Deliberate Remembering

Photograph of Elianna Yolkut
Photograph of Elianna Yolkut
Rabbi Elianna Yolkut

Rabbi Without Borders

Elianna Yolkut is a Rabbi Without Borders. Ordained in 2006 by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, she was later an adjunct faculty member  while serving as assistant rabbi at the Conservative synagogue Adat Ari El in nearby Valley Village. Her commentaries were written during her time at AJU. 

posted on August 10, 2017
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

Humans have a strong capacity for remembering things which we would happily forget: embarrassing childhood memories, awkward moments in our dating life and when our own children repeat a private family story. We might even wish away memories of moments of tensions amongst friend we would have rather not seen. However, even if we could forget, edit out our most painful experiences would we really do so? Do you remember the movieEternal Sunshine on a Spotless Mind, which is a pop culture reflection on the adverse consequences of deliberate forgetting. In the movie, Clementine and Joel were in a loving relationship when things turned sour. Clementine ends the relationship and, moreover, wants to get him out of her memory as well. It then turns out that there is an obscure medical company, specializing in erasing memories no longer wanted. Soon Joel has disappeared from her memory. On learning this, Joel wants the same treatment to get her out of his memory. At this point you may already sense the tenor of the story. They meet again, fall in love again, and again the relationship fails. If you could have the power to erase your painful memories would you? Would about our collective historical memories?

In the Torah portion this week, Parshat Eikev, memory features prominently and holds great importance. As the parsha begins we read,

Remember the long way that Adonai your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, that God might test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts: whether you would keep God's commandments or not. (8:2)

Apparently, we could have made it through the desert with ease and speed but instead we wandered slowly and for great length. Why? Doesn't God know what is in our hearts why is a test necessary for the discovery of our inner life? Why would God lengthen our journey? And why is the memory of this experience so important that it is repeated several times this week?

Inevitably in our rich and varied lives we wander in the wilderness of sorts, facing challenging times and struggle. Because of the circuitous nature of life's winding roads the journey often feels desolate and elongated, we might even feel like the Israelites traveling from sorrow toward redemption but stuck along the way in a desert. Yet, in this journey there is wisdom to be found. This path the Torah reminds us, the crooked one, often bears fruit not possible via shortcut - we experience the fullness of life as we go off the direct route and in doing so learn our innermost feelings and thoughts, our hopes and our dreams. And during our people's journey, those 40 years of wandering, they faced both joyous triumph and incredible challenge; the experiences breed learning and growth. The Torah itself reminds us of this truth in the verse which follows the commandment to remember, here with specific details as to what we should remember,

Adonai subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your ancestors had ever known, in order to teach you that people do not live on bread alone, but that people are given life through all of God's expressions. (8:3)

We knew and experienced both great abundance and challenging scarcity side by side. And when the time comes to enter and settle the land we might want to leave the journey behind and focus only on the redemption of the Promised Land. Yet, the Torah does not want to allow memory to fade, its lessons disappearing in our review mirror. This week's parsha reminds us over and over again of the religious command to remember and to not forget, not only the long path to get there but the relationship with the Divine we have built as a result of the journey. Listen to the repeating message:

You must certainly remember what Adonai your God did to Pharaoh and all the Egyptians (7:19)

Take care lest you forget Adonai your God and fail to keep God's commandments, God's rules, and God's laws, which I enjoin upon you today. (8:11)

Beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget Adonai your God—who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage; (8:14)

Remember that it is Adonai your God who gives you the power to get wealth, in fulfillment of the covenant that He made on oath with your fathers, as is still the case. (8:18)

Though our instinct might be to, like the characters in the movie, forget the hardships and challenges of the journey, the Torah's repetition is a reminder of the importance of doing just the opposite. We must hold the memory of the journey and all of its twists and turns, its length-, breadth and depth close. Why? In Pirkei Avot (3:1) we are taught, "Akavya ben Mehalallel said, "Think of three things and you will not fall into sin: where you have come from, where you are going to; and before whom you are accountable." It is in remembering the entire journey, our beginnings, our challenges along the way and the relationship and responsibility we have to the Holy Blessed One that we are pulled to live a life of righteousness, to understand the lessons in the struggles and to remember our eternal connection to God through all of it.

A generic remembering of the journey is not enough we must use the memories for something more. Rabbi Dov Bear the Maggid of Mezeritch goes even further when he teaches on Deuteronomy Chapter 8:3

At the core of every existence is a divine utterance that created it ("Let there be light," "Let the earth sprout forth vegetation," etc.), which remains nestled within it to continuously supply it with being and life. The soul of human descends into the trappings and trials of physical life in order to unite with and elevate the "sparks of holiness" buried in the food it eats, the clothes it wears, and all the other objects and forces of the physical existence it interacts with. For when a person utilizes something, directly or indirectly, to serve the Creator, he penetrates its shell of mundanity revealing and realizing its Divine essence and purpose.

It is in the lived everyday life, remembering the details (good and bad) that we are able to elevate our existence to holiness and sacred connection is not separate from the hardships, from the triumphs or from the long road it is where we might in fact find God. God is nestled in life, in the nooks and crannies, around every corner for our discovery - not the cause of our pain but the presence we feel in our struggles drawing us toward sacred deeds and actions. There is divinity in the vulnerable moment between parent and child in the middle of the night when a bad dream has taken hold. There is holiness in the up and down struggle in finding the right partner. We are meant to hold onto to remembering as a way not to wallow in our suffering and struggles but to elevate the sacred in those experiences. If we remember the work of our lives: the monotony of making lunches for our children, the struggles and challenges caring for our aging parent or even fights we have with our spouse we might discover the sacred learning that happens in those moments of wilderness. The Torah's instance on remembering the Israelite's journey is a way of recalling our sacred task, assigned so many generations ago and continuing to this very day of remembering the long road, the journey and all of its ups and downs. For God is in there too. The Torah reminds us this week to relish the mundanity, the everyday road, the wrong turn and the long uphill climb each as a point of connection with the sacred.