the memory keeper
Earlier this week I returned a call from a KT member I knew had lived in Ukraine as a child and still had family there. He began, "I had called you when things were still feeling like 1918 and now that things feel more like 1939 we have other things to discuss." It took me a moment to realize he was referencing two different historical markers – the Spanish Flu in 1918 relative to COVID-19 and the onset of World War II in 1939 relative to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Our current political reality was somehow in reference to several other key moments in centuries past all at once.
This week we read parashat Pekudei as we conclude the book of Exodus, the great liberation narrative of our people. But hardly a day goes by in Jewish ritual life that we don't reference it. We imagine ourselves crossing the sea singing Mi Chamocha before every Amidah. We call out from a narrow place in the verses of Hallel on Rosh Hodesh. And every Shabbat, as we make kiddush, we bless the day in remembrance of the work of creation and in remembrance of the Exodus / zecher l'tziyat mitzrayim. Each week we are at once back in the Garden of Eden and back in the Narrow Place.
Our prayers and blessings call to us. They are our memory keepers. Drawing connections across time and place. And in this way reminding us of what is enduring and sustaining.
Linguistically speaking, the reason the Israelites were freed from slavery is because God "remembered" them (Exodus 4:30). In the Hebrew it reads, "Adonai pakad et B'nei Yisrael." This is the same remembering that the Holy One does when Sarah gets pregnant at the age of 99. Our Rosh Hashanah Torah reading begins, "Adonai pakad et Sarah." This remembering can be personal and it can be communal.
This week as we read parashat Pekudei, I am returning to the power of memory. So many of us have family that were forced to migrate from Ukraine in the late 1800s and early 1900s. And some of us are ourselves refugees from Ukraine. It is devastating to think that 100 years later there is a Jewish president and another fascist invasion. I read a piece about how one rabbi in Odessa bought enough canned goods for his congregation to eat for a year. It is 1918 and it is 1939.
Earlier this week the member shared on our congregant listserv, "I was born in Kyiv and so were most of my family members for the previous three generations. I still have elderly family members there that survived the bombing by the Nazis 80 years ago only to be homebound and stuck in there apartment while the city is being bombed by the Russia today... I can't begin to describe sheer horror of what Putin has unleashed on the country where I was born and where I spent my childhood. I recognize every one of those subway stations that are being used as bomb shelters and every street where buildings are being blown up and tanks are driving down."
One midrash on the Exodus story tells of the power of remembering. Moses and Aaron are trying to impress the Elders of Israel. The elders go to visit Serah Bat Asher, the oldest woman in the Torah. (Her life spans the entire experience of enslavement and liberation, and some communities hold that she lives until the 12th century!) They tell Serah Bat Asher that Moses said, "G-d will remember you!" Upon hearing this, she said: "He is the man who will bring Yisrael out of Egypt, for I heard from my father 'Peh Peh Pakod Yifkod' are the magic words.
Serah Bat Asher, often referred to as the memory keeper, is the one person who knows where Joseph is buried. She is called upon so that B'nei Yisrael can fulfill their promise to carry his bones out of Egypt. She is invoked in moments when we need to look back, unbury truths, and unlock our courage to carry ourselves across the unknown.
In the words of the wonderful Marge Piercy,
"Bless the gift of memory
that breaks unbidden, released
from a flower or a cup of tea
so the dead move like rain through the room."
The stories we tell are themselves keepers of memory. We pass them down from generation to generation, from mouth to mouth (peh peh), from heart to heart, so that we can honor our dead and fight like hell for the living.
May the blessings of the new moon be upon us, and upon all of Yisrael and all who dwell on Earth. And may this Adar fulfill its promise to increase our joy.
Hodesh Tov and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev
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