Thursday, 30 Jul 2020

Written by Eleanor Davis

It’s not often that a dementia screening test makes headlines, but thanks to a sample question featuring drawings of a lion, a rhinoceros and a camel, plus one high-profile interviewee (the President of the United States), one test has recently done just that.  The Montreal Cognitive Assessment is designed to measure cognitive ability through language, memory and visuo-spatial skills that may deteriorate with the onset of dementia:  as well as identifying large animals, questions include drawing a clock face and remembering short strings of words.  For most of us, the questions are notably simple, yet our relief at ‘passing’ such a test runs deep, for it touches on one of our deepest fears:  the loss of identity by forgetting.

We fear forgetting the good things that shape our lives, so we take photograph after photograph to preserve our memories of them:  we fill albums with baby pictures or wedding photos and our mobile phone galleries with snaps of happy times with friends.  We revisit the good times with friends and family, in reminiscences that begin “Do you remember when…?”

We may fear forgetting the bad things, the times when we were hurt or frightened that have also shaped us.  Even while we work to move on from trauma, we often build connections with people who shared the same experience, reassuring ourselves by shared recollection that we have been affected by a real experience, not a false memory.

Perhaps most of all, we fear forgetting our lost loved ones.  We tell stories of the deceased when we gather in a house of mourning, almost as if telling those stories will etch them permanently into our minds.  We hope for time’s softening effect on our grief, yet we fear too that our memories will fade and the person we have loved will become somehow less real to us, lost to us a second time.  Shaped by our relationships with those we have loved, as well as by good times and bad, we yearn to keep our memories fresh and clear even while the passage of time attempts to tug a veil over them.

As he begins his long farewell addresses, Moses knows that after forty years in the wilderness, the Israelites may be in danger of forgetting.  Among all that he reminds them of in Parashat Va-etchannan, including the headline news of the Ten Commandments and the Shema, he makes time to remind the people to preserve their own memories.  Moses warns them, “Take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously, so that you do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes and so that they do not fade from your mind as long as you live” (Deuteronomy 4:9).  Without conscious effort to remember, apparently even memories of the events that turned the Israelites’ lives upside down may drift away:  at the distance of a few decades, even miracles like Revelation at Sinai can become vague, untrusted recollections.

Some commentators see the memory of what happened at Sinai as important because it leads to remembering the mitzvot that were given there:  among them, Sforno worries that forgetting what they physically saw will make the Israelites vulnerable to misinterpreting Torah and failing to observe the mitzvot correctly.  Yet perhaps Moses’s concern here is about more than just mitzvot:  perhaps he is also concerned with the Israelites’ identity, through their memory of how it was formed.  The Israelites may have needed decades in the wilderness to learn new ways of behaving, but not at the expense of forgetting who they are: once slaves in Egypt, freed by Divine intervention, now approaching a new life in the promised land.

While Moses and the Israelites may lack photo albums to help them remember, they do have another way of preserving their memories.  Immediately after his exhortation not to forget or allow things to fade from their mind, Moses says:  “Make them known to your children, and to your children’s children.”  Telling them to a new generation not only passes the stories on, as a kind of personal oral Torah; it also keeps the memories clear for those who lived them.   Some might tell admiringly of the awesome miracles that they saw and some might describe their fear; others might speak about lost loved ones who had an impact on their journey through the wilderness.  We might imagine the Israelites gathering around the fire at the end of the working day, telling stories that begin “Do you remember when…?”

Even if we today are lucky enough to sail through dementia tests with our faculties undimmed by age or illness, we should not take memory for granted.  Whether they sadden us, bring us comfort or evoke pure joy, our most precious memories may fade with time if we do not cultivate them.  Photographs, connections with other survivors, and simply speaking about those we have lost:  all can help us to remember vividly the joys, sorrows and loves that have influenced us on our journeys.  May we all remember…

Eleanor Davis LBC rabbinic student

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.