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5754

On Memory and Disengagement


Written by the rabbi

Dedicated to the memory of
Yaakov Ben Behora

The emphasis on remembering the past during the Three Weeks can be misleading, for remembrance of the past is not intended to blur the present or push aside the future. We face the future, but we are commanded to build it with an eye to the lessons of the past. Therefore, there exists a danger of being "stuck" in a paralyzing desire for the past, in the same way that there is a measure of arrogance in trying to build the future while disengaging oneself from the past.

The past is an excellent "school," but it is forbidden to "stay back" every year indefinitely. This is one of the lessons which can be found in the Talmudic anecdote at the beginning of tractate Berakhot: R' Yose, walking along his way one afternoon, enters one of Jerusalem's ruins in order to recite the afternoon prayer. Elijah the Prophet rebukes R' Yose for his behavior and teaches him a number of laws related to praying on the road and the dangers of entering ruins.

During the Three Weeks in which we now find ourselves, we too are, in a sense, emotionally entering one of Jerusalem's ruins. We are feeling for ourselves a sense of mourning over the destruction of the Temple. In the above story, Elijah the Prophet sneers at R' Yose for entering the ruins, saying, "You should have prayed by the road" despite the obvious difficulties involved in such a step. Why does Elijah so prefer the road to the ruin? If there exists danger in praying in the ruin, why should the solution be to pray by the road of all places? Why is it not enough to simply distance oneself from the danger?

It would appear that there is a message hidden in the words of Elijah the Prophet, and it is concealed in the tension that exists between the road and the ruins of Jerusalem. On the road, your face is to the future; in the ruins - to the past, despite the importance of their memory. To leave the flow of things, the progress, turning intensely toward memory, spoils rectification and threatens to bring about a melancholy fall into sacred nostalgia.

Our adoration of the Temple, like our adoration for the sacrifices, our memory of them and our longing for their return, all need to be kept in proper perspective. The proper perspective is that which teaches that the events of the past do not ruin the building of the present and future. Our faces are turned toward the construction of the Third Temple, to the establishment of a priestly kingdom.

An incisive and penetrating paradigm of this can be found in the words spoken by God to Joshua at the outset of his book (Joshua 1:1,2): "And it was, after the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, that the Lord spoke to Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ minister, saying, 'Moses my servant is dead; now therefore arise, cross over the Jordan...'" God, familiar with the human tendency to avoid painful truths, commands Joshua to face the facts courageously: "Moses My servant is dead!" Don't expect him to do the work for you, he will not return - at least not at this stage. Avoid paths of self denial. Do not become caught up in rolling about in the dust - "Arise! Cross over the Jordan." The flow of life leads into the Land of Israel, and you have a lot of work to do - as the servant of Moses, of course, and according to the Torah of Moses.

Regarding the Exodus from Egypt, too, the Prophet teaches us that in the future we will recall our own wonders, not those of our ancestors (Berakhot 12b): It has been taught that Ben Zoma said to the Sages: "Will the exodus from Egypt be mentioned in the days of the Messiah? Was it not long ago said: 'Therefore behold the days come, saith the Lord, that they shall no more say: As the Lord liveth that brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt; but, As the Lord liveth that brought up and that led the seed of the house of Israel out of the north country and from all the countries whither I had driven them'?" (Jeremiah 23:7,8). They replied: "This does not mean that the mention of the exodus from Egypt shall be obliterated, but that the [deliverance from] subjection to the other kingdoms shall take the first place and the exodus from Egypt shall become secondary."

Therefore, our mourning lasts for only three weeks, a relatively small portion of the year, and the Ninth of Av also introduces practices which are usually seen as objectionable, like being mournful and sad, abstaining from Torah study, and refraining from greeting others with "Shalom."

We find Moses teaching the people what is meant by explaining the Torah (Deuteronomy 1;5-8): "On this side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, began Moses to explain this Torah, saying...You have stayed long enough at this mount...Behold, I have set the land before you; go in and possess the land."

True, there was a descent. Indeed, there was failure, and there was also severe punishment - yet, with all of this, and despite all of this, "You have stayed long enough at this mount...go in and possess the land."

Man is characterized by his capacity to walk erect, to advance; in Hebrew he is termed a "mehalekh," a "walker," and this is all the more so of an entire nation. We are advancing and making visions a reality, making dreams come true, and waiting to see what the future will bring. We will never cease. Here is one of the points of failure of secular culture, which desires to sit complacently without being constantly challenged by the future. One who does not actually live the words of the daily Amida prayer will fall game to illusionary visions of empty hope like that expressed in the popular Israeli song, "Next year, we will sit on the porch and count the migrating birds."

Anybody familiar with the lofty goals listed in the Grace after Meals - the one dealing with the "desirable, good, and spacious land," the one dealing with "the great and holy Temple," and the one which expresses a longing that God "restore Jerusalem, the Holy City, speedily in our day" - anybody familiar with these aspirations cannot be satisfied with crumbs of ambition like, "bring rain in its season, and in the spring scatter flowers for us, and let him return to his home - more than this we do not need!" Are these matters, important as they are, really enough? Do we not need more than this? And what about the Messiah? The High Priest? Prophets? The Sanhedrin? The Holy Temple?

One disengagement leads to another, and those who disengage themselves from the past cannot bring us to our future. Perhaps they can bring us to a Swedish or Luxembourgian version of the future, but not to the true destiny of the Jewish people. Such an achievement is only possible where there is a constant stream of remembrance flowing through our consciousness in the form of daily prayers, blessings, bereavement over the past. There is no effective force capable of generating the action necessary to build the future without remembrance of our ruins - for remembrance contains the secret of redemption.

Therefore, only generative remembrance, not suffocating immersion, can lead the way for us. Without our national memory we will be forced to backtrack in search of our lost identity - an identity which is explicit in the Torah and Jewish tradition.


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