Summer. 1971. Ortonville, Michigan. Leslie, a young woman from Livonia, Michigan about to enter her senior year at Clarenceville High School decides to spend the summer working as a counselor’s assistant at Camp Tamarack, a large summer camp for Jewish youth from Metro Detroit. At camp, she meets Mark who went to Tamarack as a child and has returned for the summer as a lifeguard. Four years later, they married at Congregation Beth Shalom in Oak Park and nearly seven years later, give birth to their first child, me.
Two memories from my family history. Was I present for either of them? Clearly not. But I can picture each one. I see my great grandmother Esther as a teenage girl, going to a party, dressed up in a silly outfit. I can picture my great-grandfather Nathan laying his eyes upon her for the first time, falling in love. I can see my parents, my father with a big bushy beard, bigger than mine was. Unkempt hair which was all the rage in the late 60s and early 70s. Noni, my father’s grandmother called him the wooly mammoth. I can see him and my mother meeting on the shores of that little manmade lake in the wilderness on a beautiful Michigan summer’s day. My great grandparents are long gone, my father is bald, and my mother disabled and fragile, injured in a car accident almost five years ago. I can picture their lives; the beautiful, the difficult, the passage of time. When I retell these stories of how they met, I find myself overwhelmed by memory.
About a decade ago, I journeyed to Israel with other Hillel student leaders. We were privileged to hear Rabbi Avraham Infeld, then the president of Hillel, speak. I don’t remember what he talked about. I don’t remember what he was trying to impart to us nor the parashat hashavua nor the setting. But I do remember one line in that talk which has stayed with me to this day. He said, “The Jewish people do not have history. We have memory.” What are the differences between the two? Mirriam Webster tells us. History: a chronological record of significant events (as affecting a nation or institution) often including an explanation of their causes. Memory: the power or process of reproducing or recalling what has been learned and retained especially through associative mechanisms. The Jewish people certainly have a history, don’t get me wrong. It’s rich and wonderful and sad and complicated, and you can read book after book about the history of our people. But we are a people imbued not just with a history, but with a present life, and a future destiny. We recollect what we have learned and retained time after time. Perhaps the greatest example of our people’s memory can be found in the Passover seder and in the book which narrates it, our Haggadah. The text is a compilation of our people’s memory, which demands that we engage with it and find our own selves, our own stories within. In so doing, we create new memories which stay with us throughout our lives.
Last night, I attended a lecture given by Jonathan Safran Foer, Nathan Englander, and Lemony Snicket, three contemporary Jewish writers. They discussed how and why they created their New American Haggadah, which I highly recommend you purchase on amazon.com . . . after Shabbat of course. In the introduction to the Haggadah, Foer writes the following “Jews have a special relationship to books, and the Haggadah has been translated more widely, and reprinted more often, than any other Jewish book. It is not a work of history or philosophy, not a prayer book, user’s manual, timeline, poem, or palimpsest — and yet it is all of these things. The Torah is the foundational text for Jewish law, but the Haggadah is our book of living memory. We are not merely telling a story here. We are being called to a radical act of empathy. Here we are, embarking on an ancient, perennial attempt to give human life—our lives—dignity.” In a few weeks, we will sit down to a delicious seder, an ordered meal with strange foods, songs, rabbinic debate, and blessings. All of these are meant to stir up memory. I remember the places where I’ve celebrated seder; my grandma’s old house in Southfield, at the hotel my parents lived in after my mother’s accident; in a small village called Tula in Russia; in Jerusalem where we began seder at 9 p.m. and finished at three in the morning; a seder for gay men in the home of Beth Am members and last year in Buenos Aires at the Libertad progressive synagogue. More than that, I remember the things I never personally experienced. I remember alongside those with whom I am sharing the seder the Nile’s waters turning to blood, the land covered with frogs, the great exodus, the parting of the waters and Sinai. I dream of Elijah the prophet even as I remember running downstairs to find the afikomen while my grandmothers leisurely sipped from his cup so that when I came back, I knew from the smiles on their faces that Elijah had come and would come again next year. My own memories, near and distant, mingle with the collective memory of our people, and it moves me deeply.
This is the purpose of Passover, the recollection of ancient memories alongside the creation of new ones. These are the stories our Haggadot weave, that we pass down to our children and our grandchildren. This is why we have survived for thousands of years, because we keep our memories vibrant and alive. I can’t wait to one day tell my children how my Grandpa Ellis used to pound on the table in the middle of the seder and demand that we hurry up so that he could eat. My children will never know Grandpa, but through these stories, I hope I can connect them to him. We live and we grow through our memories.
Our double parasha for this week, Vayakhel-Pikudei, describes the building of the mishkan, the tabernacle, as we wandered through the desert. This is how the book of Exodus ends. But this is not the first time the building of the mishkan is described. In fact, we have already devoted two previous parshiot, t’rumah and titzaveh, to its construction. So why do we again recall the construction of the mishkan in meticulous detail? Haven’t we had enough of the dolphin skins and the lapus lazuli and acacia wood? As we will sing in a few weeks, Dayenu? Clearly, this was one important building, and most modern scholars agree these passages were written around the time the Temple stood in Jerusalem. The authors of these parshiot were using their memories to reconstruct the mishkan in the text, even though none of them had ever actually seen it stand in the desert a thousand or so years prior. They experienced the magnificence and awe of the Temple, and from it, deduced what the mishkan must have looked like. The reason the mishkan’s construction is described over and over again is because for some reason, our ancestors, the authors, found these details significant. Why? Why do we care so much about what happened so long ago that seems so distant from our lives and our current existence?
Because memory is what binds communities together. I’ve said it before. You cannot be Jewish on a desert island. Judaism involves interactions and relationships with others. We rely on our collective memory to guide us in the present and to prepare us for the future. And though it may seem like it sometimes, we are not alone. Exodus, the book which narrates the foundational story of our people, concludes as follows. “KI ANAN ADONAI AL HA’MISHKAN YOMAM V’AYSH TI’YEH LILAH BO L’AYNAY KOL BAYT YISRAEL B’CHOL MASAYHEM.” “For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Eternal rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the House of Israel throughout their journeys.” (Exodus 40:38) After the mishkan is completed, the presence of God comes to rest within it, always in view for the Israelites to witness. This awesome structure, built by men and women whose hearts were moved, becomes God’s house. We recall and remember through the Torah and through the Haggadah because that is our mission, to build a better more beautiful world where God can dwell with us. This is why we Jews are never satisfied with the status quo, why we expend so much time and energy fighting for justice and standing up for the vulnerable. Our memories of slavery in Egypt and of those amazing moments in the wilderness remind us of the burdens and obligations we have to one another, and to God, to keep building, to never give up hope. As we complete the reading of the book of Exodus this week and prepare to celebrate Passover, let us take time to remember. May this season of liberation be sweet and meaningful. May the matzah not be too dry. And may our ancient memories give rise to new ones. We say together the customary words as we again complete a book of Torah. “Chazak, chazak, v’neitchazak.” Be strong, be strong, and may the One who has strengthened us in the past give our people strength now and forever.