History, historicity, and memory

History, historicity, and memory

Fragments of Pesach still litter my den but really it is past – another stratum in the building of memory that Pesach mandates.

At Pesach we remember the Exodus from Egypt, we see ourselves as though we had come out of the narrow straits of Mitzrayim, but we also recall personal Pesach memories, some of which become personal traditions, built up year upon year.

There was the Pesach we were already squeezed around my parents’ table reciting the Haggadah when a knock on the door heralded the unanticipated arrival of four more family members. We unhesitatingly made room, brought out more Haggadot and folding chairs. We were, however, short a fork so, seamlessly, so as not to embarrass the guests, my sister and I shared one. There are the mirrors taped to cardboard by our son, then a kindergartener, now a rabbi, and surrounded by his early lettering so we could in fact “see” ourselves as if we had left Egypt. Decades later, the cardboard is too fragile to pass around the table, but the memory is alive. There was the Pesach a few months before our mother’s death, when all her children and grandchildren gathered at my sister’s to celebrate what we all knew would likely be Ema’s last seder, trying to stay in the moment of joy and hold back the tears.

Such a flood of memories.

Pesach itself is all about memory but it also ushers in a season of memory. Biblical, rabbinic, and modern memories overlay each other as we count the 49 days that bring us from the experience of liberation to its goal at Sinai. Although traditions vary widely among different Jewish communities, we share a sense that some mourning is appropriate in this period. Rabbinic tradition teaches that 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva (ca. 40 – ca. 137 C.E.) died during this time – perhaps because they were punished for not treating each other with respect, perhaps because they were engaged in the fighting during the Bar Kochba revolt (132–136 C.E.). Does the real reason matter? What about the real numbers? What really occurred?

The issue of historicity takes us straight back to the Exodus narrative and the paucity of corroborating evidence for it. Could we be remembering something that did not really happen, something that may have taken a form different from the one narrated in the text of Exodus? The number of 600,000 male Israelites making the journey, with additional countless women, children and a mixed multitude (Exodus 12:37), certainly strains credibility. Could the Sinai have supported such a multitude? But maybe the Hebrew word elef, which we translate as 1,000, means something else, something smaller, a clan. Maybe the numbers are manageable.

The biblical and rabbinic strata of this period have been joined by modern layers – by Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), Yom Hazikaron (Israel Memorial Day), and Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day). Here there are some hard data. The number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust has been set at 6,000,000. We feel more sure about this number because it is recent, because we can trace the process used to calculate it. It is striking that the number of Jews killed in the Shoah, a number too large and mind-numbing to comprehend, is ten times the number of Israelite males recorded in Exodus. We mark Yom Hashoah on 27 Nisan (this year postponed to the 28th). In Israel the day is marked by a siren signaling everything and everyone to stop for a moment of silence, and by shutting down many forms of public entertainment, including restaurants. Although in 1949 the Israeli rabbinate set Yom Hashoah to coincide with the fast on the 10th of Tevet, a day already marked by fasting to commemorate the start of the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar II in the sixth century B.C.E., it was eventually overshadowed by the new date, set by the Knesset in 1951. But liturgy is still developing, as are other traditions.

Next on our multilayered calendar of mourning is Yom Hazikaron, the day that precedes Israel Independence Day, when the more than 22,000 fallen defenders of Israel and victims of terrorism are remembered. It is a time increasingly noted even outside of Israel, where it is most often treated not as a separate full day of mourning, but as the prelude through which we transition into Yom Ha’atzmaut.

By the time we reach Yom Ha’atzmaut we are ready for a full-blown celebration of full-hearted joy to herald the achievement of an independent Jewish state, regardless of where we find ourselves regarding specific issues of Israeli policy. We have arrived, ready to sing and dance and rejoice together, unless, of course, we are inhibited by the story of Rabbi Akiva’s students. Which layer of memory holds sway? Does the modern fact of the State of Israel overrule the tradition of mourning? Surely the mourning should be suspended long enough to rejoice on the Hebrew anniversary of that day.

We recapture the Israelites’ journey from Egypt to Sinai in the 49 days that lead from Pesach to Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah. The Exodus would have been incomplete without Sinai. There would have been no purpose to releasing a bunch of slaves from bondage if they had not gone on to affirm their covenant with God, to accept Torah.

What do we make of the journey from Yom Hashoah to Yom Ha’atzmaut? Close to 10 years passed between 1938 and 1948, between Kristallnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass, and the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel. Although some argue that had there been no Holocaust, there would be no State of Israel, it is a mistake to see that as implying that the goal of the Holocaust was the establishment of the State of Israel. Reading history that way legitimates the Holocaust, and that is simply unacceptable, both morally and theologically. The Shoah was a series of events of incomprehensible human evil that served no purpose.

The cluster of post-Pesach holy days that mark memorable recent events of indubitable historicity does not seem entirely authentic in light of a tradition that stretches back more than 3,000 years, but we must remember that every tradition, from the components of charoset to the plant used for maror to the four questions to the shape of matzah, once was new. That’s why rabbinic literature records discussion of their development, and of course that is why variations in practice still obtain.

In shaping and developing new traditions we must take care to incorporate them within a frame that does justice to the events. If we do that, they will continue to become part of the collective memory of the Jewish people.