Jose Saramago, writing in “The Notebook” about Lisbon, describes communal memory: |
“In physical terms we inhabit space, but in emotional terms we are inhabited by memory. A memory composed of a space and a time, a memory inside which we live, like an island between two oceans-one the past, the other the future. We can navigate the ocean of the recent past thanks to personal memory, which retains the recollection of the routes it has traveled, but to navigate the distant past we have to use memories that time has accumulated, memories of a space that is continually changing, as fleeting as time itself.”
“Remember the day you stood at Sinai.” I do not remember standing at Sinai for the Revelation, but the memory of the experience surges through my veins. There are times when my Torah study allows me to feel that I am standing at Sinai. I connect to the collective memory of the Jewish people as I read the texts through the 11th century eyes of Rashi, the 12th century eyes of the Rambam, through the eyes of the minds of every century in every place of the world. I do, as described by Saramago, “navigate the distant past using those accumulated memories.” I study the text with them and connect back up through the centuries all the way back to the Revelation. I am inspired, thrilled and filled with awe, and yet I have difficulty holding on to those memories with the intensity with which we collectively grasp the memory of that singular day. I think of Sinai. Much of what I believe is because it lives in the links of that collective memory, but I still don’t remember that day.
What would it mean to remember that day?
An elderly Rabbi in Miami Beach explained it to me: I spent practically every Friday afternoon of winter and spring 1974 sitting at the feet of Rabbi Meisels as he answered halachic questions from elderly people gathered in his living room. I never saw anyone listen as did Rabbi Meisels. He would focus his probing vision on each questioner as if he was peering deep into the soul. I was convinced that he was not listening to the words as much as the beating of the listener’s heart.
His responses were never the black and white rulings we usually receive when asking a Sh’eila; he would address the questioner’s entire life. No matter how simple the question, Rabbi Meisels would speak of the issue in the context of their entire spiritual lives. I grew up listening to great rabbis, incredibly sensitive human beings, answer such questions, but I had never seen anything like this.
My father zt”l commented upon learning how I was spending my Friday afternoons, “Rabbi Meisels will teach you how to listen to the questions. Pay attention to his listening, not his answers.”
I had to ask him, “Rabbi Meisels, how did you learn to listen that way?”
“People in Auschwitz would come to me with their questions. They were living in the deepest level of Gehennom, in a world of total evil, a reality in which few felt God’s Presence, and they still insisted on asking how God wanted them to behave. I wondered what could possibly compel someone to search for direction even in this insane world. Then I remembered that God spoke the first two of the Ten Statements. His words permeated every part of our being. They became part of our essence. They were not words that we taught, but words we absorbed into the deepest parts of our being. They cannot be ripped out even by an Auschwitz. I understood that the voice asking me a question was that of a person who stood at Sinai. Whenever someone asks a question, I listen carefully for Sinai’s echo. I respond to that voice, not to the question.”
What would it mean to “Remember that day?” It would mean hearing the part of my voice that reverberates with Sinai’s echo.
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