Cultivating Memory Despite Pain

Neurologist Oliver Sacks described a patient with absolutely no memory and asked, “Does this person have a soul?” Underneath his question was the awareness that our identity, our relationships, our life’s journey depend on our recollections. To cultivate memory is to honor an essential ingredient of life.

Hebrew Scripture is obsessed with remembering and commands 169 times “Zachor,” the Hebrew word “remember!” Memory in a religious context serves identity, purpose and wisdom.

On Passover, we are challenged to personalize the collective story of a slave past: “In each generation a person is obligated to see him or herself as if he or she went out from Egypt.” Our eyes water when chewing the bitter herbs, a taste of slavery. This memory making is a duty whether we were born Jews or adopted into the Jewish people. We consciously choose the memories that become our own. From our collective suffering, we are guided to extract universal values. Our origins as slaves, the Bible repeatedly reminds us impose identification with those who lack freedom and dignity and an obligation to serve as G-d’s agents of change. At Passover services in synagogues, we also recite Yizkor, to recall deceased family members. Such memories are bitter-sweet, acknowledging both physical absence and the enduring presence of love.

Moments of sorrow touch each of our lives. To acknowledge the pain of the past does not mean to dwell upon it. But, by including those dark memories as part of our life’s canvas provides a contrast to the brighter colors of gratitude and goodness, thereby producing a far more vibrant, expressive art work. To avoid pain at all costs is to grow dull. I hear the accounts of Holocaust survivors who say, “After the war, I could not cry, nor could I laugh.” To live fully means to feel fully: Honoring pain as part of life and embracing the goodness that warms us.

“Time heals,” as memories natural fade. The same is true for memories of connection. In that regard, I am concerned for the American-Jewish community. Our Jewish memories dilute unless actively maintained. An immigrant past becomes weaker as we no longer hear the accented recollections of family members. The horrors of World War II are distant. And sadly, our ritual engagement geared to evoke and personalize memories become less practiced. The richness and joy of communal belonging hinges on cultivating memories.
Why travel to places, such as Eastern Europe, that evoke dark memories? First, to engage the teachings of Jewish sages spoken in those specific places over hundred of years.

Secondly, to say, “we are still here!”— a triumph of survival that is a reminder that we Jews have endured many attempts to eliminate us and we have triumphed with vibrant lives. Third, because the pain of the past is also part of our Jewish identity. And last, to rekindle the religious mandate to prevent such pain both for the Jewish people and for all of G-d’s children.

To cultivate memory is to live. And “to life” is our toast to the complexity of our identity and its richness.


P.S. For a fuller examination of the lessons learned from the Holocaust, consider viewing my recent Yom Kippur sermon on this topic: