The memory of being slaves must be well engrained in the DNA of the Jewish people. It is a memory that is the basis of our moral conduct towards each other. In this week’s portion of the Torah this comes up again, “you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and that the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I am commanding you to do this thing.” And also, “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this thing.” These words are said with respect to demands made, “You shall not pervert the justice due an alien or an orphan, nor take a widow’s garment in pledge.” and, “When you reap your harvest in your field and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow, in order that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat your olive tree, you shall not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not go over it again; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow.”
One could wonder what does this demand to remember slavery in Egypt have to do with demands for justice to the alien, the orphan and the widow?! We do know the answer though, it comes natural to us. We are speaking of the weakest of the weak in society, those who’s rights can so easily be dismissed and overrun, sometimes simply because they cannot even afford a decent defense of their basic rights. He or she who forgets that they have been somewhere in their past at such a lowest of the lower places, the slave, a person who is the property of another person, may not find it in him or her the capacity to understand this situation, let alone helping in getting people out of such dire straits.
In the year 1934 some instructors of the youth movement Makhnot Olim decided to hold summer camp activities on the ninth day of the month of Av, the day of mourning for the destroyed First and Second Temples. When Berl (Be’eri) Katzenelson protested he was accused by the young youth leaders as representing an extreme religious position. He responded with an essay name “Revolution and Tradition” He carefully discussed the need for both memory and forgetfulness in accurate dosages. He wrote (my free translation). “We have received two forces, memory and forgetfulness, we cannot do without each of them. If the world would have had only the memory what would have been our destiny? We would have collapsed under the burden of memories. We would have become slaves of our memories… On the other hand if forgetfulness would have got us completely – would there be in place for culture, science, self-esteem, or spiritual life?” Katzenelson was tring to explain that these two forces struggle with each other in a way that allows us to find the correct balances that on the one hand let us detach ourselves from the past we are dragged to because of our memories and on the other hand allow us to use them so that we can build something better for our future.
Now to the issue of the orphan, the widow and the alien, they are the manifestation of this pull, the conflict of our memories is a belittled person must run once again in our veins so that we can put ourselves in a place we were at in the past and do not wish to return to in the present or the future. The widow, the orphan and the alien have not been in Egypt and therefore it is also unjust to compare their situation and argue that in Egypt their situation would have been far worse. This is commonly argued against the unfortunate persons in our societies. We need to understand that they are here among us, they can be of one kind or another, have one color of skin or another, they can practice one religion or another, regardless of all of that, when there are low on the social ladder this memory has to become alive again. It has to catapult us to a place where we strive to change a faulty situation, drive a Tikkun Olam, so that a wrong is fixed.
This coming Tuesday, those of us with the right to vote in Israel will get a second chance to vote this year. There is a kind of a melancholic feeling about having to go to vote again in just about five months from the last elections. For some of us the memory of those events will drag us down demanding not to go out and vote. We will have excuses that there is no party that accurately reflects our values, that there is nothing to vote for, that all parties are corrupt and not worthy of our vote, and many excuses to refrain from the very basic right, maybe an obligation, to cast our vote on election day based on our own beliefs and values. There is a curse in the memory that prevents us from taking the road to the ballot, a curse of despair and giving up. It is exactly here that we must employ some of the forgetfulness for the sake of the future. It is the future that demand from us to be there and perform a noble civil right.
Remember that by casting our vote we shape the memory. Not the memory of the last elections where we did not enjoy the result of having a government formed, but rather the memory that will mold our future. A future that will not only deal with the rights of the elected public servants but also the rights of those who elect them, and especially those less fortunate in the Israeli society. So forget that which has just happened and go and vote. Use your conscious to guide you when you do so and may it be a blessing to us all.
Reuven Marko, 13 September 2019, 14 Elul, 5779