We Are What We Remember

The last paragraph of Ki Tetze is the maftir reading in non-Reform congregations on the Shabbat before Purim. Its opening word, zachor, remember, names that Shabbat.

“Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey after you left Egypt — how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Eternal your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Eternal your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!”

I was present on a Yom Kippur morning many years ago when Rabbi Harold Schulweis asked his congregation if they could name members of Hitler’s SS. And the names came pouring out from all corners of the sanctuary: Himmler, Eichmann, Goering, and on. And then Rabbi Schulweis asked the community to name the people who tried to save Anne Frank and her family. Silence.

Blot out the memory of Amalek, of all those who have tried to destroy us. But, he asked, whose names have we blotted out and whose names have we remembered? In focusing on our suffering, we have chosen to see ourselves as victims, to see in others the potential hater.

For so many of us, being Jewish is bound up in being vulnerable. In the most profound and wonderful ways, we have been nurtured on the biblical teaching from Exodus, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been slaves in the land of Egypt.” We remember our suffering — so that we will feel with those who suffer. We remember our suffering — so that we will nurture the courage to speak out against injustice. We remember our pain.

But there is a dark side to remembering pain. Neuroscience has joined with the therapeutic professions to teach us that we participate in creating our reality. Our experiences and the ways we think about them — our insights and reflections — change the neural connections that make up our brains. Dr. Daniel J. Siegel writes, “This revelation is based on one of the most exciting scientific discoveries of the last 20 years: How we focus our attention shapes the structure of the brain.”

And according to the writer Diane Ackerman, “In the end, what we pay the most attention to defines us. How you choose to spend the irreplaceable hours of your life literally transforms you.”

As a Jewish people, we have formed our ideas of the world and our place in it. Deep down — and it is deep down — many of us believe that the whole world wants the Jews dead. Our brains are constantly on high-stress alert, vigilant against potential attack. There is danger in the world. It’s good that Israel has a powerful and smart army. It’s good that the Anti-Defamation League keeps its eye on acts of bigotry and hatred. But sometimes, the following also is true: If we have friends out there, we might not see them.

We approach the world with profound mistrust. This affects our political views and our foreign policy and crushes our hopes for a just and lasting peace in the Middle East. Our deep-down primal narrative tells us that “the other” can’t be trusted.

Our memories, emotional responses and primal narratives become encoded deep within us, forming our sense of who we are. When we are not aware of the ways we frame the world, these primal responses can wreak havoc in our lives. A most painful example is that those who were abused as children are at risk of becoming abusers themselves. As a people, we too are at risk — not just of being persecuted. We are at risk if we do not see the Hebrew graffiti all over the Old City of Jerusalem — and the Old City of Hebron — or on mosques in the Galilee targeted for arson: Mavet la-aravim, reads the graffiti. Death to the Arabs.

We are what we remember. But we can choose how we remember. We need to transform our pain into empathy, our fear into courage and our mourning into joy. We need to remember that we were vulnerable and afraid — so that we will fill our world with healing and blessing.

Rabbi Shira Milgrom is a rabbi at Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains, N.Y., and author of articles about Jewish spirituality, education, healing and women in Judaism. This column first appeared on reformjudaism.org.

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