Today in congregations the world over, Jews are gathering to celebrate the New Year and inaugurate the Yamim Norai’m, the ‘Days of Awe’. Awe: a feeling spired by our sense of the transcendent – that which is beyond us. In a sense, Rosh Ha-Shanah is not about us and has very little to do with us; rather, the blasts of the shofar transform it into an awe-inspiring advertisement for the supreme, transcendent power of the Eternal. For the rabbinic sages, this first day of Aseret Y’mey T’shuvah, the ‘Ten Days of Returning’, was ‘the Day of Judgement’ – Yom Ha-Din – when God, enthroned on high, summons us to judgement of our actions during the past year. The day will have done its work, if, sufficiently awe-inspired, we set about the process of making amends during the days that follow, so that we may find forgiveness and atonement on Yom Kippur.
That’s the theory, anyway; the practice – well, that’s up to us. Rosh Ha-Shanah may centre on the Eternal beyond us, but ultimately, it’s what we do – and don’t do – that really matters; what we make of our experiences and of our own lives.
A clue to the crucial part we have to play lies in the three themes of the shofar-blasting, which are reflected in the three main alternative names for Rosh Ha-Shanah. In addition to Yom Ha-Din, ‘the Day of Judgement’, the rabbis also spoke of Yom Ha-Zikaron, ‘the Day of Remembrance’ – and then there is the original, biblical name for the first day of the seventh month: Yom T’ru’ah, a ‘Day of Blasting’ (Numbers 29:1). In the Musaf – the additional service – the liturgy surrounding the shofar blowing provides a spectacular platform for all three names, as each series of shofar blasts is connected with a set of biblical passages on the themes of: Malchuyyot, ‘Sovereignty’ – the majesty of God; Zichronot’, ‘Remembrances’ – God’s remembrance; and Shofarot (the plural of shofar) – how the blasts of the shofar signal the Revelation of God.
The three themes belong together, but unlike the other two, Zichronot is not confined to the ethereal realm of the Eternal. God may be supreme and the shofar may proclaim the sovereignty of the Eternal, but the power to remember is not exclusive to God.
And so in the midst of the absolute pronouncements about the Eternal that abound on Rosh Ha-Shanah, a random element: us. Where would God be without us – without our acknowledgement? No good all those dramatic proclamations, if there’s no one listening… But it’s not just an issue of the role we play in empowering God – or dethroning God. When it comes to remembrance, each one of us inhabits a world, a sovereign domain, of our own. The blasts of the shofar summon us – each one of us – to remembrance.
So how do we respond to the summons? Are we eager to remember our misdeeds of the past year? To recall the occasions when we were impatient, unyielding, demanding, domineering, passive, sullen, spiteful, mean? It takes courage and confidence and personal insight to recall the times when we hurt other people, particularly those closest to us; to remember how often we ignored them and overlooked their needs because we were so preoccupied with ourselves, our needs, the pains inflicted on us long ago that continue to haunt us.
I would hazard a guess that most of us don’t really have a problem remembering, when it comes to remembering the hurts we have experienced. Indeed, many of us can’t stop remembering what happened to us in the past. Our memories often lock us into particular attitudes and fears for years. How many of us continually recite the litany of particular memories, forever reliving the painful hurts and traumas experienced in our childhoods? These memories can be so powerful and overwhelming that they effectively crush our happy – or at least, happier – memories. We experience ourselves as such victims of what happened to us, or what was done to us, that it is virtually impossible for us to really take responsibility for what we have done and continue to do to others.
Of course, I’m talking about human experience: the capacity to hold onto past sufferings is common to all human beings. But as Jews, we have a particular relationship to remembrance that complicates the problem. In his startlingly original and brilliant novel, Everything Is Illuminated, which won the Guardian First Book Award in 2002, Jonathan Safran Foer writes that ‘Jews Have Six Senses’:
Touch, taste, sight, smell, hearing…memory. While Gentiles experience and process the world through the traditional senses, and use memory only as a second order means of interpreting events, for Jews memory is no less primary than the prick of a pain, or its silver glimmer, or the taste of the blood it pulls from the finger. The Jew is pricked by the pin and remembers other pins. It is only by tracing the pinprick back to other pinpricks – when his mother tried to fix his sleeve while his arm was still in it, when his grandfather’s fingers fell asleep from stroking his great grandfather’s damp forehead, when Abraham tested the knife point to be sure Isaac would feel no pain – that the Jew is able to know why it hurts.
