Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Power of Memory

Zikaron – The Power of Memory --
D’var Torah for Parshat B’ha’alotekha and Memorial Day Weekend
Rabbi Steve Weisman – Temple Solel, Bowie MD May 28, 2010

As we pick up our Torah portion for this Shabbat, the final details of serving the central, albeit movable, shrine in the Wilderness are put into place, and for the first time since God appeared to us all on Mt. Sinai to give us the Law, our ancestors are going on the move. It is the first day of a new year (counting from the spring), either the first celebrated in freedom, or the second. it is a fascinating thing about the dates during the Exodus – the dates, all counting from our escape, are not entirely clearly expressed, so both possibilities are reasonable.

By the end of the portion that starts so hopefully, the entire community has lapsed back into its all too familiar pattern – the people kvetched about EVERYTHING! There is a general outcry, and one that leads to the giving (again!?) of manna. This latter leads God to have Moses call together 70 elders, so God might call them on the carpet. But while this was happening, 2 others, left behind in the camp, start to prophesy. When Joshua, serving as Moses’ Rahm Emanuel, heard this, he became incensed. But Moses calmed him, and pointed out how great it would be if EVERY Israelite had the power of prophecy.

Then God provided quail, to further assuage the grumbling hunger of the people, who became so gluttonous, that a plague broke out against them. And finally, even Aaron and Miriam were moved to call out Moses publicly, allegedly over his marriage to a Cushite woman, but more likely as a challenge to his sole leadership. Interestingly, in this last incident, although clearly BOTH Aaron and Miriam were involved, only Miriam was punished by God.

It is already clear, well in advance of next Shabbat’s fiasco with the 10 spies, that our ancestors’ behavior was already questionable enough to make God consider killing them off as unworthy to enter the Promised Land. It is already clear that, beloved and respected though he was by his people, Moses’ leadership still left something to be desired. In other words, the Torah is painting us a picture of our ancestors that is anything BUT idealized or airbrushed to hide the human blemishes. They are depicted in startlingly real and honest terms!

And so it is on this Shabbat evening in our own place and time. As we gather on this night of significance in American tradition, things are very similar for us as they were for our ancestors. The need for change in our national life, and the concerns for our national leadership that allowed a charismatic candidate who spoke so eloquently of change to become our President are still very real tonight, and fueling other calls for change that may not be so positively inspired or intended. We literally tonight sit here as the worst oil spill in history continues to contaminate the Gulf of Mexico, as the smoldering question of immigration reform is being thrust to the forefront of our national consciousness, and as few, if any actual changes for the better have yet to occur.

It is easy and tempting to draw the same conclusions about our leaders as many draw from our Torah text. Easy, but not necessarily accurate, or even useful. Because the truth is, in difficult times, until we can look inside ourselves and be sure that we are not part of the problem ourselves, we really don’t have a right to point the finger of blame at others. Yet the truth is that all too often, we do!

It is easy to blame the oil industry in general, and their most ardent supporters, especially those who set policy during the presidency of JR Ewing, er, the second George Bush, in particular, for the disaster in the Gulf. But the truth is, while BP deserves much blame, as do the sub-contractors, including the same Halliburton Corporation that has such strong connections to Dick Cheney, who authored that energy policy after meeting with his oil industry cronies, and then refused to allow anyone to know what transpired in their meetings, that a significant cause for this all-too-extended environmental nightmare is the lack of oversight from the regulatory apparatus of our government. The process of neutering those agencies’ abilities to protect we the people began with Reagan, but was not reversed, and was, in fact, accelerated, by Bill Clinton. It is, therefore, truly NOT a partisan political issue, but indicative of the larger nature of the problem.

But a significant part of the blame also must sit squarely on the shoulders of we, the people! We have NOT done anything significant to cure our own chemical dependency on petroleum products, especially gasoline for our cars and trucks, and therefore encouraged our co-dependent partners in the oil industry. Even now, in the midst of the outrage directed rightly against BP, there are still a large number of people who, when asked, not only won’t boycott BP until they start cleaning things up effectively, but who have said that if BP’s prices are the lowest, they will reward the company by buying their product!

Compare that to the fallout from the Exxon Valdez spill not that many years ago, which did so much damage to Exxon’s sales that they eventually were forced into a buy-out by Mobil, which many believe never should have been approved on anti-competitive grounds – yet another example of oversight failings!

Friends, it seems to me there is a larger issue here, one that underlies all the challenges we face today in our country. One which is the central message of this weekend, if not this Shabbat (although I find hints of it in the Torah portion as well). We are, as a country, suffering a failure of memory, that is allowing mistakes of the past to be repeated, with far greater damage in our more complex world.

