Memory – not only the act of remembering, but nurturing and sustaining memory – is central to the Jewish ethos. “Zakhor” – you shall remember: remember what Amalek did; remember how you angered God; remember what God did to Miriam; remember the Sabbath day; remember when you stood at Mt Sinai; and of course, remember the day you were redeemed from Egypt. We are to keep these memories alive, to experience their power in our day-to-day lives. “A person must see herself as if she went out of Egypt.” Such memory vivifies us and shapes our experience and perception of the world.
The first mitzvah to remember occurs in our parsha: “Remember this day that you have come out of Egypt from the house of slavery” (Exodus 13:3). Keep the Passover holiday from generation to generation, and “tell your child on that day saying: ‘This is done because of what the Lord did for me when I came forth from Egypt’.” (Ex. 13:8).
Memory is then made tangible. We are to bind this memory as a sign upon our arms. Wrap yourself in tefillin. Make this memory a part of who you are.
With all of this emphasis on remembering, it is startling to note that the Torah does not tell us exactly what the memory of these events is supposed to teach us. The one lesson mentioned in the verses is that God took us out of Egypt. But what, specifically, should we learn from that? Is it that God exists? That God is all-powerful? That we have a special relationship with God? What we do with this memory, the lessons we take from it, is open-ended. It is for us to form and shape this memory, to remember the events and tell the story in a way that is meaningful for us.
Of course, this is the essence of the seder night. We have a mitzvah to remember the Exodus and tell its story. The Rabbis, however, direct us to not recite the story but to explicate it. We are to be doresh, to derive meaning from the narrative, just as the Rabbis did with every phrase of the Biblical account.
And so our seder night is all about questions and answers. What are the deeper messages of the fact that God has taken us out of Egypt? Why were we enslaved? What was the purpose of the makkot? And on and on. A remembering that is active, engaged, and alive cultivates a memory that can shape our lives.
This, for me, is key in thinking about this period that we are living through – the period of the coronavirus – that God-willing we are in the process of exiting now with the distribution of the vaccine. It is a period of redemption – slow, not sudden like the Exodus, but a redemption nonetheless. It is a redemption from a state that the world has never experienced. A true pandemic, one that reached all corners of the world, and a world-changing event, a year in which our public life and direct contact with one another was almost completely eliminated.
So after we are redeemed, what will we do to remember these events? Will we try to create and cultivate a memory that will impact depth and nuance to our lives and to how we see the world?
Many of us would undoubtedly like to just forget about it all. Put it in the past and move on, without trying to commemorate this period. But the Torah teaches us that we must remember even those bad events in our lives, and to learn the lessons inherent in them – Remember what Amalek did to you. Remember what God did to Miriam when you left Egypt. Remember how you angered God in the wilderness.
The period of the coronavirus is likely the most powerful moment not just in our lives, but in decades, and even in generations. What are we going to do to remember this and what about this are we going to remember?
When it comes to how to remember something, the Torah in our parsha gives us two distinct ways. One is dedicating a date to this event. Maybe it’s the date that the vaccine was discovered. Maybe dedicate the Shabbat of the reading of Tazria, with its sections of tzarrat. Pick some date that is significant and commemorate that date on the calendar, and then spend time to reflect on what happened. What was the story? What are the lessons we can learn?
The other way is that of tefillin, of making a concrete sign. Maybe take a mask and hang it up somewhere in the house. I bought a divider so I could have an office space. Maybe after all this is done, I will keep that divider in a corner of the house, and we look at it and ask, why is this here? And then remember and reflect.
Memory associated with time is a communal experience. Shuls can dedicate a Shabbat to have speakers and open discussions about these events. Memory associated with concrete objects is a private, personal experience. An opportunity to think and process these events ourselves, or with those closest to us. And there are so many lessons that we can take away from these experiences.
We can use this opportunity to remember those who died and to commemorate their memory. Unlike the story of the Exodus, we know the names of those who died, and we can find a way to connect directly to their lives and to their passing. We can reflect on the lessons learned about the inequity of the healthcare system and about how some populations had greater fatalities and received less treatment than others. We can talk about the valor and the courage of medical professionals and the frontline workers. We can discuss the solidarity that we exhibited at that time, or the dedication, ingenuity, and creativity of the medical and scientific community that was able to discover a vaccine in breathtaking time. Maybe there are lessons to be learned about how we can connect with each other even when we are physically apart, and how aspects of our society can be different – and better – than they were.
What will our lemaan tizkor (“in order that you remember”) be? How will we commemorate the corona? As we exit this period, I encourage all of us to ask: Will we pick a date? Will we pick a symbol? What are we going to do so we do not just ascribe this to the memory heap, but to make this an active memory, a living memory that continues to shape our lives going forward, as we enter into a new, renewed society? And you shall remember that you were attacked by the corona, and redeemed from it.