Does Jewish history define who we are? No, but how we remember and interpret it does. How we remember our history ultimately determines not only our cultural identity, but our moral identity as well.
In this season between Passover and Shavuot, we drench ourselves in history and its meaning. Just when we might have thought that recounting narratives of suffering and redemption had reached their height, we count our way through seven more weeks of an intense encounter with history. Soon, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, we will focus on remembering the Holocaust’s victims and heroes, and soon thereafter we remember and commemorate Israel’s fallen soldiers and the countless Israeli and Jewish victims of terrorism. And then, exhausted from so much painful memory, we ultimately erupt in celebrations of our national independence. All of this in the space of a few weeks, leading up to the celebration of receiving the supreme book of memory, the Torah, on Shavuot.
To the onlooker, given the intensity of this ritualized remembering, Jewish tradition and Israeli society might seem preoccupied with the past. We are. Yet we are preoccupied religiously and culturally with the past not just because it is uniquely ours, but because of who we have become as a result of it. From the first Jewish book that interpreted history, we have learned that how we remember the past determines our moral character.
Passover is the supreme example of how the interpretation of history determines morality in the future. The story of the Exodus from Egypt wouldn’t have such a deep influence on the character of Judaism if we weren’t both (1) constantly recalling it in our daily prayers and rituals – a process we reenact and bring to a climax at the Passover Seder – and (2) interpreting that history toward moral imperatives. It’s not just our story, but the interpretation of our story that determines how we understand the plight and need of humanity as a whole.
Indeed, the sages taught that simply retelling the Exodus is an act worthy of praise: “Kol hamarbeh l’saper b’yitziat mitzrayim, harei zeh meshubah” (everyone who discusses the Exodus from Egypt at length, that is praiseworthy). But the Torah is quick to teach us to interpret that history far beyond our own selfish need to remember our story and how our people have suffered.
For any one of us who has lost family in the crucibles of history, we know how much that loss is etched into our memory and influences who we are. Memory is so powerful because it binds us tightly to the past. That’s another purpose of the Haggada: to make sure that every Jew sees him- or herself as though he or she actually experienced redemption from Egypt.
Still, the ancient sages were wise to teach us not only to remember the past as though it happened to us, but also to be careful how we interpret it, because that interpretation shapes how we respond morally to the challenges of the future.
Deuteronomy and its later commentaries repeat the moral imperatives that should emerge from retelling the Exodus narrative: “You shall love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:19). Later verses assert that it is our experience of suffering that compels us to care for others who are vulnerable. Because we were slaves, we are commanded to leave the corners of our fields for the stranger, the widow and the orphan – because “we remember that we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt” (Deut. 24:18-19).
Is this communal response to the reality of poverty and vulnerability a necessary or obvious consequence of suffering? Not necessarily. Perhaps this is why the connection is made over and over again in the Bible and its commentaries. How we respond to the needs of the present is determined by how we understand what happened to us. Do we become more insular and self-protective? Or more universal and engaged with the needs of the world? If the Deuteronomist wanted to ensure that the memory of our enslavement wouldn’t make us so self-protective that we ignore suffering around us, then shouldn’t contemporary commentators of more modern events do the same? Each of the sacred days of this season forces a collective confrontation with perhaps the most stunning and disturbing events of our shared history. The ritualization of such confrontations from Passover to Yom Ha’atzmaut helps to build our sense of duty and responsibility toward the past which forms, in theological terminology, a covenant with the Jewish people throughout history. But just as we are covenanted with the Jewish people of the past, bound to them through our historical memory, we are also bound to the Jewish people of the future. How we remember those events, how they influence the way we see ourselves and the other, absolutely influences the kind of communities and country we will build.
■ The writer, a PhD, is a president’s scholar and national director of recruitment and admissions at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. She also teaches for the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.