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Sermon: Parshat Vaetchanan, 7/31/20

08/04/2020 04:49:02 PM


Rabbi Charlie

To see a recording of Rabbi Charlie's sermon, please click HERE.

Shabbat Shalom!

Elie Wiesel wrote, “I marvel at the resilience of the Jewish people. Their best characteristic is their desire to remember. No other people has such an obsession with memory.”

We see this throughout this week’s Torah portion. Multiple times Moses instructs us not to forget what we saw, not to forget our covenant with God. Moses instructs us to remember our experiences as slaves so we’ll remember to observe Shabbat. The Ten Commandments and first paragraph of the Shema are in this week’s Torah portion – Remember Sinai. Teach our children – to remember, talk about the mitzvot – to remember, wearing tefillin and placing mezuzot – it’s all about memory.

Our tradition stresses the importance of memory for the sake of our relationship with God, our relationship with each other, and for the sake of our relationship with other people. We are commanded to remember that we were strangers in the land of Egypt. This past week, on Tisha B’Av, we remembered that we were strangers in most places that we lived. That we’ve been kicked out of England and France and Spain and Lithuania and Portugal and more. We remembered that we have experienced lies and fear and oppression and pogroms and massacres and worse.

Why do we do this on Tisha B’Av? To mourn all that we have lost. And also to remember to care for those without power – over and over again we are told to care for the stranger, care for the widow, the orphan, those who are poor. We know what it’s like to suffer injustice and in many different ways we are instructed to support those experiencing injustice – because we remember.

“No other people has such an obsession with memory.” And yet we also know that memory is a fickle thing, even in the Torah. For we know the story of Moses striking the rock instead of speaking to the rock for water from the Book of Numbers. God informs Moses that because of this, he won’t enter into Israel. Here in Deuteronomy, Moses vents to the people, “Now Adonai was angry with me on your account and swore that I should not cross the Jordan and enter the good land” (Deu 4:21).

Memory is important, but the problem with memory is that we don’t always remember it the same. Or we don’t prioritize the same memories. Holocaust denial is unfortunately a great example. There’s a lot of conversation these days about monuments and statues honoring the Confederacy, most of which were constructed when Black Americans’ civil rights were severely hindered in the early 1900s.

While we know the date 9/11, we might not recall the significance of May 14, 1948, the founding of the State of Israel or the way Israel’s history shapes its current reality. One of our members was dismayed that many people he spoke with did not know the significance of December 7, 1941 – the attack on Pearl Harbor. What parts of history do we know? When they learned how little they actually knew, in recent months, many have been trying to learn more about the history of racism in the US.

It shows that while the best characteristic of our people may be our desire to remember, it’s a challenge when it comes to figuring out what to remember. This is a problem for any historian. Just deciding when to begin to tell the story… Do we begin to remember the history of the United States with the crossing over a land bridge? Maybe we begin with the first sea based explorers or with the Mayflower or the trans-Atlantic slave trade or maybe we start with 1776. Just figuring out where to begin isn’t easy – and that’s before we get into any bias or ideology. The writing of history shouldn’t be easy – decisions of what to tell and how are never ending.

Such challenges come with humility. It helps to acknowledge that we can never fully know the whole story. There’s always more to learn and explore and there will always be questions, because the record is never as complete as we might wish.

So how do we navigate? What do we remember? Our tradition points the way. Jewish tradition wants us to remember so our actions will confront the realities we face built upon the wisdom of the past – to connect to God, our people, and all people. And the record of the Jewish People is filled with an honest look at our struggles and our mistakes, our shame; as well as our successes and principled debates, lots of questions and the understanding that there’s a lot we can’t answer.  As messy as it may be, that’s the kind of history we can trust. That’s the kind of history that can inform our actions today. That’s the kind of history worth remembering.

Shabbat Shalom.

Mon, January 25 2021 12 Sh'vat 5781