‘There are three deaths: the first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.’ (Sum: 40 Tales of the Afterlife, David Eagleman, 2009, pp.23)
In his book ‘Sum: 40 Tales of the Afterlife,’ Eagleman tells stories of alternative possibilities for what existence after death might look like. In his collection is the story quoted above which tells that when we die we arrive in a waiting room filled with others who have died. There we remain and are able to eat food which has been put on offer and strike up conversation with those around us. The room holds great authors, musicians, celebrities and politicians, both good and bad, whose names are memorialised in people’s memories and, live on forever. At any point someone can be called and taken away, told that they are going on to a better place. No one ever returns to tell of where that better place is. Those are the people whose names are no longer spoken in the world of the living. (Eagleman, 2009)
As a Jewish people we have a tradition of sharing in collective memory. Last week, the in the Parashah we were commanded to remember the Exodus and so we do, every day in our prayers and every year at our Seder tables. We are taught that we all stood together at Sinai, receiving Torah. Our texts remind us repeatedly that ‘we were strangers in the land of Egypt’. Collective memory is not reserved for stories from our literature, together we also promise, never to forget the tragedy of the Holocaust.
In this week’s Parashah we are commanded not to remember but rather to forget, to ‘blot out the memory of Amalek.’ The Amalekites are thought to have been the descendants of Esau and the first enemy that the Israelites face upon escaping Egypt. Despite the commandment to blot out their memory, the Amalekites feature throughout the stories in the Tanakh, repeatedly at war with the people of Israel; and even now many people will refer to those who they consider enemies of the Jews as descendants of Amalek. What is more, when a sofer (a scribe) is testing out a new quill, traditionally they write the name of Amalek and then scratch it out. We need to remember before we can forget.
Recently, we have seen Jewish collective memory rally individuals together in a force for good. In the past few years of the refugee crisis Jewish individuals and communities have joined together in great numbers all over the world to raise money, offer aid, volunteer and recently, in the case of South London Synagogue, even host a refugee family within the community. I think that it is no coincidence that Jews have been moved to action by the struggle of the refugees as we are reminded that we too were strangers in the land of Egypt and our history has made us refugees time and time again.
Collective memory can be problematic. People are often quick to cry out ‘this is just like it was in the 1930s’ in times when the world feels full of injustice. The trauma that has been passed from generation to generation from the Second World War has left us fearful and wary that such horrors should not happen again. Although this rhetoric can be damaging and undermine the memory of those who suffered at the hand of the Nazis, more recently I would argue that these very memories have stirred people to act in a time of injustice in Trump’s America. Just this week, nineteen Rabbis in America realised that they could use their privilege and status to allow themselves to get arrested in an act of civil disobedience against Trump’s ban on refugees and immigrants from many Muslim countries entering the USA.
We continuously read about Amalek so his memory is never really blotted out but we remember Amalek in order to forget. When we remember Amalek as every enemy who the Jews have faced in recent years, we give the memory strength. When the sofer scratches out Amalek’s name his memory is undermined. When we cry out that we are witnessing a repetition of 1930s Germany we can run the risk of belittling the memory of those who suffered at the hand of the Nazis.However when we use our collective memory to give us energy to fight the possibility of these horrors being repeated, we undermine the memory of the Nazis and our strength prevails.
Eagleman’s story ends by saying, ‘and that is the curse of this room: since we live in the heads of those who remember us, we lose control of our lives and become who they want us to be.’ (Eagleman, 2009)
We have the power to blot out Amalek’s memory and the power to control how Amalek is remembered and what is more, we have a duty to consider the impact of our actions on the memories of others once we are gone.
Student rabbi Anna Posner