Off the Pulpit

The Secret of Memory

Renowned historian Yosef Haim Yerushalmi once noted that the Jewish people were the first in history who saw memory as a religious obligation. In his aptly titled book Zakhor, “Remember,” he traced the ways in which Jews recorded and reconstructed the events of their history.

The more we learn about memory the more we realize it is not a tape recorder; indeed we do not even use the same ‘storage systems’ for different kinds of memory. The way you recall breakfast is not the same as the way you recall a childhood incident, although it may seem the same. Scans of brains show different parts and patterns involved in different recollections.

For Jews the obligation is not to record what happened alone but to integrate the lessons of the event into our lives. We are enjoined to remember so that we will act differently than if we were ignorant of the past. To be a Jew is to bear witness even to events one has not personally seen; to remember that which we did not personally undergo; to change our lives because of the trauma and the triumph and the sanctity of those who came before us.