Our Jewish tradition speaks frequently about the gift of memory. One of the most devastating illnesses of our times is Alzheimer's, a disease that destroys memory. Families are overcome by anguish when parents no longer recall who their children are. Their past has been blotted out. In fact, "to blot out the memory" is one of the strongest curses in the Jewish tradition.
The festival of Passover is the prime example of the importance that Judaism places on memory. Every holiday and Sabbath are to be observed as "a memorial of the Exodus from Egypt." It is in this week's Torah portion, Parashat Bo, that we read the words that "this day shall be to you one of remembrance." (Exodus 12:14)
What is it that we are supposed to remember? Someone once remarked that too frequently we suffer from "spiritual amnesia." We perform certain rituals, but we don't know why we do them. A good example is the commandment of putting up a mezuzah. I recall being implored by a lady to come to her house that afternoon to put up her mezuzah because she was afraid to move into her new home without having a mezuzah affixed to her doorpost. The reason for the mezuzah is that it serves as a memory aid, causing us to recall the commandments of Judaism as we enter and leave our home. It should not be regarded as a Jewish lightning rod!
One of the purposes of ritual is the expression of an array of ideas and ideals through an act. The Passover seder encompasses so much and is one of the most universally observed rituals in Judaism. For some, it is merely a reason for the gathering of the family. For others, it is an opportunity to review the miracle of Jewish history, remembering all the catastrophes and triumphs that have checkered our journey as a people. Passover is also a call to our concern for all peoples to sound the cry for freedom for all those in bondage-spiritual bondage, the bondage of poverty, and the bondage of ignorance.
We might also reflect on what we remember as we celebrate the Jewish holidays and why they are connected to the Exodus from Egypt. Why is that event so central to our faith? And what does the Sabbath have to do with Passover? In the Kiddush for the Shabbat, we reiterate that, "the Sabbath is a reminder of the Exodus from Egypt." Perhaps the connection lies in the fact that the Sabbath is the true day of freedom from the obligations that we must fulfill during the workday week. The freedom of the Sabbath, like that of the Jewish Holy Days, can be awesome! We have to be able to observe them in a special way that recognizes who and what we are.
One of the interesting aspects of the word exodus is that it indicates a continuing process: We are always "going out" of Egypt. We haven't fully left, and we haven't fully arrived. In a beautiful poem, Rabbi Alvin Fine says, "Life is a journey, a sacred journey...." We as Jews have been on such a collective journey, ever seeking to leave Egypt and arrive at some special place. The prophet Jeremiah exhorted the Jews who were in exile in Babylonia to build houses, etc., and to pray for the welfare of the community. We, too, while on our journey, should seek to accomplish the most for our communities, wherever we may be.
Another question comes to mind as we ponder what we should remember, namely, What should we forget? It is remarkable that Jews have never expressed resentment against Egypt for the many years of slavery our ancestors spent there. Is it because that event happened so long ago? How long should we harbor anger against Spain, Germany, and the countries that persecuted us in the past? One of the notable events of modern times was the way in which Israel welcomed President Anwar Sadat of Egypt to Jerusalem. We chose not to remember the cruelties that had preceded this event. Do we tend to remember too much and forget too little? This week's portion is a call to remember the good and forget that which makes us less than human.
Harold Kudan is the founding rabbi of Am Shalom, Glencoe, IL.