WHAT DO WE REMEMBER? – Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah – SJN, July 2017
The cycle of the Jewish year is a journey of commemoration that encompasses, both, milestones in our formative history as a people, and those that have been incorporated into the calendar along the way – including in recent times. And so, in Nissan, the first month of the Jewish year, the month of Aviv, ‘Spring’ in the Torah, our first and defining memory as a people is of the Exodus from Egypt, commemorated at Pesach (15 Nissan). When in 1951, the Israeli K’nesset designated 27 Nissan as Yom Ha-Sho’ah, the proximity to Pesach was not an accident: the Warsaw ghetto uprising against the Nazis began on Erev Pesach, 19 April 1943. And so, the decision to remember Jewish resistance alongside the murder of the six million. From the perspective of Israel in 1951, the placing of Yom Ha-Sho’ah eight days before Yom Ha-Atzma’ut, the anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel on 5 Iyyar/14 May 1948 is also significant, forging a Pesach-like connection between persecution and redemption.
These modern commemoration dates, so closely connected with Pesach, take place during the seven-week period that culminates in the festival of Shavuot, ‘Weeks’. The transformation of Shavuot by the rabbis after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, from Yom Ha-Bikkurim, ‘the day of first-fruits’ to Z’man Matan Torateinu, ‘the season of the giving of our Torah, ensured that the events at Mount Sinai, just over seven weeks after the Exodus would also be remembered for all time: from persecution to redemption to revelation.
A rabble of ex-slaves became a people at Mount Sinai; a people with a goal: to enter the land beyond the River Jordan and establish a society governed by laws of justice and centred on the acknowledgement of the Eternal – Creator, Liberator and Teacher. Significantly, the Jewish calendar does not commemorate any dates connected with life in the land, except those associated with domination by Imperial powers – chiefly the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple built by King Solomon by the Babylonians in 586 BCE –over six hundred years after our ancestors crossed the Jordan (c. 1250 BCE). That traumatic event gave rise to three commemorative dates: Tishah B’Av, the 9th day of Av, the day of destruction (which begins this year on 31 July), 17 Tammuz, the date three weeks earlier when the Babylonians breached the walls of Jerusalem, and 10 Tevet, which falls in the winter, the day when the Babylonians siege of Jerusalem began. In fact, just as the Exodus is so significant to the identity of our people that we recall it twice daily in the blessing of liberation after the Sh’ma, and when we inaugurate Shabbat each week, remembrance of the devastation of Jerusalem is considered so important to our awareness of our personal identity as Jews that with the breaking of the glass, it breaks into the joyous celebration of a wedding.
As the cycle turns to the Days of Awe, remembrance of our people’s odyssey combines with our personal journeys towards renewal. On Rosh Ha-Shanah, we recall Abraham’s ‘binding of Isaac’, and on Yom Kippur, we reflect on our long history. And then on Sukkot, we re-connect with the Exodus story as we remember our ancestors’ wilderness wanderings. The post-biblical festivals that follow also jog our collective memory: On Simchat Torah, as we complete the Torah reading cycle and begin again; at Chanukkah, as we recall the Maccabees’ victory against the Assyrian Greeks conquerors in 164 BC and the rededication of the Temple; at Purim, as we tell a story that encapsulates our experience as a persecuted minority – and then conclude it with a happy ending. What do we remember? Both times of destruction and liberation. And we continue to look towards the future with hope.