Shabbat in Pesakh II: Bring Your Memory

Holidays are special. Families gather, or they don’t, and either way, the past is more present with us. Pesakh occurs during the full moon and, like the ocean under that same moon, the tides of life grow more intense. It is not unusual for older people to die on the eve of a holiday. There is something about these times, when our gaze wanders further, toward the horizon, and grows thoughtful.

Jews are a people of memory, and during Pesakh, even more so. We are to remember the Exodus from Egypt every day, and every Shabbat – and during this time of re-living it, kal v’homer, as our Sages say, “how much more so.”

On this Shabbat morning, the holy day which is the last day of Pesakh, we will recite the prayers of Yizkor, one of four times a year when we speak ancient words that express our hope not to be forgotten after our deaths, and remember our loved ones who have gone before us. If we forget them, it seems, in some way, as if they did not exist.

Curiously, though, the term yizkor does not mean “may I remember”. It literally means “May G*d remember”. This begs the question: does G*d forget? 

And such a clumsy question it is. In order to ask such a question one must presuppose an anthropomorphic G*d, a bit greater, perhaps, than the greatest human being, but not that much if this Divine Being, like us, has trouble remembering. 

I invite you to let your gaze upon that question grow wider, to encompass more of the true horizon and depth of the possibility. Keep in mind that on Pesakh, as on the other Festivals, we are commanded to remember. What does it mean to pray that G*d should remember, if that prayer is not the expression of a sense that memory moves through us and beyond us, part of something greater than us – and that something which is of us and beyond us and to which we belong as waves belong to the sea is G*d?

In the Torah text for this Second Shabbat during Pesakh we read:

שָׁלוֹשׁ פְּעָמִים בַּשָּׁנָה יֵרָאֶה כָל-זְכוּרְךָ אֶת-פְּנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בַּמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחָר–בְּחַג הַמַּצּוֹת וּבְחַג הַשָּׁבֻעוֹת, וּבְחַג הַסֻּכּוֹת; וְלֹא יֵרָאֶה אֶת-פְּנֵי יְהוָה, רֵיקָם.

Three times in a year all your zakhur shall appear before ה your God in the designated place; at the feast of Matzah, and on the feast of Weeks, and on the feast of the Sukkah; and none shall not appear before ה empty;

אִישׁ, כְּמַתְּנַת יָדוֹ, כְּבִרְכַּת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר נָתַן-לָךְ.

everyone shall give as you are able, according to the blessing of ה your God as you have known it. (Devarim 16.16-17)

The word zakhur is usually translated “males”, since the root can indeed mean “male”. But it also means “memory”. And memory has no gender….Three times a year, then, we are obligated to bring up, conjure up, offer up, our memories. If we do not, it is as if we have come to this great moment empty. But if we do, then all that has come before us sings through us, and we will know what it is to be Memory. 

On this Shabbat of the last day of Pesakh, may you remember all the lives you have known, and may they sing through you – and thus may you know the fullness of the blessing you bring to the world.

Pesakh: You Must Remember This

The following is a teaching of Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger (1847-1905), author of the Sefat Emet, a book of his insights into the parashat hashavua and also the Jewish holy days. This is an edited paraphrase of one of his Pesakh teachings:
Of Pesakh it says, “this day will be a remembrance for you” (Ex.12.14) and “so that you remember the day you came out of Egypt” (Deut.16.3), and “Keep the [holy days of] matzot” (Ex.12.17). Memory is a point within, one where there is no forgetfulness. It has to be “kept” i.e. guarded lest it flow into the place where forgetting occurs. That is why “keep” and “remember” are said in the same single utterance at Sinai.
Every Pesakh the Jew becomes like a newborn child again, just as we were when we came out of Egypt. The point of remembrance within us is renewed. That primal point within is like matzah, which is just the dough itself, simple, with no fermentation or expansion. On this holiday of matzot the inner point, simple, unchanging, pure, is renewed. We do the work of Pesakh when we fulfill the command “keep the [holy days of] matzot” by taking time to renew the point within, the point of memory. We ask questions of others who remember what we remember, what we need to remember in order to guard that inner flame that keeps and guards us, as we keep and guard it.
It is striking that in this teaching, it is very clear that human free will, and human agency, are vitally important to human wholeness. We are not meant to passively sit back and wait for Divine grace to shower down upon us, nor to spend all day praying for it. Abraham, the quintessential Jew, defines that identity by his act of moving forward into uncharted territory – purposeful movement toward meaning is itself part of the creation of that meaning. During Pesakh we are reminded that in order to become the Jewish People, the communal equivalent of Abraham’s journey had to be repeated. Once again we ventured forth, purposefully moving toward meaning, into an unknown future that we would summon by our own act of moving forward.
As it is said, nishmat adam ner Ad-nai, “the human soul is God’s candle”. As one Rabbinic commentary observed, it is as if God said to Abraham, “go, and light the way before Me.” As we move forward into the future, as we choose the acts that make our lives meaningful, we bring illumination not only to ourselves, but to God as well. We are partners in a Covenant that truly calls upon us to keep and guard the meaning of our people’s memories through our own actions – and the meaning of those memories will stand or fall upon our willingness to take on that responsibility.
May our acts bring the illumination of our memories to bless our shared future.
hag Pesakh sameakh v’kasher, may your Pesakh celebration be joyful and fit.