This week I read a commentary about our Torah portion by Rabbi Shira Milgrom titled: “We Are What We Remember.” And before I read her thoughts, I started to wonder whether that was true, and if indeed it was, what does our portion this week say about us? In it, we are exhorted to remember Amalek, the archetype of evil, the one who attacked the Israelites from behind, taking advantage of the old, the young and the weak. We are told, more than once, to remember we were slaves in Egypt, and finally, we are told to remember what happened to Miriam, Moses’ sister when she gossiped with her brother and was afflicted with a skin disease. None of these incidents or moments in our history are positive, and if “we are what we remember,” then are we a people who lives in the shadow of the tragedies and disasters which have befallen us? Are we fear, sorrow and loss? Surely not! And even more, as Judith Plaskow asks in her commentary on this portion: what about the matters we don’t remember? She explicitly raises the question of Miriam. In our portion we are called upon to remember the moment of her sin, her wrongdoing and punishment, but we don’t remember the good she did, who she was, the person who gave so much to her community. Plaskow argues that like so many women in the Torah, we don’t remember Miriam’s story, we have only a snippet and one which does not show her in the most attractive light. So, what do we do about these memories? Are we really what we remember?
When I continued to read Rabbi Milgrom’s commentary, I found that she says we are not what we remember, but rather, how we remember. For example, with the slavery in Egypt, we don’t remember in order take revenge, or to determine how best to oppress others but rather, the opposite. We are challenged to remember in order to ensure we never become like those who tormented us. Remember so that we will turn to one another with empathy and kindness, because we remember what it was like to be slaves, to have no control of our destiny, to be impoverished. The Torah tells us, care for the vulnerable and needy, reach out and notice when others have fallen and lift them up, Rabbi Milgrom writes: “we need to transform our pain into empathy, our fear into courage, our mourning into joy. We need to remember we were vulnerable and afraid- so that we will fill our world with healing and blessing.”
And so too with the matters which the Torah omits from our memories, like the stories of the women, the marginalised and the silenced. It is for us to recognise the power of memory, the selective nature of the Torah’s exhortations, and to remember as well as forget, as we are commanded to do with Amalek. Plaskow writes: “the process of remembering brings with it an obligation to ethical discernment: which memories do we want to affirm and further develop and which do we want to repudiate or transform?…and perhaps the process of sifting through memory also can help make sense of the last enigmatic verse of the portion that enjoins: “blot out” all memory of Amalek, and yet “remember” at the same time.” We remember in order to reach a time where the very notion of the injustice is inconceivable and the behaviour is therefore blotted out. She writes: “we can never forget to remember the history of inequality and the decisions and struggles that have made more equitable communities possible.” So we remember in order to change, we remember in order to transform, we remember in order to be better so that the memory of the tragedies leads to change and transformation. Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio
Rabbi Shira Milgrom: “Ki Teitzei: We Are What We Remember” reformjudaism.org
Judith Plaskow: “Tzaraat and Memory” myjewishlearning.org