Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Who Are You? - Reflections on Parashat Eikev

Throughout the poetic parasha of Eikev, Moshe urges us several times not to forget his teachings. In other verses in the Parasha, he asks us also to remember. In one particular verse, he even says "Remember - do not forget." (Deuteronomy 9:7)

Huh? We know that there are no superfluous words in the Torah. Every word, every letter, even every flourish above a letter, is put there by the A-lmighty to teach us something unique and special. So what's with Moshe telling us both to remember and not to forget? To quote Yogi Berra, isn't that redundant all over again? Is Moshe starting to repeat himself, like Bubbies and Zaydes sometimes do?

Quick aside: my Zayde a"h loved to sit and shmooze over a cup of coffee. Nothing would please him more than to have an unannounced visitor drop in. He would quickly put some water in the kettle, bring out some cake or cookies (his pantry was always magically full of cakes and cookies), and settle in for a nice long kibbitz session. I tell ya, that kitchen was made for coffee klatches. 

We lived four hours away, but once a month or so, we'd make a day of it, just to sit at the signature turquoise table with the matching swivel chairs, rest our chins in our hands, sip coffee, nibble on cake, catch up on family news, and listen to the stories flow.

Anyone who visited at Zayde's table regularly knew that you'd begin to hear his stories, well, more than once. Maybe even more than a few times. To the point where we knew most of them by heart, actually. But we never complained, since the joy was in the telling and in his company.

Every once in a while though, mixed in among the stories that we had heard over and over again, he would tell us some amazing story from his long life that we'd never heard before. We'd almost fall off our chairs in astonishment. "Zayde," we'd say, "you've told us the bootleg schnapps story a hundred times, how can it be we never heard this story before?" His eyes would twinkle; he'd just shrug his shoulders and smile.

Was Moshe getting repetitious in his dotage? Or is there a real distinction to be made between 'remembering' and 'not forgetting?'

Here is the difference: remembering is an act. It is a mitzvah. The famous example is the annual commandment to remember what Amalek did to us when we left Egypt. We build museums to memorialize the six million killed by the Nazis. We remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy. We also remember life cycle events like birthdays and anniversaries with parties, cards and gifts.

Remembering is a conscious act. It means pausing from the bustle of daily life, and even if only for a moment, focusing the mind on that which is remembered. 

Throughout Israel on Memorial Day (and a week before on Holocaust Remembrance Day), air raid sirens wail for two full minutes. Cars stop in the middle of the road, in intersections, even on the superhighways. People step out of their cars, and standing with heads bowed, they remember their dead. Sometimes people weep openly in the street. It is a deeply moving experience. 

Remembering means doing something; it is a call to action.

Not-forgetting, on the other hand, is passive. Not-forgetting lurks just below our conscious thought, always present, yet just out of reach, barely noticeable in the shadows of our mind. It is content to gently make its presence known without commanding center stage. 

There is no act to not-forgetting. It is not a moment, rather it is a constant companion, a part of the backdrop of our life. It is the foundation stone upon which our every decision is built, the prism through which we experience the world around us. Not-forgetting influences the way we see, hear, smell, touch and taste. As we mature and build on our life's experiences, those experiences are incorporated into the foundational database of not-forgetting, of our truest essence.

In other words, not-forgetting is about identity; it's speaks directly to who we are.

Specifically, Moshe is telling us not to forget our Jewish identity. No matter how affluent or influential we may become in the future, we mustn't ever forget our roots - we were slaves in Egypt, with no pretensions to greatness or lives of ease. Simplicity, honesty, hard work, devotion to Gcd - these are the gifts of our grandparents. 

Yet people try (in vain) to erase their past. Rabinowitz becomes Roberts, joins the best clubs, drives the finest cars, drinks the most expensive sherry, and marries the supermodel - and still they call him "Jew" behind his back.

By embracing our past, we have a shot at crafting our future. Deny your past, Moshe warns, and you're on the path to oblivion.

So we must show kindness to strangers because we were once strangers in Egypt. We must be humble, for our past is littered with our mistakes. We must show gratitude, because we are Jews, and the word "Jew" means to give thanks to Gcd. We must be devotional, because we strive to emulate the spiritual greatness of the Bubbies and Zaydes of our past.

My Zayde knew to the core of his being who he was - a Jew, a Galitzianer, a perpetual student, a devoted husband, father and grandfather. He never played at being anyone other than who he was. 

And endless times over coffee, my Zayde would take your hand in his, look you in the eye and say: no matter where you go or what you do in life, never forget you are a Jew.

So with apologies to Roger Daltrey and Pete Townsend: Who Are You?  The voice of Moshe whispers across the generations: be very clear on that question, and "al tishkach," don't ever forget.

Shabbat Shalom.

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