The Power of Collective Memory

Ki Teitzei, Deuteronomy 21:10–25:19

D'Var Torah By: Cantor Evan Kent

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, contains 72 of the 613 commandments. We read of laws regarding the taking captives, how to deal with a rebellious son, laws specific to the burying of the dead, whom you cannot marry, and laws of divorce. In addition to enumerating many laws, this portion also asks us multiple times to remember both our slavery and the Exodus from Egypt. When Moses shares the rules to not subvert the rights of the widow or the fatherless (Deuteronomy 24:17), he follows this commandment with a demand to recall the Israelite slavery experience:

Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and that the God redeemed you from there… (Deuteronomy 24:18).

Moses then commands the Israelites to leave fruit on their trees and crops in the field for those less fortunate (Deuteronomy 24: 19-21) – and again we are asked to remember our slavery and subsequent liberation:

Always remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore, do I enjoin you to observe this commandment (Deuteronomy 24:22).

We are also told to remember Miriam, not because of her attributes as a leader or as a prophetess, but rather as a warning to heed the rules for examining skin diseases:

In cases of a skin affection, be most careful to do exactly as the Levitical priests instruct you. Take care to do as I have commanded them. Remember what your God did to Miriam on the journey after you left Egypt (Deuteronomy 24:8-9).

Moses presents the Israelites with rules that will guide their future and here again amplifies these ordinances with an event from the community’s past. In Numbers 12:10, we recall Miriam’s skin affliction:

As the cloud withdrew from the Tent, there was Miriam stricken with snow-white scales. When Aaron turned toward Miriam, he saw that she was stricken with scales.

From Moses’ instructions to the Israelites, it is apparent that their collective future cannot be disassociated from their past. For both the ancient Israelite community and contemporary Jews, our collective memories continue to influence us as a people. The collective memory of Americans, for example, is likely to include such traumatic events as the assassination of President Kennedy, the 9/11 attacks, and the COVID-19 pandemic. On a lighter note, our collective memory might also include the appearance of The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Families, too, have memories that are passed down from generation to generation, like that car trip to the Grand Canyon or being present at Grandma’s 100th birthday party. According to the French Jewish philosopher and social scientist, Maurice Halbwachs (1877-1945), who is credited with inventing the term “collective memory,” these memories are transmitted through the group’s telling and retelling of shared stories.

Historian Yosef Yerushalmi (1932-2009) believes that the potency of Jewish collective memory is attributable to the fact that we reinforce memory through ritual. Moses’ request that the Exodus from Egypt be remembered is exemplified in the Passover seder, when we reenact the story of our enslavement and liberation from ancient Egypt. We hear Pharaoh’s voice and join Moses, Miriam, and Aaron and the thousands of Israelites as the sea parts to let our people cross to safety.

When we take the Torah scroll from the ark, we are enacting the giving of Torah at Sinai, and the hakafah through the congregation reminds us that we all stood at Sinai. On Yom Kippur, during the Avodah service, we join the ancient High Priest in the Holy of Holies, and the lighting of Hanukkah candles encapsulates the story of the Maccabees and rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem.

These examples help us to reinforce our collective memories as a people. but how do we retain and relive the collective memories of our immediate or extended family? One way is to adopt texts, rites and rituals that codify memories. Begin by asking our family elders to recount their life stories, record them, create special times to tell and retell these stories.

A few years ago, after moving to Jerusalem, I realized I needed to know and understand my grandparents’ journeys and stories, as I believed that their stories of immigration were linked to my own aliyah.  Even though they all had been deceased for decades, my parents aided me in recreating their lives and narratives. With the help of family heirlooms, sepia toned photos, immigration records, and sketchy memories, I wove together my grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ stories of hardship, exile, immigration, and survival. The gathered stories and memories of a generation long-gone have now become part of my own memory repository. And just like Moses, the assembled stories of the past make me better appreciate and understand both the present and the future.