Memory that carries us back—and forward
The Talmud in Ta’anit tells the following story:
Honi the Wise One, also known as Honi the Circle Maker, was taking a walk when he saw a man planting a carob tree. Honi asked the man, “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?”
The man replied, “Seventy years.”
Honi then asked the man, “And do you think you will live another 70 years to enjoy the fruit of this tree”?
The man answered, “Perhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees.”
One of the core values of Jewish life is continuity. We acknowledge our existence as part of a long chain with a strong link both to our collective past, and to our joint future.
This long, endless chain comes with benefits as well as obligations. Being part of this remarkable bond is a privilege, but one that comes with commitments. It’s to appreciate the fruit trees of all kinds, spiritual and physical, that we found when coming to this world, while planting and nurturing new ones for future generations.
This is what kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh— all of Israel is responsible for one another, means.
In just a few days the Jewish people will sit around beautiful Pesach seder tables and read through the Haggadah, the book that guides us through our ancestors’ slavery in Egypt, their suffering and hardship, on through their becoming a people and receiving the law at Mt. Sinai.
In every generation, a person is obligated to see himself as if he had left Egypt: as it is said: “You shall tell your child on that day, it is because of this that God did for me when I left Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 6, 23)
Avrham Infeld, one of my favorite mentors, always says that the Jewish people don’t have history, we have memory, a shared memory. Memory is something you personally experience, it’s part of who and what you are, it is the emotional resonance of things that have touched you, things that left an impression and have stayed with you. History, on the other hand, is something about which you learn, it is the telling and ordering of events that have happened to others.
The Haggadah teaches us to remember that we were right there, with our suffering ancestors in Egypt, alongside them when they witnessed the miraculous redemption from exile, and standing side by side at Sinai when we became a nation.
There at Sinai we first stood together as a people, and from that point on, we considered ourselves a nation. We have stood together since, held together by a long, shared memory.
We often think of miracles as ending in biblical times, but our journey through memory includes modern ones, as well. As it says in Hatikvah, to be a free people in our own land. We are a sovereign people celebrating our Jewish memory in many different ways, in a vibrant, pluralistic nation. Around the world, Jews today are free to express their Jewish identity through values and tradition as they see fit, freely, publicly, in peaceful times and in times of threats.
This has not always been so, and we do not have to look back very far into our memory to recall the horrifying dark times during the Shoah, when six million of us were murdered.
On Monday night, the 14th of Nisan we commemorate the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. This Jewish resistance, made up of young socialists, communists, and Zionists, arose to oppose the Nazis’ efforts to transport the ghetto population to the Treblinka extermination camp. Although poorly armed, the young fighters held out for almost a month before German troops crushed them. To avoid capture, Mordechai Anielewicz, the 24-year-old commander of the uprising, took poison along with several of his comrades. Anielewicz departed the world so young, yet left behind so much. In “planting” the seeds for his carob tree, he gave us, the generations that have come since, the fruit of Jewish resilience, heroism, determination and pride. That carob tree lives and grows today, most notably in the state of Israel. We saw it, too, in the support JCCs received when they were under threat. Anielewicz’s carob tree inspires us today, and will continue to do so into the future.
Our memory guides us in striving to be what we can and should be. And, as did the carob planter—it points the way for what we will be in 70 years to come and for all the days beyond.
Happy Pesach and Shabbat shalom!
Leah Garber, Vice President. Director, JCC Israel Center