Studies have shown that musicians have a better memory — not just for music, but words and pictures too.
If you have ever watched “American Idol,” you know that this is so. In the finale episodes they only have six days from the previous week’s episode where the two finalists are revealed, and during this time each finalist learns at least three songs. The musicians who play along with them have no score to follow; they have to commit the songs to memory. Everything goes off without a hitch, because these professional musicians routinely hold an astonishing variety of music in their memories.
Jews, like musicians, hold an astonishing amount of history in our memories. Why is the theme of memory so important for this week’s portion? This Shabbat we read from Parashat Tzav (Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36). In this parsha, the descriptions and instructions for the various sacrifices discussed in the previous week’s portion are repeated.
However, before any sacrifice was offered, the Israelites knew that they approached God as a unique and integral community. They had the communal memories of suffering through slavery and persecution together, and they also had the wonderful memories of their liberation. They were joined by common purpose and a shared covenantal obligation. The sacrifices brought them together as a community in part to remind them who they were and why they were a community.
Coincidentally, this Shabbat is also Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath of Remembrance. We are to “[r]emember 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. … Do not forget!” (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)
The commandment to remember this attack is the responsibility of the community. Zachor, remembering, is about transferring the responsibility of memory from one generation to the next.
So this Shabbat we embrace two forms of memory. There is the memory of whom we are as expressed through the sacrificial system. We sacrificed to remember our past in order to have a future that continues to be liberated. Then there is the memory of the cowardly king Amalek and what he did to us in such a dishonorable way.
Jewish memory is communal. It has the potential to be beautiful and at the same time painful. It cannot be an assortment of individual experiences. It must stay connected in order to continue our chain of tradition. Memory reminds us who we are, and shapes what we can be. Music in our congregations helps us to remember, whether it is through Torah chanting, a Shlomo Carlebach, z”l, niggun or a Debbie Friedman, z”l, melody.
As we sing about our history and our future in our respective congregations this Shabbat, may we remember together what makes us one eternal community across the generations.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)