Last month, President Obama challenged our memories. On a stage full of mothers who have lost children in recent gun violence attacks, the president spoke of continued efforts to tighten gun laws. With resistance to such laws stiffening in Congress, the President reminded us that after the Newtown shooting, “the entire country was shocked, and the entire country pledged—we would do something about it…that this time would be different.” The president continued, “We need everybody to remember how we felt 100 days ago and make sure that what we said at that time wasn’t just a bunch of platitudes, [but] that we meant it.” The president’s speech charged us not to let our memories fail us so miserably, so soon.
We have just concluded the holiday of memories, Pesach, a holiday whose whole purpose is to bring back the memory of the exodus from Egypt. At the Seder, we have symbols that recall the Jewish enslavement in Egypt, such as the marror and lechem oni, as well as symbols which remind us of our freedom, such as the need to recline and the four cups of wine. Various items are also zecher l’mikdash, in memory of the Temple, for example, the first time we wash our hands at the Seder, and the koreich sandwich.
For eight days we took a trip down memory lane, and before we knew it, after all of the hard work…Pesach itself became just another memory. We are now left to consider: What did I accomplish through this exhausting exercise of recollection and how does my historical journey affect me now when life return to “normal?”
Perhaps, there is what to decipher from the prototypical example of recollection that takes place specifically on the last day of Pesach: the Yizkor prayer. Notice, that the prayer which charges us to think of the past is ironically referred to in the future tense, Yizkor, meaning that we should remember for the future. Perhaps chazal were suggesting to us in this subtle change of tense, that the entire purpose of our journey to the past, is not simply to create a sense of nostalgia. Instead, at Yizkor we are supposed to revisit the sights and sounds of our past…to remind ourselves of what worked and what didn’t work for us in our relationships with our parents and loved ones, so that we can in turn become better parents and grandparents for our children. In making this subtle shift, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm (in a 1974 lecture) suggests that “we must move past ordinary nostalgia, beyond mere sentimental recollection, to creative nostalgia; to re-creation rather than mere re-collection.”
Where else is this transition highlighted? The mishna in Pesachim (10:4) offers advice as to how the story at the seder should unfold: “maschil b’genus u’mesayem be’shevach,” we start by telling the tales of our lowly past, and then finish with the stories of salvation. Yet perhaps embedded in this charge, we are also given the recipe for achieving “creative nostalgia.”
We are told to start with re-experiencing the bitterness of the past and then gradually transition to speak about the redemption. Instead, the mishna is telling us that when you are able to relive the bitterness of the past (maschil b’genus), that recollection can, and must act as the springboard to enable the creation of a positive future (u’mesayem be’shevach). In other words, creative nostalgia is achieved through the following steps: First, we put ourselves into the experiences of the past, in order to be able to understand them emotionally and intellectually. Then after having experienced the past, we practically put it to use, by resolving to grow into the future based on the lessons of yesterday. When that occurs, we have taken the leap across the gap of history and moved beyond ordinary to the redemptive form of nostalgia. It becomes a redemptive journey not just when we relive the past, but far more importantly, when we use our memories to surpass the past.
In this context, we can suggest that the President didn’t just challenge our memories. He challenged the way in which we memorialize and he challenged the way we live. Later in the speech, the President reflected: “We have cried enough. We have known enough heartbreak…Now is the time to turn that heartbreak into something real.” We can’t change the past, but we can use the past to help us create a better, and safer future. In doing so, we truly can take a memory and turn it into something real. Pesach may now be over, but the real charge of the holiday has only just begun.
By Rabbi Jeremy Donath