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Ekev (5768) – The Politics of Memory

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IN EKEV MOSES SETS OUT A POLITICAL DOCTRINE OF SUCH WISDOM that it can never become redundant or obsolete. He does it by way of a brilliant contrast between the ideal to which Israel is called, and the danger with which it is faced. This is the ideal:

Observe the commands of the LORD your G-d, walking in his ways and revering him. For the LORD your G-d is bringing you into a good land – a land with streams and pools of water, with springs flowing in the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing; a land where the rocks are iron and you can dig copper out of the hills. When you have eaten and are satisfied, bless the LORD your G-d for the good land he has given you.

And this is the danger:

Be careful that you do not forget the LORD your G-d, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your G-d, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery . . . You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” But remember the LORD your G-d, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your forefathers, as it is today.

The two passages follow directly on from one another. They are linked by the phrase “when you eat and are satisfied,” and the contrast between them is a fugue between the verbs “to remember” and “to forget.”

Good things, says Moses to the next generation, will happen to you. The question is how you will respond. Either you will eat and be satisfied and bless G-d, remembering that all things come from Him — or you will eat and be satisfied and forget to whom you owe all this. You will think it comes entirely from your own efforts: “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” Although this may seem a small difference, it will, says Moses, make all the difference. On this alone will turn your future as a nation in its own land.

Moses’ argument is both brilliant and unexpected. You may think, he says, that the tough times are behind you. You have wandered for forty years without a home. There were times when you had no water, no food. You were exposed to the elements. You were attacked by your enemies. You may think this was the test of your strength. It wasn’t. The real challenge is not poverty but affluence; not slavery but freedom; not homelessness but home. Many nations have been lifted to great heights when they faced difficulty and danger. They fought battles and won. They came through crises – droughts, plagues, recessions, defeats – and were toughened by them. When times are hard, people grow. They come together. They bury their differences. There is a sense of community and solidarity, of neighbours and strangers pulling together. Many people who have lived through a war remember it as the most vivid time of their life.

The real test of a nation is not, can it survive a crisis? but, can it survive the lack of a crisis? Can it stay strong during times of ease and plenty, power and prestige? That is the challenge that has defeated every civilization known to history. Let it not, says Moses, defeat you.

Moses’ foresight is little less than stunning. The pages of history are littered with the relics of nations that seemed impregnable in their day, but which eventually declined and fell and lapsed into oblivion – and always for the reason Moses prophetically foresaw. They forget. Memories fade. People lose sight of the values they once fought for – justice, equality, independence, freedom. The nation, its early battles over, becomes strong. Some of its members grow rich. They become lax, self-indulgent, over-sophisticated, decadent. They lose their sense of social solidarity. They no longer feel it their duty to care for the poor, the weak, the marginal, the losers. They begin to feel that such wealth and position as they have is theirs by right. The bonds of fraternity and collective responsibility begin to fray. The less well-off feel an acute sense of injustice. The scene is set either for revolution or conquest. Societies succumb to external pressures when they have long been weakened by internal decay. That was the danger Moses foresaw and about which he warned.

How right he was. More than three thousand years later, his argument was restated in secular terms by two outstanding British philosophers, neither of whom was religious. The first was John Stuart Mill, who wrote:

Whenever and in proportion as the strictness of the restraining discipline was relaxed, the natural tendency of mankind to anarchy reasserted itself; the state became disorganised from within; mutual conflict for selfish ends neutralised the energies which were required to keep up the contest against natural causes of evil; and the nation, after a longer or briefer interval of progressive decline, became either the slave of a despotism or the prey of a foreign invader. (John Stuart Mill, Essays on Politics and Culture, edited Gertrude Himmelfarb, 137)

The second was Bertrand Russell:

What had happened in the great age of Greece happened again in Renaissance Italy: traditional moral restraints disappeared, because they were seen to be associated with superstition; the liberation from fetters made individuals energetic and creative, producing a rare fluorescence of genius; but the anarchy and treachery which inevitably resulted from the decay of morals made Italians collectively impotent, and they fell, like the Greeks, under the domination of nations less civilized than themselves but not so destitute of social cohesion. Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy, introduction)

Most recently, in his fascinating book Civilization and its Enemies (2004), Lee Harris restates the theme:

Individual civilizations rise and fall; in each case the fall was not inevitable but due to the decisions – or lack of decision – of the human beings whose ancestors had created the civilization for them, but who had forgotten the secret of how to preserve it for their own children. We are ourselves dangerously near this point . . .

AT THE HEART OF MOSES’ WARNING in this week’s sedra are two fundamental insights. The first is the vital significance of memory for the moral health of a society.

Throughout history there have been many attempts to ground ethics in universal attributes of humanity. Some, like Immanuel Kant, based it on reason. Others based it on duty. Bentham rooted it in consequences (“the greatest happiness for the greatest number”). David Hume attributed it to certain basic emotions: sympathy, empathy, compassion. Adam Smith predicated it of the capacity to stand back from situations and judge them with detachment (“the impartial spectator”). Each of these has its virtues, but none has proved failsafe.

