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April 24, 2014 | 24th Nisan 5774

Remembering and forgetting V

Galilee Diary #317, December 24, 2006
Marc J. Rosenstein

Remembering and forgetting V

A person is nothing but a small plot of land,
A person is nothing but the image of the landscape of his birthplace,
Only what his ear recorded when it was still fresh,
Only what his eye took in before it had seen too much,
Whatever was encountered on the dew-covered path
By the child who tripped over every bump and clod of earth…

-Saul Tschernichovsky (early 20th century Hebrew poet)

Who we are is largely defined by our memories – of things we’ve heard and smelled and seen and heard, of what we felt as children and what we read as adults and what we promised yesterday to do today. People with amnesia don’t have an identity. Sometimes we work at remembering, as when we make the effort to memorize a set of words (e.g., the Sh’ma or the Pledge of Allegiance) or a sequence of behaviors (e.g., touch typing, how to find our way home). We deliberately enter these into our memory because we value them. And we can use various techniques to reinforce memory, to give us hints, reminders. But ultimately, sometimes we still forget – not willingly, and sometimes very much against our will. That’s why the conductor’s announcement on Israeli trains always makes me smile: “Passengers are kindly requested not forget items on the train.” If I am going to forget my bag on the train, then I’m going to forget it – even just after hearing the announcement. Shouldn’t she say, “passengers are reminded to check to see that they have all their possessions before disembarking?” You can tell me to look, to check, to be careful – but telling me not to forget is pointless. Forgetting happens when the thought flees my consciousness – certainly not because I want it to, or even because I am careless.

If we are worried that we will forget something, the best we can do is surround ourselves with reminders of the things we wish to remember. Artifacts and documents of events from the past, pictures of people, lists, monuments, time-bound rituals – all are designed to prevent us from forgetting.

Our “early childhood” as a people was in Eretz Yisrael, and thus many of the memories that define our identity and our values are connected to our experience of the land – as a dwelling place, as the setting of the utopian state described in the Torah’s commandments, as the locus of our sovereignty as a real state. Thus, when we were forced to leave the land over 1,900 years ago, we surrounded ourselves with reminders, symbols and texts and ceremonies that fill the Jewish tradition with references to Eretz Yisrael. And while many of these reminders have faded out or been consciously erased by many Jews, others remain pretty universal. For example:

· Breaking the glass at weddings

· The three festivals of Sukkot, Pesach, and Shavuot - and Tu Beshvat – with their references implicit and explicit to the land, seasons, and agriculture of Israel.

· Chanukah, the one holiday that relates to actual historical events in Israel

· The weekly Torah and Haftarah readings, with their references to the land, its geography, its boundaries, its flora and fauna.

It is pretty hard to live in a Jewish community of any “variety” without encountering reminders of our memories of Israel. It is this collective memory of life in the land (even if the memory is of an ideal that in some aspects may never have existed) that allowed Zionism to arise and flourish – and that was the substrate of all of our connection to the land before Zionism and remains so even now, after the fulfillment of the Zionist dream.

Consider this entry a reminder that our connection to Israel is deeper than today’s headlines and how we feel about them. Don’t forget…

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