Parashat Bo: We remember, therefore we are

There are seven commands to remember events in our history, two of which refer to Egypt.

"And Moses said to the nation: 'Remember [zachor] this day, when you went out from Egypt'" (Exodus 13:3). It is with this commandment to "remember" that the Bible concludes the first phase of the seminal experience of Hebrew enslavement. Indeed, there are seven commands to remember events in our history, two of which refer to Egypt. Many prayer books even publish these "remembrances" at the conclusion of the morning service because the sages ordain that these verses be repeated every day. Apparently the Bible deems it crucial that we remember. And the Bible is right, for memory forms the bedrock of identity. The fundamental response to the question "Who am I" is that "I am the sum total of my past memories and future aspirations." Few people are as tragic as Alzheimer's patients; individuals devoid of memory are individuals devoid of self. Hence it becomes vital to record pivotal moments of personal and national history. Any event which is not recorded and remembered did not really happen - so forgetting becomes tantamount to destruction, even to murder. No wonder that the outcry from Auschwitz and Treblinka was "not to be forgotten and not to be forgiven," and the Hebrew letters of zachor (zayin, chaf, resh) figure prominently in the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum. But our Bible and religious texts do not merely command remembrance; they teach us how to remember and what to remember. Mark how Maimonides defines our portion's command to remember the Exodus: "It is a positive commandment of the Bible to recount the miracles and wonders that were wrought for our ancestors in Egypt on the night of the 15th day of Nisan, as it is stated: 'Remember this day when you went out from Egypt' (Exodus 13:3), just like it is stated 'Remember the Sabbath day' (Exodus 20:7). And how do we know that this remembrance is to be on the night of the 15th? The Bible teaches this by declaring: 'And you shall tell your child on that day saying, It was because of this [these ritual acts]' - that's to say, at the time when the matza and maror (bitter herbs) are placed before you" (Maimonides, Laws of Hametz and Matza, 7,1). Maimonides is explaining that the command to remember what happened in Egypt is not merely cognitive; it is also affective. On Pessah we must actually relive the slavery as well as the freedom, the affliction as well as the redemption. This is the point of comparing the remembrance of the Exodus to the remembrance of Shabbat, both emphasizing zachor: we do not merely mention that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, but actually reexperience creation every week by working for six days and resting on the seventh. In like manner do we eat the bread of affliction, taste the bitter herbs, drink the wine of freedom and sing praises for our redemption on the first evening of Pessah, since "it is incumbent for each individual to see himself as though he himself came out of Egypt." In other words, true remembrance transforms the national past into present experience. When we do this, our memory truly lives, because it affects our lives today. Only if the historical event is truly internalized can there be a chance of learning from it to "love the stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt," to fight for the freedom of others because you know the suffering of the enslaved. And our sages also funnel and direct our memory to properly affect our future. Hence our biblical and rabbinic traditions urge us to eternalize our enslavement in Egypt - but only in the context of the Exodus. From this perspective, it behooves us to carefully examine the way we remember the Holocaust. Even after the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on Holocaust memorials and university chairs, and despite the 7 million hits the word "holocaust" summons on Google, a simple survey in Orlando, Florida (home of Disneyworld) reveals that 63 percent of passersby had no idea what or where Auschwitz was. Did the world learn so little? Why do we continue to see Jewish consciousness plummeting and assimilation rising, despite all this Holocaust communication? Is it not possible that repetitive references to mass slaughter serve to desensitize our consciousness to human destruction? Remember, Haim Nahman Bialik wrote his tragic poem "The City of Destruction" after the Kishinev pogrom, in which (only!) 36 people were killed. Many studies show that the flood of violence and bad language on television only serves to make us increasingly indifferent to such conduct in daily life. Even more to the point, a holocaust which emphasizes a "victim" psychology and a "battered wife" syndrome often serve to make people believe that we Jews must have deserved the treatment we received. No wonder the biblical command to remember Egypt insists on emphasizing our Exodus from there. If we learn to eternalize the Holocaust from our remembrance of the Egyptian experience, then at the same time that we mourn Auschwitz we must rejoice over the establishment of Israel only three years later. Our God is first and foremost a redeemer. Our Bible never minimizes the suffering which evil brings to the world. At the same time, however, it emphasizes our eventual removal from exile and servitude into the light of freedom in our own homeland - a reflection of our faith that eventually freedom and goodness will triumph. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.