When a Jew encounters a pin, he asks: What does it remember like?
This sixth sense is not just a facility of Jews as individuals. Memory has been the principal reflex of our people from the beginning. Jews remember – but not everything. We remember selectively: the pain and degradation, the oppression and persecution we’ve experienced at the hands of others. Indeed, according to the Book of Deuteronomy, remembering what others have done to us is an imperative. We read in chapter 25 (:17-19), at the end of the parashat Ki Teitzei, which begins with the rules for going out to war (Deuteronomy 21:10):
Remember! what Amalek did to you on the way, when you were going out from Egypt / how, undeterred by fear of God, he happened upon you on the way, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. / Therefore, when the Eternal your God grants you rest from your enemies roundabout in the land which the Eternal your God is giving to you as an inheritance, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. You shall not forget.
Zakhor! eit asher-asah l’cha Amalek – Remember what Amalek did to you… Lo tiskach – You shall not forget.
So, the Jewish people has continued to remember Amalek – in all his subsequent guises: Haman, the Emperor Hadrian, the Tsar, Hitler. In addition to being part of the weekly Torah reading cycle, the exhortation to remember Amalek is also recited on the Shabbat before Purim, when we remember how a wicked courtier, named Haman, devised a plan to destroy the Jewish people. Haman, as the scroll of Esther tells us, was a descendant of Amalek (3:1).
One of the reasons why Amalek remains so present is because the Jewish experience of time is complex. On the one hand, Jewish time is teleological: moving from the past towards the future, the messianic days of wholeness, peace and justice as envisioned by the prophets. On the other hand, the Jewish people inhabits an eternal now. The past is always present. To this day, for students at traditional Jewish academies, the y’shivot, for example, as they grapple in chavruta, in pairs, with a page of Talmud, the commentary of the 11th century French scholar, Rashi, which is always situated on the left-hand side of a page of Talmud, is in direct conversation with the other commentaries set out on the page, across the centuries. Time-travel, Jewish style.
The notion of an eternal now, also expressed in the Torah blessings, which speak of the Eternal as Notein ha-Torah, the ‘Giver of the Torah’ is rather attractive, conveying the sense that Judaism is a dynamic, living tradition. But it is also in the land of the eternal now that Amalek is at liberty to roam, an eternal stalker of the Jewish imagination. On the other hand, it’s not possible to dismiss this troubling underside of the eternal now mind-set, because after all, the Jewish people has experienced a succession of Amaleks: the past does seem to be ever-present.
And there is also another problem: our attachment to our memory of suffering has been manipulated by those who have been our enemies. This year we have been commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War in August 2014. World War I began on Tishah B’Av, the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av – the date on which King Solomon’s Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. The co-incidence between an anniversary of catastrophe in the Jewish calendar and the anniversary of the first great global catastrophe of the 20th century has an added resonance for us because Tishah B’Av has been associated since the 2nd century with some of the major instances of churban, destruction, in the life of the Jewish people. Coincidence? Again and again? Maybe there’s a more prosaic explanation: aware of the dates, our persecutors have kept it in mind – hence, after months of siege, Jerusalem was laid waste and the Second Temple was finally put to the torch by the Romans in 70 CE, the day after Tishah B’Av; hence, the expulsion of the Jews of Spain in 1492 – on Tishah B’Av.
As Marge Piercy puts it in her wonderful poetic rendition of the central prayer of Jewish worship, the Amidah: ‘We are caught / in history like whales in polar ice.’
Perhaps, finally, the ice is melting – an unfortunate metaphor in the context of global warming, but it carries the appropriate force of momentous change: The reality is that beyond the insular world of the ultraorthodox, Jewish memory has been disappearing fast. The historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, addresses this issue in his book, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory. He writes (pp.93-94).
The collective memories of the Jewish people were a function of the shared faith, cohesiveness, and will of the group itself, transmitting and recreating its past through an entire complex of interlocking social and religious institutions that functioned organically to achieve that. The decline of Jewish collective memory in modern times is only a symptom of the unraveling of that common network of belief and praxis through whose mechanisms, the past was once made present.
