The essence of memory

The following is an expanded version of my opening remarks at tonight’s community Memorial Day service. 

What is memory? What is the goal of a Memorial Day? And most important – how can we remember our fallen soldiers and give honour to their sacrifice while also remaining sensitive to the pain of their bereaved families? How can we show support for bereaved parents, children, siblings without ripping open scars that never heal, without causing fresh wounds?

I would suggest that the answer to this question is to be found in the difference between the Hebrew phrase לזכור and the English verb “to remember”. In English, remembrance has a passive connotation – we think about a time gone by, a now deceased loved one, but there is little more than that. We smile at a happy memory, maybe wax nostalgic, but that’s about it.

In contrast, the Hebrew idea לזכור has a very active connotation. When the Torah says “remember the Sabbath day to make it holy”, our rabbis teach that this refers to the mitzvah of saying kiddush on Friday night. When we want to remember the exodus from Egypt, we eat the foods our ancestors ate on the way out of slavery. We sit in the booths that God housed the Children of Israel in the desert. We relive the experience, in order to internalise it and to have the lessons inspire us to live inspired, holy lives.

To quote Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin, a 19th century Lithuanian scholar, “(the verse ‘remember the Sabbath day to make it holy’) means that we should think about what is so holy about Shabbat, about Who imbued Shabbat with holiness, etc. That should lead us to act in a special way on Shabbat.”

The list of examples is endless, but the lesson is clear: We remember the past by doing, by internalising emotions and lessons and morals and ethics into our lives, and allowing them all to change us, to inspire us, to push us to strive for spiritual heights.

Which brings us back to the notion of Yom Hazikaron, IDF Memorial Day. I often feel that we mark Memorial Day in Israel by ramping up the flames of pain, by telling searing stories of loss and singing songs about death and bereavement. There is a strong social contract for all Israelis not only to embrace and identify with the bereaved families, but also to internalise the burning pain of loss that comes with the loss of a loved one.

I would humbly, and respectfully, suggest that this phenomenon is not productive. Instead, I would place an active lens over Memorial Day. We have a holy obligation – a mitzvah – to remember our fallen and to honour the sacrifice they made for our freedom. To do this, we must consider and connect to their hopes and dreams, to build a Jewish democracy in the Land of Israel. We must internalise and act on their desires to strengthen Israel, militarily and ethically. We must never, ever, ever abandon their vision of living in a Jewish country at real peace with its neighbours, even when that notion appears to be nothing more than a pipe dream. 

May God give us the clarity of vision and the moral strength to remember our fallen by increasing our efforts to bring holiness, love and morality into the world. We owe the souls of the departed and their devastated families nothing less.

May their memories be blessed. 

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