Judaism took and takes a different view. The guardian of conscience is memory. As Akavya ben Mehalallel said, “Think of three things and you will not fall into sin: where you have come from, where you are going to; and before whom you are accountable.” Because the prophets of ancient Israel were the first to see G-d in history, they understood the importance of handing on their story to future generations. Each time the covenant was renewed by way of a national gathering – in Moses’ last days, at the end of Joshua’s life, during the reign of Josiah and at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah – the ceremony was preceded by a summary review of Jewish history (as I pointed out last week, this continues in the custom of American presidents in their inaugural addresses to review the nation’s past and rededicate it to the future). One of the earliest Jewish acts of memory was the declaration made each year by those who came to the Temple to bring the first fruits of the harvest:

“My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, putting us to hard labor . . . So the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with miraculous signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the first fruits of the soil that you, O Lord, have given me.”

Time and again the verb zakhor, “Remember,” resonates through Moses’ speeches in Deuteronomy:

Remember that you were slaves in Egypt . . . therefore the Lord your G-d has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.

Remember how the Lord your G-d led you all the way in the desert these forty years . . .

Remember this and never forget how you provoked the Lord your G-d to anger in the desert . . .

Remember what the Lord your G-d did to Miriam along the way after you came out of Egypt.

Remember what the Amalekites did to you along the way when you came out of Egypt.

Remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past.

As Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi notes in his great essay, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, “Only in Israel and nowhere else is the injunction to remember felt as a religious imperative to an entire people.” Civilizations begin to die when they forget. Israel was commanded never to forget.

Moses’ second great concern was that the Israelites should never forget that their fate was not ultimately in human hands. It was G-d who had rescued them from Egypt, G-d who led and protected them in the wilderness, G-d who would be with them in their battles to possess and defend their land, G-d who was the source of their blessings, G-d who was their law-giver and ultimate sovereign. When people attribute their success to themselves, not G-d, disaster becomes possible, even probable.

Two historians have reminded us of this fact. The first was Lord Acton in his Essays on the History of Liberty. Reminding us that democracy was born in ancient Athens, he goes on to explain why it was so short-lived:

But the possession of unlimited power, which corrodes the conscience, hardens the heart, and confounds the understanding of monarchs, exercised its demoralising influence on the illustrious democracy of Athens . . . The philosophy that was then in the ascendant taught them that there is no law superior to that of the State – the lawgiver is above the law. It followed that the sovereign people had a right to do whatever was within its power, and was bound by no rules of right or wrong but its own judgment of expediency . . . in this way the emancipated people of Athens became a tyrant . . .

The second was J. L. Talmon in his The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy. Contrasting the religious revolutionary movements of the Middle Ages (the Levellers, Ranters, Hussites and others) with the secular terror of the French Revolution, he notes that both were messianic, but there was a fundamental difference between them. The religious revolutionaries shrank “from the use of force to impose their own pattern, in spite of their belief in its divine source and authority, while secular Messianism . . . has developed a fanatical resolve to make its doctrine rule absolutely and everywhere.” Belief in G-d means that there are moral limits to the use of power. Neither the French nor the Russian revolutionaries recognised any such limits. The result was bloodshed on a massive scale.

When we forget G-d we begin to lose our humanity. Attempting to be more than merely human, we become less. The result is idolatry – of the nation, the state, the race, the class, the system, the party or the tyrant. Idolatry never dies. It returns, always in a new guise, and always demanding human sacrifice. The prelude to disaster is the thought: “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.”

None of this is mere ancient history. The seminal work of our time is Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. The book has been widely misunderstood. Huntington has been read as arguing that the great threat to the West is Islam. That is not his point at all. It would be fairer to say that it is the opposite: the great threat to the West is the West itself. It is in danger of forgetting its own fundamental values. It currently shows all the signs, he argues, “of a mature civilization on the brink of decay.” He speaks of “moral decline, cultural suicide, and political disunity”:

All civilizations go through similar processes of emergence, rise, and decline . . . The principal responsibility of Western leaders . . . is not to attempt to reshape other civilisations in the image of the West . . . but to preserve, protect, and renew the unique qualities of Western civilization.

That renewal is, he believes, moral and in a certain sense religious. The final chapter of the book is nothing less than a restatement, in contemporary terms, of Moses’ great warning in Ekev: “Be careful that you do not forget . . .”

In an eloquent passage, the American scholar Jacob Neusner once wrote:

Civilization hangs suspended, from generation to generation, by the gossamer strand of memory. If only one cohort of mothers and fathers fails to convey to its children what it has learned from its parents, then the great chain of learning and wisdom snaps. If the guardians of human knowledge stumble only one time, in their fall collapses the whole edifice of knowledge and understanding.

The politics of free societies depends on the handing on of memory. That was Moses’ insight, and it speaks to us with undiminished power today.