Memory as Empathy - Pesach VIII


Memory as Empathy - Pesach VIII

The Seder is a fascinating exercise in telling stories. It is almost easier to talk about what the Seder is not. It is not an exercise in engaging with history as a historian. When a historian engages with history, she does it in a manner closer to the scientist than the Jew at the Seder; she finds data points and weaves a narrative around them, a narrative which is always on unsteady ground, because the threads of it may unspool with the discovery of new data altogether.

When we sat at the Seder last week, we were not historians.

But we were also not the tellers of fiction. Even the most outlandish of midrashim are not really fiction, not in the plain meaning of the word. Even if I were speaking with someone who believes that not a single element of the story was a historical reality - a statement I would disagree with, but nonetheless - I do not think I could support the view that we were just, well, telling stories. 

This is the fundamental problem that Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi addresses in his powerful book, Zakhor. Jews, he argues, have not typically engaged with historiography. We have engaged with our stories through recitation and ritual, through seeing the past not as a discrete point we have passed, but instead as something we can pull into the present. Not long after Zakhor was published, a word was coined for this kind of idea, proposed by the Egyptologist Jan Assmann. Assmann writes, “Unlike history proper, mnemohistory is concerned not with the past as such, but only with the past as it is remembered. It surveys the story-lines of tradition, the webs of intertextuality, the diachronic continuities and discontinuities of reading the past.”

Mnemohistory, as Assmann calls it, is the history of the mind. It is the way that we remember, how we as a culture choose to remember, and how that memory continues to shape us. 

That is the kind of history we might recognise from the Seder. We are told to step into the shoes of our ancestors, to experience bitterness and redemption with them, and to see ourselves as having been liberated alongside them. It’s not, I think, a game that we play. It’s a mnemo-historical device. 

There are two cultural memories that we do this with most significantly. The first is what we are doing at this time of year. We go to extreme lengths at Pesach to live within memory, but we also recall Egypt constantly in Jewish liturgy. We sing the Song of the Sea every morning. We talk about the Exodus from Egypt in services. It is even embedded in the Friday night kiddush. To be engaged in Jewish liturgical practice means to constantly be reminded of slavery in small ways, throughout every week and indeed even every day. 

The other memory, the memory which I think makes it clearer that we are not being historians in these moments, is the memory of Creation. We replay Creation every week as part of our temporal model. We create for six days and withdraw our power on the seventh. We act out the story of Creation this way week on week on week. It’s not just memory in the sense of stating that something occurred, it’s not cold in that sense. It’s instead something we relive and replay and embody.

        As much as we love our books, this is why ‘what it means to be a Jew’ cannot be learned from a book. We are a people who live our history through practice and culture and recitation. And that, I think, is hugely important.

        Part of why it’s so important is that this kind of “living history”, of embodying the stories that make us who we are, is memory as empathy. 

        Let’s start with the obvious: Pesach is a story of oppression and liberation. It is a story in which the major oppressive force is only known as Pharaoh; he doesn’t need a name, because Pharaoh has been the stand-in for so many power-hungry and vicious individuals. 

        It’s no wonder that this was a narrative that so touched the souls of the African slaves stolen and sold from their homelands, and their descendents, who wrote spirituals that retold the Exodus replayed into their own lives. It is a story that is both ours and is, at its core, a universal struggle between the powerful and the exploited. It is a story that pushed the Torah into building protections around those who were enslaved, and pushed the classical rabbis into moving the category of “slavery” into the impermanent state of “indentured servitude”, and pushed many rabbis of the Modern Era into becoming abolitionists. 

        Experiencing stories of slavery as mnemohistory should clearly encourage empathy with others who are waiting for their own Sea of Reeds to split and their own dry shod to walk on. And lest we be inclined to relegate the question of slavery and abolition to some nebulous “past”, let us remember that there are roughly 49.6 million people living in slavery today. 

        That is the part that should be obvious. Perhaps less apparent is the startling moment of empathy at the Seder, not only for the enslaved, but for the suffering of the oppressing class. The pouring out of wine during the recitation of the 10 Plagues catches me every year. The wine, typically a symbol of joy, must be diminished when we talk about the plagues because liberation had a human cost. It is not enough, so says the Seder, for us to celebrate our freedom while entirely ignoring that cost. It is reminiscent of the midrash, the creative rabbinic commentary, which reimagines the moment at the splitting of the sea. After the waters crash back in on Pharaoh’s army, God turns to the celebrating angels and says, “How can you be cheering while my creations are drowning?”

        Perhaps that is also why we are called on a weekly basis to relive the Creation narrative. When we pull ourselves repeatedly back to the beginning, we are reminded time and time again of the Source of Being, of the fact that all of us, every single one, is created B’tzelem Elokim, in the Divine image. That, as the Torah says, Shabbat belongs to you, and your children, and your slaves, and the stranger within your gate - because we are all cut from the same cloth; or, as it were, because we were all breathed into with the same Divine breath, crafted from the same clay.

        I cannot possibly list all the examples. But it strikes me that Yizkor, the Memorial Service, is a similar invitation to the past: engaging with those we have lost, not as pieces of history, but as living memories. May their memory be a blessing, we say, because we know that memory is sacred; that, perhaps, we can continue to be shaped and changed by those who are no longer with us.

        When we pull the past into the present, when instead of being historians we are history-livers, mnemo-historians, on a helix of history rather than a line - this is how we allow the stories of our people to change us. 

        Please God, always for the better.

        Chag sameach. 


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