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The Sixth Sense: Memory

Everything on the Seder table is intended to trigger a memory — every symbol on the Seder plate, every pretty dish and candlestick, every recipe, every melody, every ritual.  The Seder is a feast of memories.  Some date back millennia, some centuries, others just a generation.  Some are universally shared across the Jewish World.  Others are unique to one region or own family-line.  Each memory at your table is woven together with the others in a tapestry so fine it can be hard to discern where one memory begins and another ends, which are first-hand memories and which we have been inherited and now integrated as our own.

In his novel, Everything is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer writes:  “JEWS HAVE SIX SENSES: Touch, taste, sight, smell, hearing … memory.  …For Jews, memory is no less primary than the prick of a pin, or its silver glimmer, or the taste of the blood it pulls from the finger. The Jew is pricked by a pin and remembers other pins. It is only by tracing the pinprick back to other pinpricks -– when his mother tried to fix his sleeve while his arm was still in it, when his grandfather’s fingers fell asleep from stroking his great-grandfather’s damp forehead, when Abraham tested the knife point to be sure Isaac would feel no pain -– that the Jew is able to know why it hurts.  When a Jew encounters a pin, he asks: What does it remember like?”

We are in the memory-making business.  Safran Foer happens to select an example that evokes discomfort, pain, loss, fear. The seder table includes both the bitter herbs and the sweet charoset, the saltwater tears and the fresh greens of spring.  The matzah is simultaneously “the bread of affliction” and “the taste of freedom.”  What in Jewish life triggers memories of gratitude, joy, discovery, pride, belonging, peace?

What does Manischewitz wine remember like?

What does wrapping yourself in a tallit remember like? 

What does dancing a horah remember like?

What does the sound of the shofar remember like?

What do the cinnamon and clove spices of Havdalah remember like?

What does the melody of Hatikvah remember like?

What do the shapes of Hebrew letters remember like?

When we create memories, when we recreate memories, we reinforce Jewish identity and place ourselves at stops along the timeline of Jewish history.  The Haggadah records the Mishnaic teaching:  “B’Chol Dor vaDor…”  “In each and every generation each person must see him/herself as if s/he went out from Egypt.”  When we invert the instruction we discover another:  “Each person must see him/herself in each and every generation.”  How can we construct a Jewish life in which we make “as if” we shared in the trials and triumphs of our ancestors?  How do we live a Jewish life which prepares for the generations to come?

Tomorrow we’ll gather for the Seventh Day of Pesach.  The sounds of Hallel will evoke memories which uplift and delight us, returning us to play in the orchestra of Levites. The Yizkor candle some light tonight and the Kaddish we’ll recite tomorrow call up memories that ache. How fortunate we are to be blessed with holy days designated for the rituals of remembering. How fortunate are we to have home and synagogue designated for memories both private and communal.  May this Pesach provide precious opportunity to pause, to ask and answer:  What does it remember like?

Our new Schwartz/Reisman Atrium includes a Living Museum, where congregants – on rotation – can share their family heirlooms which tell stories of personal Jewish history.  To learn more, contact Curator, Judy Toker, at [email protected].
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