As I was standing at last week’s Remembrance Day service in Johannesburg, I was filled with sadness at the seeming futility of remembrance. The clichés of fallen soldiers living on through our memorials seemed so empty.

What is human memory after all? Nothing but images, recollections and thoughts – intangible, ethereal and even more fleeting than our physical lives on this earth. Mere mortals, we are here today and gone tomorrow, with no trace left of our physical existence, and certainly no trace left of the intangible memories embedded deep in our fragile brain tissue.

And yet, the sacredness of memory and the commandments to remember are important parts of Judaism: “Remember the day you left Egypt”; “Be careful lest you forget what your eyes saw... on the day you stood before G-d at Sinai”; “Remember the Shabbat day.”

This deep moral appreciation for human memory has, over thousands of years, seeped into the Jewish psyche and as a result the State of Israel and Jews around the world excel at memorials and at remembering. Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars, Holocaust Remembrance Day, museums, memorial centers are so much a part of modern Jewish life.

How do we make sense of all of this? “There is no forgetfulness before Your throne of glory.”

These words of our sages are the secret to understanding the concept of memory.

Human memory is indeed fleeting and is as temporary as the human body, which comes from dust and returns to dust. But G-d is eternal and He gave the gift of immortality to the soul which He implanted in a brittle body; and He also gave the gift of eternity to our deeds in this world. No deed – great or small, good or bad – is forgotten by G-d. Every mitzva a person does in this world has eternal merit before Hashem, who gathers together and records every action of every human being throughout the billions of lives over all of these millennia.

“For a thousand years in Your eyes is like yesterday that has passed” (Psalms 90).

From G-d’s perspective the passage of time means nothing. The soul and its legacy of deeds in this world are forever.

And so, as the people and the State of Israel gathered on Remembrance Day and Jewish communities throughout the Diaspora joined in solidarity with memorial services on all continents of the globe, we all did so in the comfort of knowing that the legacy of our fallen heroes is not dependent on the fleeting fragility of our mortal memories and our temporary earthly lives. True remembrance only resides with G-d. The souls of the fallen soldiers stand before G-d forever with eternal merit – the merit of defending the state and the people of Israel and Jews around the world, the merit of their bravery and absolute selflessness in sacrificing life itself so that their fellow Jews can live in safety and security.

These holy souls and their holy actions are never forgotten by G-d and their merit is eternal, more eternal than anything we know of in this physical world. And so too on Holocaust Remembrance Day we take strength in knowing that the six million holy souls of those murdered in the Holocaust are “bound up in the eternal bond of life” with G-d Himself, Who continually gives them eternal reward and blessing for their horrific suffering and painful martyrdom which they endured for His sake.

The memory and eternal merit of the righteous heroes of the past are not in our hands. They don’t need us for that. And indeed we couldn’t begin to do that for them. How can we temporal beings bestow eternity on others? Yizkor, the great remembrance prayer of Jewish tradition, says “Yizkor Elokim” – may G-d remember, not us – because only He can; it is only with the Eternal One, Who was, is and always will be, that any concept of eternity exists.

This begs the question: If human memory is so fleeting and futile, why are there so many commandments in the Torah to remember? Perhaps the secret to understanding this lies in the commandment, “Remember the Shabbat day to keep it holy.” How can the concept of memory possibly apply to something which occurs each week? Clearly, from a Torah perspective, memory is not only about remembering past events but about remembering the ideas which emerge from those events and keeping them in the forefront of our hearts and minds for today and the future.

Thus, the commandment to remember Shabbat is not merely about remembering the very first Shabbat in history, but about living today with an awareness of the Shabbat principles of faith in G-d as a loving, involved and awesome Creator. Certain defining events of the past are moral signposts for how to live today, and we are called upon to remember them. Remembering the Exodus from Egypt is about understanding that we were born into slavery and were freed by G-d; and that our faith in Him, as our liberator and a director of history, is central to our identity and destiny. Remembering the experience of receiving the Torah from G-d at Mount Sinai is about embracing our divine mission, moral vision and duties for today and into the future.

From these mitzvot we learn how to remember the past. Remembering our fallen soldiers is not about granting them immortality – only G-d can do that – but it is to sensitize us to acknowledge with humble gratitude their sacrifices on our behalf, and to ensure that the bereaved families are properly respected and cared for. It is not about our fleeting memories of the past, but about the moral imperative of how we live in the present.

Likewise, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, how can we have the audacity to claim that the holy memories of those who were murdered are in our hands to preserve? Their souls are in G-d’s loving hands and it is He who bestows eternal merit on them. We remember in order to fulfill our moral duty to feel the agony and tragedy of our people in the darkness of the death camps, and for us, with respect and trepidation, to acknowledge their suffering and horrors.

As we remember the heroes and martyrs of the past we learn what true immortality is about. As we reflect on the generations who have left this world we realize how fleeting and almost pathetic life is. As the verses from Psalms recited before Yizkor say: “But what is man that You notice him? Man is like a fleeting breath. His days are like a passing shadow. In the morning he blossoms and is rejuvenated and by evening is cut down and brittle.” And yet there is a very deep psychological need for immortality.

The Tree of Life was the tempting counterpart to the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. People are constantly seeking ways to grasp some fragment of immortality.

Our physical bodies are indeed fleeting; however, through our souls G-d has placed immortality at the heart of our beings. As the Yizkor verses go on to express, “The dust returns to the earth as it was, but the spirit returns to G-d Who gave it.”

How pathetic and empty is any attempt to find immortality in the dust of the physical world. No building, monument, or physical memorial of this world can ever give a person the gift of immortality. The only eternal monuments of our lives are the good deeds we take with us when our immortal souls return to G-d after leaving the physical world, thereby fulfilling the final of the Yizkor verses, “I, in righteousness, will see Your face, and be blessed with a vision of You when I awake.”

The writer is chief rabbi of South Africa.

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