This week is called Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat in which the maftir aliyah begins with the word, in the imperative form, "remember!" In the context of the verses from Deuteronomy that comprise this aliyah, we are enjoined to remember . . . in order to never emulate . . . the unethical acts of Amalek perpetrated against the most vulnerable of the wandering Israelites in the wilderness. In this context, it is collective memory that provides a spiritual background and ethical standard for the choices we make as a people.
This past Yom Kippur, I examined the nature of remembering on a personal level. I share with you an excerpt from my sermon on Remembering. You can read the entire sermon by clicking here.
My mother, as some of you know, had a profound cognitive dementia that expressed itself most strikingly in a complete loss of short term memory. As this condition rooted itself in my mother's mind, I began to appreciate what short term memory means to us on a day to day basis:
I moved my parents to the Renaissance Unit of Tamarisk (that’s the Alzheimer’s / Dementia unit) in March of 2005. Tamarisk was a godsend for my parents, and gave my brother, my aunt and uncle and me real peace of mind about the way they were cared for every single day. As I watched my parents try to orient themselves in their new surroundings at Tamarisk, the void left in their personalities by the absence of their short term memories screamed out to me. My mother walked around in a constant state of agitation. She did not know where she was. She did not remember how she got there. She could not recognize any of the people around her unless my brother, my aunt (her sister) or I were visiting. For all my mother knew, she was locked up in a place that had no identifiable location. It must have been like living in a Kafka novel.
Every single time I went to see her, which was pretty much daily in the beginning, my mother would ask "how did you know where to find me?" and "when am I going home?" and "how long are you staying?" (she thought I was visiting from Israel.). Without her short-term memory, my mother was unable to orient herself in the world or come up with a plausible script in her head that would give her peace of mind. My father was becoming increasingly frail and was walking unsteadily. I discussed a certain kind of physical therapy for him called "gait training" that helps the elderly walk more securely. My parents’ geriatric psychiatrist explained why it was no use: "we need our short term memory in order to learn. Your father has no short term memory so there is no way for him to participate in the progressive learning that gait training requires." that insight was like a physical blow. He can't learn anymore... one of the joys of my father’s life had been learning.
My mother's prolonged struggle to orient herself in an incomprehensible world demonstrated to me that remembering is not just an intellectual exercise, it is the only way we can know who we are. The early rabbinic sage Hillel asked in Mishnah Avot: אם אין אני לי מי לי? (Im ein ani li mi li?)
This is most often translated: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?". I would like to posit a different, to my mind, deeper more meaningful translation: "If I am not 'me' to myself, who am I to me?". If I cannot recognize myself, orient myself in the most basic way because my short term memory has abandoned me, than I truly do not know who I am.
Then there is my Aunt Gladys. In life and in death there were never two sisters so profoundly different and so emotionally close to each other than my mother and her sister. They were each others’ best friends.
Advancing age robbed my mother of her memory. Advancing age prompted my aunt to revel in memories. Gladys was the family archivist, social historian and repository of all our best family stories. That she was a bit of a revisionist when it came to her stories bothered no one, for Gladys' version was consistently more entertaining and more reflective of her world view (or her sense of humor) than the actual course of events. She'd pull a comic huff when we'd call her bluff and then laugh her huge, life-embracing laugh. Gladys was very attached to her memories and no one held a grudge better or longer than Gladys if anyone offended or hurt any of her "loved ones."
There was something ritualistic and even liturgical in Gladys' storytelling. She instinctually understood that she was passing down the heritage and founding legends of our family when she would tell us (for the umpteenth time) about how my quiet, modest grandfather closed up his candy store, put on his hat and went to see the neighborhood priest when some local kids called him a Kike. "And believe me," Gladys would conclude, "that priest made sure that never happened again!" Another seminal family story that Gladys loved to relate was how she and her girlfriends would play mah Jong in our apartment when my brother and I were little so my parents could go out, and how they'd wake me up (because I was fun and cute) take me out of my crib and feed me junk food until just before our parents came home...then they'd pop me back in my crib and I'd go off to sleep just like a little angel just in the nick of time.
Though I doubted the historical accuracy of these tales, I never tired of listening to Gladys relate them time and time again. They were a verbal hug, an affirmation of my roots and my identity, and the death of their storyteller has left a huge gap in my life. Hillel went on to ask:
וכשאני לעצמי, מה אני? (U'chshe'ani l'atzmi, mah ani?)
And when I am for myself, what am I? The common translation poses a traditional challenge to narcissism. But I can read my aunt's wisdom about memory in this stage of Hillel's question: and when I am only looking at myself alone, what am I? Without the collective memories of my family and my people I cannot know who I am. Looking in the mirror, listening only to the inner voice of my own self-awareness is not enough to comprehend my place in the world.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.