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August 31, 2015 | 16th Elul 5775

Remembering and forgetting VI

Galilee Diary #318, December 31, 2006
Marc J. Rosenstein

Remembering and forgetting VI

If I forget you O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning;
Let my tongue stick to my palate if I don’t remember you…

-Psalm 137:5

Abraham had no sooner arrived in Israel the first time, obeying God’s command to uproot himself and settle here, than he left for Egypt to escape a famine. And later, he sent back to the old country for a wife for his son. Isaac and Rebecca too sent their son away to seek a wife – and he stayed abroad for decades. Jacob’s son in turn ended up building such a successful career in real estate in Egypt (Gen. 47) that he cut off all contact with his home and family and completely assimilated. Only a chance (?) encounter with his brothers awakened his memories – however, he didn’t leave Egypt to return with them to the promised land, but brought them all down to Egypt. The rest of the Torah takes place in Egypt and the desert, but most of its text is occupied with planning for the return, with setting forth the outlines of the utopian society and the state we are commanded to create in our land.

After about five hundred years, of which only 80 were lived under a unified, sovereign kingdom comprising all the tribes, we were exiled to Babylonia. Given the opportunity, two generations later, to return, most of us chose to stay in Iraq, and nurse the memories of the land of Israel as in the verse above. When what autonomy we did manage to reestablish was ended by the Romans, the equilibrium of living as comfortably as possible in the lands of our dispersion while working at keeping alive our memories of Eretz Yisrael became just that – an equilibrium, a status quo, a routine. East and west, in Baghdad as in Los Angeles, we carefully cultivated our memories of a wonderful land, flowing with milk and honey, ringing with David’s songs and the snorting of the oxen plowing the rich earth of the holy land. We may have passed up opportunities to return to the land – but we never passed up an opportunity to talk about, sing about, re-enact, tell our children about, and study the laws pertaining to our remembered life there.

And all of this memory work was remarkably successful. While other exiled peoples disappeared, assimilated, were left high and dry when the waves of nostalgia receded, we integrated our memories of geography with our religious belief and practice, so that while our religion was founded on faith in a uniquely placeless God, with strong elements of universal morality, nevertheless every prayer and every ritual reminded us of our existence in our land, constantly reinforcing our collective memory of the place where we belonged.

What kept us alive as a people, perhaps, was having developed this equilibrium of living on two levels, in two places: physically we lived in Minsk or Encino. In memory, we lived in Israel. Now you might say that the success of Zionism ended all that, that attaching secular humanism to messianic hope and modern nationalism resulted in the destruction of that equilibrium by creating the real possibility of living a real life in the Israel of here and now. But I think it’s not that simple. This is, of course, a wonderful place, flowing, if not with milk and honey, then with high tech genius and drip irrigation systems that feed the world. It is a real, sovereign state. But it is not the utopia we were commanded to build; it is not what we remembered all those centuries.

Therefore, I believe that it is more important than ever to keep those memories alive, to restore the equilibrium between memory and reality, between the two homes we live in as Jews. Even now that we have Israel the state, even if we actually live in it – still, if we allow ourselves to forget the Israel we always dreamed of, looking back and looking forward, then the strength of our right hand will be useless and our tongue will have nothing to say.

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