History and Memories: Past and Present
As an historian, and especially as a Jewish historian, I have often wrestled with the dialogue between history and memory. For perhaps in no religious tradition are memory and history more interwoven than in Judaism. When God introduces Himself directly to the entire people at Sinai, for example, nothing is heard of His essence or attributes, but only: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, the house of bondage.” (Numbers 15:41) Thus ancient Israel knew what God was only from what He had done in history. Remembering– “Remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past” (Deuteronomy 32:7) –was essential to the faith. Indeed it ultimately determined its very existence.
Traditionally, Judaism saw in history a continual reworking of ancient events, ever present in the current human condition. Old patterns and familiar archetypes prevailed. An oppressor, for example, became another Haman; the seventeenth century German court Jew who tried to prevent disaster, a Mordecai. Contemporary events were readily assimilated to old conceptual frameworks. Even as late as the nineteenth-century, East European Hasidim viewed the Napoleonic wars as the wars of Gog and Magog in Ezekiel.
If within Judaism, the past was known, the Messianic future assured, and the in-between time obscure, if not irrelevant, what was the role of the Jewish historian? Until the modern period, there was virtually none. Even during those rare moments when individuals attempted to explain in economic and political terms such cataclysmic events as the Spanish expulsion—which emptied Western Europe of its Jews–, their explanations fell on deaf ears. Mysticism provided more satisfactory and compelling answers.
Ironically, but understandably, the modern effort to reconstruct the Jewish past began at a time of disruption in the continuity of Jewish living and an increasing diminution of Jewish group memory. “The barriers of the past,” the historian Hans Meyerhoff tells us, “have been pushed back as never before; our knowledge of the history of man and the universe has been enlarged on a scale and to a degree not dreamed of by previous generations. At the same time, the sense of identity and continuity with the past, whether our own or history’s, has gradually and steadily declined. Previous generations knew much less about the past than we do, but perhaps felta much greater sense of identity and continuity with it….”
One might argue that Jewish historians stepped in to fill the vacuum. Some even imagined that they might restore the wholeness of the past. But the very definition of our venture challenged the premises that were basic to all Jewish conceptions of history. Put somewhat differently, the writing of Jewish history, as Josef Yerushalmi has suggested, stands in sharp opposition to its own subject matter, not in one detail or another, but concerning the vital core: namely the belief that divine providence is both the ultimate and active causal factor in Jewish history and that Jewish history itself is intrinsically unique.
It is not just within Judaism, of course, that memory and history (as we understand it) assume radically different relations to the past. It is in their very nature. For the historian does not simply come to replenish the gaps of memory. The historian constantly challenges even those memories that have survived intact.
What about the text that we read on this shabbat morning? Surprisingly what we have before us in chapter 11 verses 4-45 is not a tension between history and memory—indeed we are provided with history-like details about clans and numbers and names—but rather we are presented with a cautionary tale that even memory itself may be problematic– that memory itself can pose a challenge to the Jewish people.
The Israelites have been wandering in the desert for two years. They are frustrated and dissatisfied: “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!”
Angered, God decides that for a month he will give those who are complaining what they remember so fondly: “A wind from the Lord started up, swept quail from the sea and strewed them over the camp, about a day’s journey on this side and about a day’s journey on that side, all around the camp, and some two cubits deep on the ground. The people set to gathering quail all that day and night and all the next day….”
But then, with the meat still between their teeth, not yet chewed, “the anger of the LORD blazed forth against the people and the LORD struck the people with a very severe plague. That place was named Kibroth-hattaavah, because the people who had the craving were buried there.”
Gluttonous memories had led the Israelites to reject the Lord who was among them. Gluttonous memories had brought death to the Israelites of the dessert.
On reading this text, I thought of passages from two of my favorite authors, Amos Oz and Yehuda Amichai. To be sure their context is not Sinai but rather contemporary Israel. And yet, with the passion of a Biblical prophet, each warns his fellow Jews of the danger of holding on to memories that stand in the way of living in the present, that stand in the way of peace, that stand in the way of redemption.
Amos Oz wrote In the Land of Israel at a moment of moral crisis– shortly after the Lebanon war and the massacres at Sabra and Shatila. It is a snapshot in time, a mirror placed before his fellow countrymen of the contemporary political and social landscape of Israel.
The last chapter of In the Land of Israel is titled “At the End of that Autumn: A Midwinter Epilogue” and focuses on the city of Ashdod.
“A small Mediterranean city is Ashdod,” Oz writes. “A pleasant city, unpretentious, with a port and a lighthouse, and a power station and factories and many landscaped avenues. Not pretending to be Paris or Zurich or aspiring to be Jerusalem. A city planned by social democrats: without imperial boulevards, without monuments, without grandiose merchants’ homes. A city living entirely in the present tense,…”
At the end of the chapter, on the very last page of the book, Oz once again describes Ashdod, this time making abundantly clear why he has chosen this unpretentious city to conclude his tour of Israel.
“A pretty city and to my mind a good one, this Ashdod. And she is all we have that is our own. Even in culture and in literature: Ashdod. All those who secretly long for the charms of Paris or Vienna, for the Jewish shtetl, or for heavenly Jerusalem: do not cut loose from those longing–for what are we without our longings?–but let’s remember that Ashdod is what there is. And she is not quite the grandiose fulfillment of the vision of the Prophets and of the dream of generations, not quite a world premiere, but simply a city on a human scale. If only we try to look at her with a calm eye, we will surely not be shamed or disappointed. Ashdod is a city on a human scale on the Mediterranean coast. And from her we shall see what will flower when peace and a little repose finally come. Patience, I say. There is no shortcut.”
Yehuda Amichai, the great poet of the modern city, eloquently echoes the pleas of Oz. Sitting one day with two loaded baskets of fruit, he overheard a tourist guide saying: “You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there is an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head.” “I said to myself,” Amichai writes: “redemption will come only if their guide tells them: ‘You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important; but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who has brought fruit and vegetables for his family.’”
Are all memories then condemned in our text? Not at all. But the obligation to remember is explicitly placed only on God. As for the Israelites, if attacked, they are commanded to sound short blasts on their trumpets that they may be remembered before the Lord. And they are commanded on joyous occasions to sound their trumpets as well– as a reminder before God. In order to remind, of course, the Israelites themselves must first remember: not, however, the delights of their gastronomic lives in Egypt, but rather their covenant with God.
I would like to conclude with Yehuda Amichai’s poem “Forgetting Someone.” As profound as it is brief, it, too, speaks to our text:
Forgetting someone is like
Forgetting to put out the light in the back yard
And leaving it on all day:
But it’s the light
That makes you remember