Remembrance of those who have passed from this world is a universal human desire; we all feel the need to recall our family members and friends who are no longer with us.
Two decades ago, when I was an undergraduate at Cornell, I recall reading a statement about memory that has stuck with me. It appeared in the campus newspaper, the Cornell Daily Sun, in the middle of a tongue-in-cheek article about something that I can’t remember. But the statement that struck me read as follows:
“[So-and-so] is still trying to cope with the realization that he is a function of every person he has ever met and every book he has ever read.”
I remember thinking, hey, that’s me too. I am also a function of every person I’ve ever met and every book I’ve ever read. And here, the word “function” is used in its mathematical sense. Perhaps some of you recall from junior high school algebra:
or the diagram of the function machine:
A function is a box that performs some kind of action on data that is entered, such that what comes out is modified in a particular way. So if f(x) is x-squared, then if I put in 2, the function turns it into 4. If I put in 3, it becomes 9. And so forth.
To say that we are functions of our life experience is a vast oversimplification, of course. Our own function machines would have to be very, very complicated. But on some level, this is not far off. We are shaped by our experiences, from the moment we emerge from the womb, through schooling and relationships and work and success and failure and loss and happiness and sadness.
Perhaps a better way of understanding ourselves, then, is that we are memory machines — sacks full of memory — that not only process our experiences through those memories, but also allow us to dig into our past, to re-examine, to think of the beautiful moments as well as the awkward ones that we wish had never happened. What we carry with us is invaluable; it is in fact who we are.
And it is really hard to wrap our brains around that. We often measure people by the superficial stuff: how they appear, what car they drive, where they go to synagogue, when they go to synagogue, and so forth.
But what really makes us who we are is our own, personal, individual sack of memory. And in particular on a day like today, when we reflect back on how our lives were touched by those whom we remember.
The proper name from Yizkor, by the way, is Hazkarat Neshamot, the recalling of souls. What we do on this day is to attempt to bring up those shards of memory of those who have left us: who they were, what they stood for, what they taught us.
Perhaps this endeavor serves as a reminder on an ongoing basis of our obligation to treat others well, to remember that every interaction that we have with other people is logged in somebody’s memory. And not only that, but also that many little actions can add up to a tidal wave of memories, memories that cross over from individuals to peoples. Memory shapes not only individuals, but also cultures, politics, and nations.
I’m going to share with you a few examples from my own memory machine, memories that have shaped me as a contemporary Jew, as an American, and as a rabbi.
When I was in cantorial school, and before I had a cantorial position that required me to be at the same synagogue every Shabbat and holiday, I used to do a lot of “shul-hopping.” That is, I would walk to different synagogue in Manhattan to listen to different hazzanim, to hear them practice their art. One year on Shemini Atzeret, I walked to Fifth Avenue Synagogue, an Orthodox congregation on the East Side, to hear Cantor Joseph Malovany. Unfortunately, he was not there that day, and his substitute was unremarkable. But I was treated to something else that day: the author Elie Wiesel was there, sitting quietly in the front row on the rabbi’s side. I did something that day that I was not accustomed to doing at the time: I stayed in the sanctuary for Yizkor, mostly so I could watch Elie Wiesel as he stood up to recite his own personal Yizkor prayers, recalling, I imagined, all of the things that he had recounted in his books: the loss of his family, his Romanian village, the loss of his faith upon arrival in Auschwitz. He stood with his eyes closed, gently rocking side to side, his head cast slightly upward. Where is he? I wondered. Where is he right now?
A different story: The summer of my seventeenth year I visited Israel for the first time. I spent eight weeks there on an academic program called the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, where we learned Jewish history from ancient times until present day, and visited relevant sites all over Israel to put it in context. It was amazing — much of what I learned that summer I have carried with me and used again and again.
Of course, when you have 40 seventeen-year-olds living together in a dorm for eight weeks, you learn a whole lot about the complexity of human relationships as well. One thing that I remember from that summer was learning about how mean one Jew can be to another for the sake of one interpretation of Judaism. One weekend, we had some free time in Jerusalem, and one of my female friends was caught inadvertently among a mob of Haredim (so-called ultra-Orthodox Jews, although I prefer not to use that misleading term) who were protesting the opening of certain cinemas on Shabbat. She was wearing something that someone in that crowd deemed inappropriate, and so he spat upon her. She was, as you can imagine, more than taken aback; the Jews among whom she had grown up and lived with and traveled around Israel with did not behave that way.
That was a memory that I am sure that she carries with her to this day, and so do I by proxy (even though I was not there when it happened).
Ladies and gentlemen, as a people we came through the Shoah together, laden with horrible memories, with martyrdom an essential feature of the modern Jewish psyche. We established a Jewish state in our historical homeland. We have empowered women to participate fully in Jewish life and mitzvot. Many of us in this room remember all of these things personally, because you were there. Our memories have shaped us as a people. And they will continue to help us move forward as a people into the bold, inchoate Jewish future.
Many of you have been to parlor meetings with me over the past year, and you know that part of the process is to tell a story about a Jewish memory, a meaningful Jewish experience. My goal in asking you to do so is not so that the others in the room might simply say, “Now that’s nice.” Rather, it is to (a) remind us of the power of memory, (b) create a sense of community through shared stories, and (c) try to connect who we are and how we live today as Jews with our past experiences. We fire up those memory machines to connect them with each other, and then with Congregation Beth Shalom.
On this second day of Shavuot, this day of remembering, it is upon us to look back not only on the people that have created deep personal memories for us, our parents, our siblings, our teachers, our friends, but also those among our people who have created salient cultural memories for us as Jews, and the community that we have inherited.
Memory makes us collectively stronger as individuals and as a qehillah. Turn on those memory machines; now is the time to actively remember.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, second day of Shavuot, 6/13/2016.)