This Shabbat, on which we read the first words of the book VaYikra, called Leviticus, is also called Zakhor, “remember”.
For Jews, to remember is to do. This assumption – that the mental act prompts a physical one – is encoded in the ancient Hebrew:
וַיְהִי בַיָּמִים הָרַבִּים הָהֵם, וַיָּמָת מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם, וַיֵּאָנְחוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל מִן-הָעֲבֹדָה, וַיִּזְעָקוּ; וַתַּעַל שַׁוְעָתָם אֶל-הָאֱלֹהִים, מִן-הָעֲבֹדָה.
It came to pass in the course of this long time that the king of Egypt died; and the children of Israel were groaning under their bondage, and they cried out, and their cry came up unto G-d.
וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-נַאֲקָתָם; וַיִּזְכֹּר אֱלֹהִים אֶת-בְּרִיתוֹ, אֶת-אַבְרָהָם אֶת-יִצְחָק וְאֶת-יַעֲקֹב.
G-d heard their cries, and G-d remembered the covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. (Exodus 2.23-24)
Jewish tradition teaches that we are to regard stories which depict G-d in human terms for their role model value. G-d clothed Adam and Eve, so should we clothe those in need; G-d buried Moshe, so we see to it that people are properly buried; G-d provides food for all through the processes of nature, so we make sure that the natural abundance of our world reaches all who are hungry.
So too here: G-d remembers that human beings are suffering, and moves to alleviate it, and the wheel of history turns. And as a result of this ancient linguistic idiom, Judaism develops an ethic: to remember, to take note, is to act. A good person can never note a problem and simply turn away, assuming that someone else will respond.
And so it is that we do what we can to move that wheel when it is our turn, even if only by a few inches. We are not called upon to fix the problem we face, necessarily, but we are expected to do our part, as the rabbinic saying goes:
לא עליך כל המלאכה לגמור, ולא אתה בן חורין ליבטל It is not up to you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it. (Mishnah, Pirke Avot 2.19)
So we do what we can, knowing that the only unacceptable response is the refusal to engage, and do what we can.
The Jewish ethic of remembering and doing offers us a curious question: What does it mean to say that G-d remembers? is it possible to say that G-d forgets? and for those of us who don’t think of G-d as a being who either remembers or forgets, but as a non-anthropomorphic reality or presence, what do either of those words mean?
Yizkor, “may G-d remember”, is the first word of the ritual we observe four times a year in memory of our loved ones who have died. If G-d is just a king on a throne, so to speak, then maybe that sort of divinity needs reminding. But consider it differently: perhaps we are expressing a desire for the memory of a loved one to continue to be remembered, in a way that causes an act, a change, in the world as it is, even though they are no longer with us. Perhaps what we are really saying is “may the world remember – and be affected by that memory”.
That is what brings us to the desire to see a photograph, or hear a voice recording, and know that it is extant in the world because it keeps a loved one more fully in that world. More profoundly appropriate, that is why in Jewish tradition one gives tzedakah as a memorial. Not because of the name alone, but because through the tzedakah that name is not only remembered, but good is enacted as well. And that is the moment in which we truly are sharing in a remembrance that is of G-d.
Every time you move that wheel just a bit, in memory of someone you loved, you bring that loved one into the Memory of the World.
This Shabbat is one of the special Shabbatot that reminds us of the approach of Pesakh – a time for Yizkor and a time for tzedakah. May you find a meaningful way to remember and to do, in honor of a memory you cherish.
This week’s parashah begins with a somewhat unusually detailed description of a ritual meant to give thanks for the harvest. Later in the parashah we are told to celebrate with a big meal and invite all your friends, and be generous too, and invite neighbors and others who might otherwise be left out. The initial verses offer us some interesting guidance into how we ourselves are meant to see our own “harvests”, even if we have only a very small garden and the real strength of the passage is metaphorical:
When you enter the land that the Eternal your G-d is giving you as a heritage,
and you possess it and settle in it….
We spend our early years getting settled into some kind of living, including making a living. Some will accumulate possessions, and others experiences; but at some point each one of us realizes that we are the fortunate recipients of a harvest.
What have you harvested in your life? what form do the fruits of your labors take? How do you share them, and when?
….you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil which you harvest
from the land that the Eternal your G-d is giving you,
put it in a basket,
and go to the place where the Eternal will choose to cause the Name to dwell.
You shall go to the priest in charge at that time and say to him,
“I acknowledge this day before the Eternal your G-d
that I have entered into the land that the Eternal swore to our ancestors
to give us.” ….You shall leave it before the Eternal your G-d
and bow low before the Eternal your G-d. (Devarim 26.1-3…10)
In ancient Israel, the harvest was a tricky thing: weather permitting, local political and social conditions allowing, and, of course, no locusts, one might actually eke out enough of a harvest to be able to recite a special blessing, the one you say when you have “eaten AND been satisfied”. The latter condition was not always realistic.
Our ancestors understood that in order to encourage the flow of goodness, some of it had to be given back, just as fallen fruit in an orchard is plowed under to become a simple fertilizer, and to help nurture the next year’s crop. Burying figs near the fig tree’s roots is an easy way to thank the fig tree; but how does one give thanks for the fact that fig trees exist, and that I exist to eat them? How does one give thanks meaningfully to the Source of Life?
Our ancestors brought some of each type of food they harvested and gave it to God, in a nice basket no less.This supported the Temple workers (aka the Levites, who don’t have harvests because instead of fields, their assignment in the Promised Land is the Temple). The Temple’s existence made it possible for there to be a place for the average Israelite to focus upon when it came time to express gratitude.
How do you give thanks for what you have? Tzedakah is, of course, the classic Jewish expression of gratitude. It originally referred to the amount you were required to give over and above your taxes. In the narrowest sense of the word, it is still that. But some of us don’t make enough to pay taxes…and that does not mean that we do not still have a lot of gratitude to express. Happiness, as it has been noted in song, story and modern sociological study, is not dependent upon money.
Note one final thought: when you are moved to express your thanks for what you have, it’s not enough to donate something that’s second hand, damaged in transit, or just something you no longer want or need:
What is the “first fruit”? According to the Mishnah, the farmer goes into the field regularly to check on the progress of the crop. When the farmer sees the first ripening, a ribbon is tied around the stem of the fruit; this is the first fruit. If it also turns out later to be the very best fruit, that is all the better. But the meaning of the “first fruit” is faith: to give back the first fruit, before one even knows if one will have enough, is to express one’s understanding that it is not my skill that created this, and it does not belong to me. Rather, this is a blessing bestowed upon me, and in giving it away I assert that I believe that, as long as I live a life of integrity in community, I can depend on having “enough”, whatever that turns out to mean.
We no longer have a Temple to bring first fruits to, but we have our sacred places, and at our best, that is what we are called upon to bring to them. To give of one’s first fruits to G-d is to assert faith in the long-term outcome of your faithful daily engagement in the world, no matter what it is you do to make a living, and to make your life. On this Shabbat, may you truly be able to see the richness of your harvests, and find joy in giving of the best that you have, secure in the knowledge that more blessing will always come your way.