Do remember the past, but do not be held captive by it

July 17, 2004
The Bright Sun Blue Sky Clouds
Published in The Times, 17th July 2004

“All Jews who are at all conscious of their identity as Jews are steeped in history,” wrote Isaiah Berlin. “They have longer memories, they are aware of a longer continuity as a community than any other which has survived.”

He was right. Judaism is a religion of memory. The verb zachor appears no fewer than 169 times in the Hebrew Bible. “Remember that you were strangers in Egypt”; “Remember the days of old”; “Remember the seventh day to keep it holy”; Memory, for Jews, is a religious obligation.

This is particularly so at this time of the year. We call it the “three weeks” leading up to the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, the Ninth of Av, anniversary of the destruction of the two Temples, the first by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon in 586 BCE, the second by Titus in 70 CE.

Jews never forgot those tragedies. To this day, at every wedding we break a glass in their memory. During the Three Weeks, we have no celebrations. On the Ninth of Av itself, we spend the day fasting and sitting on the floor or low stools like mourners, reading the Book of Lamentations. It is a day of profound collective grief.

Two and a half thousand years is a long time to remember. Often I’m asked — usually in connection with the Holocaust — is it really right to remember? Should there not be a moratorium on grief? Are not most of the ethnic conflicts in the world fuelled by memories of perceived injustices long ago? Would not the world be more peaceable if once in a while we forgot? Yes and no. It depends on how we remember. My late predecessor, Lord Jakobovits, used to point out that three times in the Book of Genesis God is spoken of as remembering. “God remembered Noah” and brought him out of the Ark onto dry land. “God remembered Abraham” and saved his nephew Lot from the destruction of the cities of the plain. “God remembered Rachel” and gave her a child. When God remembers, He does so for the future and for life.

In fact, though the two are often confused, memory is different from history. History is someone else’s story. It’s about events that occurred long ago to someone else. Memory is my story. It’s about where I come from and of what narrative I am a part. History answers the question, “What happened?” Memory answers the question, “Who, then, am I?” It is about identity and the connection between the generations. In the case of collective memory, all depends on how we tell the story.

We don’t remember for the sake of revenge. “Do not hate the Egyptians,” said Moses, “for you were strangers in their land.” To be free, you have to let go of hate. Remember the past, says Moses, but do not be held captive by it. Turn it into a blessing, not a curse; a source of hope, not humiliation.

To this day, the Holocaust survivors I know spend their time sharing their memories with young people, not for the sake of revenge, but its opposite: to teach tolerance and the value of life. Mindful of the lessons of Genesis, we too try to remember for the future and for life.

In today’s fast-moving culture, we undervalue acts of remembering. Computer memories have grown, while ours have become foreshortened. Our children no longer memorise chunks of poetry. Their knowledge of history is often all too vague. Our sense of space has expanded. Our sense of time has shrunk.

That cannot be right. One of the greatest gifts we can give to our children is the knowledge of where we have come from, the things for which we fought, and why. None of the things we value — freedom, human dignity, justice — was achieved without a struggle. None can be sustained without conscious vigilance. A society without memory is like a journey without a map. It’s all too easy to get lost.I, for one, cherish the richness of knowing that my life is a chapter in a book begun by my ancestors long ago, to which I will add my contribution before handing it on to my children. Life has meaning when it is part of a story, and the larger the story, the more our imaginative horizons grow. Besides, things remembered do not die. That’s as close as we get to immortality on earth.