And it begins with Memorial Day itself. NO ONE needs to be reminded that the pools all open this weekend. NO ONE needs to be reminded that this weekend has come to mark the official beginning of summer. Yet, more and more each year, or so it seems, we feel the need to consciously remind ourselves that the Memorial in Memorial Day refers to those who gave their lives to defend our country, to find ways of acknowledging those for whom the very holiday was created!

Zikaron – the importance of memory. Our Jewish tradition is centered in this core concept. The response of the generation that survived the greatest atrocity in human terms in history – the Sho’ah, the Holocaust – has been to make even more sacred the idea of remembering. Remembering, not just for the sake of having a record of what happened in the past. But real, active remembering that leads to pro-activity in the present to avoid repetition in the future. The exact embodiment of the antidote to Santayana’s lament about those who fail to learn the lessons of history being condemned to repeat them.

And it starts in no less significant a moment for us as Jews than the theophany at Sinai – when God gave us the Law. According to the text of Exodus 20, the commandment given by God at Sinai regarding Shabbat was to REMEMBER it, not, as we might have expected, to KEEP Shabbat (although THAT IS the verb in the repetition that appears in Deuteronomy!). Shabbat, as important as it is in its own right – so much so that Ahad Ha’am, the Russian Jewish writer and Zionist philosopher of the late 19th century, so famously wrote “More than Israel has kept the Sabbath has the Sabbath kept Israel!” – is framed, from the start, as being a remembrance of something even more fundamental in our history.

Or, more exactly, a remembrance of two of the three core incidents that define Judaism – the Creation of the world, and the Exodus from Egypt (the third, of course, being the actual receipt of the Law at Sinai of which this verse is a part!). I deliberately held the recitation of Qiddush tonight for its former place in the service – following the sermon – to allow us all to focus on the words we recite each Shabbat.

Look carefully at the text we chant together – the Qiddush basically has 2 parts, the second of which is almost an exact repetition of the first! There are exactly 2 differences. The first is the person by which we refer to God – the third person in the earlier part, the more intimate second person – You – in the latter. The second is the rationale given for why we celebrate Shabbat – ziqaron l’ma’asei V’reishit , a remembrance of the Creation – in the first part, and zeicher litziyat Mitzrayim – to remember the Exodus from Egypt – at the close.

Clearly, memory matters in Judaism. The transmission to future generations of the events of previous ones, and an understanding of those events, is essential for Jewish survival. Even in the greatest attempt to end Judaism since the Exodus, the natural Jewish response has been – to REMEMBER. Not simply to retell the events, however tragic and ghoulish. But to remember for the purpose of doing our darnedest to make sure that no one else ever suffers as we were forced to!

It is this concept of proactive remembering that I find lacking in our day. Only in this generation could a phrase like “That is SO last year!” gain traction as a legitimate negative criticism of an idea or behavior. For all our pining for nostalgia, we strive in our lives for “new and improved.” How else do we explain the compulsive need of so many to be the first to have a new technology – even before it has been fully debugged, or to be the first to see the hot new movie, or read the hot new book, or download the hot new song.

And so, I propose tonight, a terribly Jewish response to the challenges of our day. I propose that we take this Memorial Day weekend, and declare an embargo against moving forward – whether precipitously or otherwise! That we agree that we will do NOTHING new, but revel in the present and the past. That REMEMBERING will be the challenge of the weekend – refocusing ourselves on our core ideals, and recommitting that when we do move forward after the weekend, our actions will be in consonance with those ideals. No more progress for the sake of moving forward. No more rushing to get something done ahead of others, without doing our fullest due diligence to avoid later problems.
Remember those Ozzie and Harriet, Andy Griffin days when quality mattered more than how quickly we got things done. Remember the days when workers didn’t have to be told to make sure they were doing things right – they did so automatically, because otherwise they’d be looking for a new job. Where did they go? We need them back!

If our ancestors had learned these lessons, they wouldn’t have kvetched about being hungry, and earned God’s wrath. If they had remembered being hungry, the manna would have been enough, and they wouldn’t have demanded more, wouldn’t have been guilty of the gluttony that led to plague.

If America had remembered the failures of Jimmy Carter as president, we might have been more careful about the kind of change and change manager we voted for as President. If we don’t learn the lessons we are facing now, I fear that the next time around, the groundswell for change will be far greater. And, as important as it is for us to change and fix what is wrong in our national life, too great an effort at change too quickly – the “revolutionary” approach being pushed by the “Tea-Party” movement, risks making a bad situation far worse. Memory teaches me that. Memory makes me concerned when I see the signs of past mistakes being repeated.

On this Shabbat of remembering that which SHOULD be important, we need to make sure the message of the importance and power of memory is what we stress.

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