Remember the past, but don’t be captivated by it


We remember for the future and for life.

Judaism is a religion of memory. The verb zachor, remember, appears no less than 169 times in the Hebrew Bible. “Remember you were foreigners in Egypt”; “Remember the days of old”; “Remember the seventh day to keep it holy.” Memory, for Jews, is a religious obligation. This is especially the case at this time of year. We call it the “three weeks” leading up to the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, Tisha be Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the two Temples, the first by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon in 586 BCE, the second by Titus in 70 CE.

The Jews have never forgotten these tragedies. To this day, at every wedding, we break a glass in their memory. During the three weeks, we have no celebrations. At Tisha B’Av itself, we spend the day fasting and sitting on the ground or on low stools like mourners, reading the Book of Lamentations. It is a day of deep collective pain.

Two thousand five hundred years is a long time to remember. I am often asked – usually in connection with the Holocaust – is it really fair to remember? Shouldn’t there be a limit to mourning? Aren’t most ethnic conflicts in the world fueled by memories of injustices seen long ago? Wouldn’t the world be more peaceful if we forgot every now and then?

My answer is both yes and no, because it depends on how we remember.

#History answers the question “What happened?” “Memory answers the question” Who am I? “

Although the two are often confused, memory is different from history. History is someone else’s story. These are events that happened to someone else a long time ago. Memory is my story. It’s about where I’m from and what story I’m a part of.

The story answers the question “What happened?” “Memory answers the question” Who am I? It is about identity and bond between the generations.

In the case of collective memory, it all depends on how we tell the story. We don’t remember for revenge. “Do not hate the Egyptians,” said Moses, “for you were strangers in their land. To be free, we must give up hatred. Remember the past, said Moses, but don’t be a prisoner of it. Make it a blessing, not a curse; a source of hope, not humiliation.

To this day, Holocaust survivors I know spend their time sharing their memories with young people, not for revenge, but its opposite: to teach tolerance and the value of life. Mindful of the lessons of Genesis, we too try to remember for the future and for life.

In today’s rapidly changing culture, we underestimate the acts of memory. Computer memories have grown, while ours have shrunk. Our children no longer memorize pieces of poetry. Their knowledge of history is often too vague. Our sense of space has widened. Our sense of time has shrunk. It can’t be fair. One of the greatest gifts we can give our children is knowing where we came from, the things we fought for and why.

#A society without memory is like a journey without a map. It’s too easy to get lost.

None of the things we value – freedom, human dignity, justice – has been achieved without a struggle. None can be sustained without conscious vigilance. A society without memory is like a journey without a map. It’s too easy to get lost.

For my part, I cherish the wealth of knowing that my life is a chapter of a book started by my ancestors a long time ago, to which I will add my contribution before passing it on to my children. Life has meaning when it is part of a story, and the bigger the story, the more our imaginative horizons grow.

Besides, the things we remember don’t die. It is also close that we come to immortality on earth.

Extract from an article first published by The Times (UK) in July 2004.

Click here for more content from Rabbi Sacks related to Three Weeks.

Photo credit: Leonor Oom, Unsplash

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