The importance of memory, especially to our history

The importance of memory, especially to our history

Parshaht Korach, Numbers 16:1-18:32

In this week’s Torah portion, a rebellion breaks out against Moses’ leadership, led by the Levite Korach, Reubenites Dathan and Abiram and 250 chieftains of the Hebrews. G-d instructs Moses and Aaron to have the rebels bring fire pans to offer fire and incense to G-d. The ground opens up beneath the feet of the rebels, their families and all that they own, and they are carried alive into Sheol. As commanded by Adonai, the rebels’ fire pans are then melted into plating for the altar to remind the people that only the priests descended from Aaron may offer incense to G-d. The rebellion continues among the people, who then are struck with a plague sent by G-d. Moses stops the plague with his expiations made on their behalf, but not before 14,770 have died. Chieftains from each of the 12 tribes, along with Aaron, are commanded to bring their staffs to the Tent of Meeting. The next day, only Aaron’s staff has sprouted, flowered and borne almonds, indicating G-d’s favor.

Commentators often remark on the memories of the rebellious people, who remember “the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely, the cucumbers, the melons, the onions and garlic.” One might question their memories. The Hebrews lived in terrible conditions in Egypt. Did they really have an abundance of these foods?

In 1973, when the movie “The Way We Were” came out, I was in college. I remember everything about the movie. I even remember the theater in which I saw the movie — because I saw it many times. I can’t remember what was going on in my life at the time, but the movie touched something in me. Perhaps I identified with the Barbra Streisand character, a strong Jewish woman, Katie Morosky, who had no qualms about bucking the system and campaigning for what she thought was right. Her Jewish soul and passion for social justice attracted me and had an influence on the way I try to live my life. Of course, another huge attraction in the movie was Streisand’s leading man, Robert Redford. I’m not sure that any actor since has come close to him in my estimation — maybe Brad Pitt, not George Clooney.

The theme song of the movie was just as haunting and memorable. The lyrics point out how memory often clouds our recollection of events, places and people. A 2014 article in the “Journal of Neuroscience” explains how our brains transform memories. “Our memory is not like a video camera,” notes the lead author, Donna Jo Bridge. “Your memory reframes and edits events to create a story to fit your current world. It’s built to be current.”

Friends, we see this rewriting of history in this week’s parshah, Korach. Once again the Hebrews are kvetching in the desert. Previously, they complained about the lack of food (“Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we did eat bread to the full; for you have brought us forth into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” Ex. 16:3), and God sent them manna. Next, they complain of thirst (“Wherefore hast thou brought us up out of Egypt to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?” Ex. 17:3), and God instructs Moses to strike the rock with his rod to get water. They kvetch about desert harshness (“Was it for lack of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness?” Ex: 17:3) and the lack of meat (Numbers 11: 4-5, “Would that we were given flesh to eat! We remember the fish, which we were wont to eat in Egypt for naught; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions and the garlic!”) and God sends them quail.

It is very unlikely that the diet of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt was as varied and delightful as they now remember it. Recalling the lyrics of “The Way We Were” — “Can it be that it was all so simple then? Or has time rewritten every line?” — it seems that this desert generation of Israelites is rewriting their history as they vent their frustrations.

We Jews are a people for whom memory is important — so important that it is woven into our prayers, customs and holidays. We remember our dead in the Mourners’ Kaddish at every service and at our Yizkor services. We remember our slavery and redemption from Egypt in our festival of Passover and the triumph of the few over the many at Chanukah and Purim. In Deut. 5:15, we are commanded to zachor v’shamor — to remember our redemption from Egypt and to keep or observe the Sabbath. We also are a people that has been persecuted, and it is incumbent on us not only to remember, but also to ensure that the world remembers.

A movie like “The Way We Were” shows us that our memories may be deceiving, like the lyrics to the theme song, “What’s too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget.” The Children of Israel in the wilderness are a prime example, as shown by their behavior in Korach and other parshot. This is human nature and scientists have proven that our brains do rewrite memories. However, this week’s parshah shows us how important the accurate memories of our history and instructions from the Holy One are.

Cantor Michal Gray-Schaffer is the spiritual leader at Congregation B’nai Abraham. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.