When I was still in secondary school, we had one class which was simply called ‘recitation’. This class would follow a four week schedule. In the first week we would read though a collection of poetry, or the King James Bible, until we encountered a poem or a section which particularly spoke to us. In the second week we would read and then re-read our chosen piece, and commit it to memory. Then finally in the third week we would recite our chosen poem or Biblical passage to the group at large from memory: then the whole cycle would start over. I must confess that at the time I hardly saw any merit in this class whatsoever, and would normally try to subvert it, subtly and on occasions not so subtly, by my selection. Years later however, I am glad that I had this experience as it has not only left me with a legacy of poems committed to memory, but also with source imagery and phraseology that I am still able to draw upon today.
Recently I suffered from a sudden illness which resulted in a relatively long stay in hospital and which adversely affected my memory, both older memories but more profoundly my short term memory. At one stage this was so acute that I was unable to read, I would forget the opening of a paragraph by the time I had reached its conclusion. However, those passages committed to memory so many years earlier were still readily available to me, as were those bits and pieces from various places in Jewish literature and liturgy that I had committed to memory, admittedly largely unintentionally. One such treasure from recitation class was and remains, ‘No Man is an Island’.
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less
As well as if a promontory were,
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
Poetry and indeed rhyme has long been recognised at least in part for its facility to be committed to memory, and much of the rabbinic tradition was initially intended to be oral and committed to memory rather than committed to writing.
As well as poetry many Biblical and Talmudic passages have been sources of comfort during what has been a most disquieting time; however, not too many of them however came from this week’s parashah, Parashat Bereshit.
In re-reading the opening section of the Parashah once again something that struck me with renewed force is simply how much there is to respond to. Indeed each and every verse cries out for interpretation, re-interpretation, and response. But, while reading Bereshit in preparation for writing this D’var Torah one phrase which spoke to me particularly, on this occasion, is from Genesis 4:9.
And the Lord said to Cain: ‘Where is Abel your brother? And he said. ‘I do not know, am I my brother’s keeper’?
Something which a relatively extended period of ill health has brought home to me is the truth of the statement, as expressed by John Donne, that no man is an island; and we are not meant to experience ourselves as being isolated, atomised individuals . The answer to Cain’s question is ‘yes we are all indeed siblings one for each other’.
There were many small, and not so small, examples I encountered where doctors, nurses, and indeed fellow patients would try and help: I think especially of those patients who would try their best to help comfort one and other, or doctors who would go to great lengths to explain and get informed consent even from people who were highly confused and distressed.
But memory is not simply a personal matter, there is communal and national memory as well, this is especially apparent in Judaism, where we remember that we were slaves in Egypt (and embrace the ethical responsibilities that this concept entails).
What is the worst thing that the evil inclination can achieve, asks the tradition? The striking answer it gives itself is that it can make an individual forget that they are the child of a monarch.
For me one of the most telling aspects of the opening narrative of creation is that it is in fact two different versions of the same story told one after the other. Each on its own is beautiful, but together they tell a fuller and more meaningful story.
This nuanced story-telling is further reflected in the Kiddush recited at both Friday evening and on Saturday morning where affinity with the divine is based both on emulation, God rested, and on empowerment, God set Israel free.
In some ways it is its nuance and complexity that always draws me towards and into Judaism. This can be seen right from the opening of Genesis where, two, on the face of it, contradictory versions of the creation story are told one after the other, and the result is a deeper, more complex and ultimately more truthful whole.
Student rabbi Adam Frankenberg
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.