience.  We study ancient texts because they guide us&mdsh;we learn from the collective memory of our people and our rabbis how to be in the world, how to act and react and find meaning.  The Baal Shem Tov said that “in remembrance lies the secret of redemption.”

Today is the Day of Remembrance—for us as a community and for us individually.  As a group, we have been shaped by the collective memories of our people’s milestones and tragedies. 

Today we reflect on our personal realities and recollections of our own pasts.  What did the past year hold for us?  Did we have to face new challenges?  Perhaps resolve an old problem?

Did we behave in ways that made us proud, or, possibly, ashamed?  Did we accomplish the things we hoped to?  Can the lessons of our recent past be transformative for us moving ahead?  Can we harness and translate our individual experiences into action for the future?  What will be redemptive for us, and what will we help redeem?

As countless generations of Jews before us, we pray to be ethical, empathetic, and learned in the coming year.  We have acquired these qualities from our pasts, from our memories.  And although we ask God’s help, it is we and we alone who can frame and harness our memories, and take aim once again at our best selves.

And as have countless generations of rabbis before me, I wish for you all a New Year of blessings, health, and of continued memory.  Shanah Tovah.


1. Foer, Jonathan Safran. Everything Is Illuminated, as on display in Central’s 9th floor art cabinet. (back to text)

2. Yerushalmi, Yosef. Zachor. p. 16 (back to text)

3. Yerushalmi, Yosef. Zachor. P. 21-22 (back to text)

4. Schorsch, Dr. Ismar. “Memory: Judaism’s Lifeblood” Commentary March 2, 1996. (back to text)

5. Exodus 20:8. (back to text)

6. Deuteronomy 32:7. (back to text)

7. Kurtzer, Yehuda. Shuva. p. 15. (back to text)

8. Foer, Joshua. Moonwalking with Einstein. p. 67 (back to text)

9. Foer, Joshua. Moonwalking with Einstein. p. 67. (back to text)

10. Foer, Joshua. Moonwalking with Einstein. p. 82 (back to text)

11. Lehrer, Jonah. “The Forgetting Pill Erases Painful Memories Forever” Wired Magazine online February 17, 2012. (back to text)

12. Shavit, Ari. My Promised Land. p. 86 (back to text)

13. Yerushalmi, Yosef. Zachor. p. 10 (back to text)

14. Deuteronomy 29:13-14 (back to text)

15. Midrash Tanhuma, Pekudei 3. (back to text)

17. Kurtzer, Yehuda. Shuva. p.31 (back to text)

17. Kurtzer, Yehuda. Shuva. p. 16 (back to text)

18. Foer, Joshua. Moonwalking With Einstein (back to text)

19. Held, Shai. AJWS online commentary (back to text)

20. Parashat Mishpatim (back to text)

21. Seth Cagin; Philip Dray (1988). “June 21, 1964”. We Are Not Afraid. Bantam Books. p. 2. (back to text)