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Memory Has the Status of a Sacred Imperative
If you've been to Montreal or other parts of Quebec, you may have noticed a fascinating tag line on their license plates: Je me souviens, which translates as "I remember." Never one to pass up a story, I asked a concierge at a swanky hotel -- these individuals are supposed to know everything, n'est ce pas? -- what this reference was to. He made it clear that, nowadays, no one can seem to agree on the meaning and import of the statement.
Isn't it ironic that these people appear to have forgotten exactly what it is they're supposed to remember?
If ever there were a people who cannot be charged with forgetting, it's the Jews. No other group is as intoxicated with the notion of memory. No other people have elevated it to the status of a sacred imperative.
Were we to write a tag line on our Jewish license plates, it would read: Zakhor -- Remember.
This Shabbat has a special name that already appears in the Mishna, circa 180 C.E. Known as Shabbat Zakhor, the Sabbath of Remembering, it always falls on the Shabbat before Purim.
You recall the story. The then prime minister of the Iranian regime of the day sought to perpetrate genocide against the Jewish people. "They are everywhere ... their laws are different ... they must be eliminated from the face of the earth," he declared. Isn't it interesting that the current president of the Iranian regime was merely quoting his predecessor?
There must be a Farsi equivalent for the famous French phrase Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose -- "The more things change, the more they stay the same." On this Shabbat, we read about the first attempt at total annihilation of our people by Amalek, the paradigmatic anti-Semite.
But I can hear the charge now: How long must you Jews live in the past? As some wit once put it, "Even because a person is paranoid doesn't mean he has no enemies." Yes, we are meant to have our radar turned on in this month of Adar; we dare not be naive.
But even more so, we must not be lulled into being reactive alone, thereby losing our sense of purpose.
When Edgar Bronfman became the president of the World Jewish Congress in the early 1980s, he went to visit with the preeminent sage of Jewry, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik.
"Rabbi," said Bronfman, "I seek your advice."
"Remember, Mr. Bronfman, the Jews were not put here just to fight anti-Semitism," responded the Rav.
News flash: From Mernepta to Mein Kampf, Haman to Hitler, Chmielnicki to Khomeini, Amalek to Ahmadinejad, there have been endless attempts to write the epitaph of the Jewish people.
And yet ...
We continue, thank G-d, to survive and, please G-d, to thrive. Why? Because we understand the message of Zakhor.
But it is one thing to remember, and it is another to "re-member" -- that is, to connect to and participate in the ongoing and unfolding drama of our people, generation after generation.
The great poet laureate of the Jewish people, Hayim Nachman Bialik, encapsulated the Jewish millennial experience beautifully. "Im yesh et nafshekha lada'at<.i> -- If you really want to know from where your brothers and sisters drew the strength to combat the armies of the enemy, el beit hamidrash sur -- then go to a little synagogue or study hall and there at the break of dawn or in the twilight of the day, you will see people sitting and learning the ancient tune. There you will stand before the miracle of our people's eternal life and see the glory of an undying race."
Indeed, we Jews were not put here simply to fight anti-Semitism.
Rabbi David Gutterman is the executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.