A great deal of the Book of Deuteronomy is a recapitulation of the Hebrews’ journey into freedom through the speeches of Moses. Two of the great highlights from Torah that most of us are familiar with are repeated in this week’s reading: the Ten Commandments (Deut. 5:6-21) and the Shema (6:4-9). The portion also contains additional promises that illustrate the “karma” that if we are faithful to God’s teachings then we shall flourish, and if we forget and/or reject those commandments and teachings we will suffer. Ultimately, the reading as well as the entire Bible is a promise that God will remember His covenant and always stand by the Jewish people.
This is all a nice theology, but hidden in the midst of the promises (for both success and failure depending on our own actions) is a passage that is extremely important for all Jews, especially in these times of increasing anti-Semitism.
“Watch yourselves scrupulously, so that you do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes and so that they do not fade from your mind as long as you live. And make them known to your children and to your children’s children” (Deut. 4:9).
We live in one of the most amazing times in human history, filled with some of the greatest zeniths and nadirs of Jewish history. Think for a moment just about the last century. Our people (and many of our own family members) experienced the Holocaust, the persecutions in Iran, the Crown Heights riots, the bombings and mass shootings at dozens of synagogues, hundreds of anti-Semitic terrorist attacks in Israel and globally, and more. We have also experienced in the same time the creation of the modern State of Israel, Jews becoming leaders in all businesses, the survival of Israel against all odds from the many wars initiated against her, Jews in the US Supreme Court, and even a Jewish candidate for Vice President of the nation.
This week’s Torah portion enjoins us to remember what we have personally seen and experienced, and to teach this to our children. This is so important. We are obligated to let future generations know what we have experienced…the good and the bad, and to act based on those experiences.
Think of just the last 18 months. We had riots that specifically targeted Jewish neighborhoods; anti-Israel demonstrations are an almost weekly occurrence, and Israel was condemned by politicians and media for defending herself against over 4000 indiscriminately launched bombs. Members of Congress have taken up the old anti-Semitic tropes (“it’s all about the Benjamins”, etc), and blamed Israel for all of the problems in the world. The BDS Movement, which 15 years ago was considered “fringe” and meaningless has now been adopted by governments (local and national), universities, and most recently “Ben and Jerry’s” has come out as a supporter of BDS (please support other ice cream manufacturers that are not anti-Israel…Trader Joe’s makes a great version of Cherry Garcia), despite being founded and owned by two men who were born Jewish… but now consider themselves only “cultural Jews”, whatever that may mean. In only the last two months, Jews have been attacked in public venues, and the attackers have been ignored while Jews around the nation have ended up in hospitals or cemeteries.
Human beings easily forget the past, even the recent past. As the generation of Holocaust survivors dies off, we are progressively more confronted with Holocaust deniers. And with the craziness of the pandemic, many of us have already placed the riots of last summer out of our consciousness. But for those Jews in Los Angeles who had bricks thrown in their windows only a year ago, the pain and awareness are still etched in their consciousness, as it should be for us all.
This week’s reading reminds us of the importance of not only remembering what we have experienced and seen, but to teach it to our children so that dark history does not repeat itself; and so that future generations also have faith that the joys and opportunities we have experienced will exist for them in the future as well.
In our home this summer, my twins have been reading both Exodus and Mila 18: two great books by Leon Uris z”l about the creation of the State of Israel and the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt respectively. It is our obligation as parents and Jews to make sure they are aware of these recent events of the last century. And it is God’s promise in this week’s portion that as long as we both share our history with future generations and remember to live in righteous ways that are based on the teachings of our faith, we will survive and thrive as a Jewish people.
For almost 80 years Jewish leaders have said “Never Forget and Never Again”. I would add that we should remember to “Never forget our joys, that they may always increase”.
May our memories be alive and conscious within us and may we teach those memories to younger generations. And as a result, may we never see tragedies against our people revived and always renew the triumphs and joys of the Jewish people in every moment.
Rabbi Michael Barclay
July 23rd, 2021
14th of Av, 5781