The rise of modernity at the end of the 18th century led to a transformation of Jewish life. The development of political Zionism at the end of the 19th century, which culminated in the establishment of the State of Israel in May, 1948 has also had a major impact – not least in the arena of Jewish memory. For the Zionist pioneers of the second aliyah, when approximately 20,000 Jews, mostly from Czarist Russia, immigrated to the land between 1904 and 1914, the project of creating a new muscular Jew was a direct response to the history of anti-Semitism in Europe – in particular in Eastern Europe. The eruption and devastation of the Sho’ah only made the children of these new Jews even more determined to erase the memory of Jewish victimhood. For ultra-nationalists and ultraorthodox Zionists today, on the other hand, the memory of Jewish victimhood coalesces with a sense of eternal victimhood. The past continues to be present: the Arabs, in general, and the Palestinians, in particular, are Amalek. And yet, paradoxically, another memory also holds sway: the memory of the Zealots who held out against the Romans at Masada, by the Dead Sea, after the destruction of Jerusalem. As their conquest by the Romans became imminent, the Zealot leader, Eleazar ben Yair, decided that the community – 960 people in all – should die by their own hand rather than be captured and killed. When I was in Israel on sabbatical 2006-2007, the weight of Jewish memory felt palpable. I wrote at that time of ‘Lofty Symbols’: Yad Va-Shem / Stationed / High on a hilltop / Like M’tzadah / The twin-souls of Israel / Guardians of the / Collective memory / The murdered millions / And the defiant remnant / Hovering over the land’.
So, not only Individuals, peoples, too, can be trapped by their memories. The Palestinians share this affliction, with their sister-people, the Israelis. Progressive thinkers, not least, leading Israeli writers like, Amos Oz, often make the case for a two state solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians on the basis of the need to acknowledge the narratives of both peoples. Ultimately, this means that for there to be an equitable solution, Israelis will need to acknowledge the Palestinian narrative and Palestinians will need to acknowledge the Israeli narrative. In the meantime, both peoples are being held hostage, not only by the endless cycle of violence, but also by their memories – their partial memories: their insistence on remembering only what has been done to them, while failing to recall what they have done to the other. Of course, the Israeli government, which holds most of the power, and is responsible for an on-going, now 46 year-long occupation of Palestinian lands, bears most of the responsibility. Indeed, since this last war with Hamas in Gaza, Israel has annexed yet more land in the West Bank – 998 acres – for settlement building. Nevertheless, the Palestinians are not powerless. They have political institutions. They can empower leaders, who choose to respond to occupation, not with violence, but rather by engaging in passive resistance and mass civil disobedience. Meanwhile, rather than succumbing to perennial fear, Israelis can elect new leaders, who make the choice to enter into real negotiations in good faith with the Palestinian leadership, and are prepared to make the compromises necessary for a secure and just peace.
The first biblical passage assigned to the Shofarot section of shofar blasts, recalls the origins of the ram’s horn, the shofar: ‘Abraham lifted his eyes, and behold there was a ram caught by its horns in the thicket’. The verse comes from Genesis 22 (:13) one of the Torah passages read at Rosh Ha-Shanah, and known as Akeidat Yitzchak, ‘the Binding of Isaac’. Acting in obedience to God, Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son. Indeed, the text tells us that the messenger of God had to call his name twice, as Abraham took the knife, in an effort to stop him carrying out the deed (22:11). It was only then that Abraham raised his eyes and saw the ram.
A similar passage is found in the Qur’ân, Sura 37, where it is Ishmael who was to be sacrificed by his father, Abraham, who then sacrificed a sheep instead. The important point in both versions is that Abraham withdrew his knife. But today, fathers on both sides, Israeli and Palestinian, don’t seem to be listening to the voices that tell them not to sacrifice their children. We can’t do anything about that – the deadly knife is not in our hands. But we can call on both sides to put an end to the killing and find new ways of resolving their differences. As we listen to the blasts of the shofar today, we can also resolve to relinquish our own habitual responses and selective memory reflexes. We can make the choice to raise our eyes to meet the eyes of others and find a new path for our lives. May each one of us find the courage to begin again. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut
Rosh Ha-Shanah Shacharit 5775 – 25th September 2014