Wednesday, 11 Dec 2013

Written by Peter Phillips

Memory, continuity and identity: like the river

This week marks for us the conclusion of our reading of Bereshit.
Reaching this concluding parashah in Bereshit tells us that, unlike the secular world around us, we are already well into our new year. This prompted me to reflect on the flow or continuity of time, and how we locate ourselves within it, something that is also a theme in our Parashah, Vayechi: continuity, memory and story.

Jewish educators Goldberg-Loeb and Binder-Kaden (1997) remind us that Bereshit is recognised by other names; Sefer Rishon, Sefer Beri’at HaOlam and Sefer HaYashar. We can instinctively understand these names and rubrics for Bereshit;  it is of course the first book of the Chumash, it does chronicle the Eternal One’s creation of the world; and as far as the Upright are concerned, Bereshit does refer to our ancestors: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rivkah, Leah and Rachel, and their families. These different names reflect the themes of the book; creation, destruction and reestablishment; and the development of a relationship grounded in ethical and moral principles, between our ancestors and the Eternal One; progressing from the Universal history of the Earth and humankind to the particular story of the first Jews (Davies, Kornfeld and Walzer, (1998), Plaut, (1981)).

Bereshit chronicles much about the relationship of God to creation, and the personal and active role the Eternal One has in human history, as perceived by our ancestors. Unlike the other four Books of the Torah, Bereshit is largely narrative, with little legal content. Rather, Bereshit narrates individual ancestors and families, not the history of a nation (as in Shemot).  Rabbi Jill Hammer (2009) asserts that from the start, Bereshit is concerned with memory, generation and the transmission of identity, a theme that is consistent throughout the Book. In Parashah Vayechi we begin with Jacob residing in Egypt, sensing his imminent death, and requesting his burial in the Machpelah cave, in the land of Israel.

By virtue of this act Jacob indicates his yearning to be identified, connected and remembered as part of his family. His children carry out his request, and bury him with great ceremony, (as described in Bereshit 50:10).

Later in the Parashah, as we approach Joseph’s death, the children of Israel are asked to ‘raise his bones’ from their Egyptian resting place and take them to the land of Israel, when the Eternal One remembers the promise of the land, and Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

In other words, Joseph calls on the people to remember that the Eternal One will remember them, and that in time they will be free. Memory becomes more than a mere human function, rather an inspirational and divine attribute. Despite this, Joseph is forgotten and when hundreds of years later Moses arrives from Midian to redeem the people, only the elderly Serach (Asher’s daughter) remembers Joseph’s bones. Hammer (2009) cites a Midrash (Tanchuma Yelammedenu, Ex. 4:2) in which Joseph’s bones are discovered in the River Nile, where they have been hidden in a metal coffin. Moses calls out to Joseph at the riverside, remembering his words, and the coffin floats to the top of the river symbolising memory not as a burden, but as something light, portable and enduring, that can be taken up by a new generation and made a part of it.

Joseph’s story acts as a powerful metaphor then, reminding us that memory can be as critical a driver of identity as physical survival.

It is an innate part of who we are, and how we understand ourselves. Like the river, it represents continuity.

Perhaps a further motivation for Jacob and Joseph’s desires to be buried in the land of Israel concerns beliefs about an afterlife, a different kind of continuity. In his seminal text ‘Liberal Judaism’ Rabbi Eugene Borowitz (1984) asserts that there is no other question so emotionally charged as death and the afterlife.  Our beliefs and attitudes concerning death and the afterlife have been shaped by many commentaries on Torah.

For some the emphasis is seen as what the Torah requires of us here and now; how we live and approach one another in this life, without concerning ourselves about a world to come. This position is reflected by Job (7:9) when it is stated ‘a person goes down to Sheol and does not come up’  (JPS 1985). There are of course other readings of the Hebrew Bible to support an afterlife. But these diverse beliefs might have more in common than at first view.

Perhaps immortality comes about when other people remember the deceased with love and respect and gratitude, and are influenced by that person’s life and deeds in their lives on Earth, creating a constant cycle of memory and action, another type of continuity.

I’m sure we can all think of, and all feel influenced and moved by various individuals, both people known to us, our friends and families, and others known nationally and internationally. We can think of family members, friends, mentors, teachers and colleagues who are no longer with us; but we can also remember those individuals who have affected large scale change during their lives, the legacies of which continue to this day. Sadly adding to this list in the days just past – I think of  Nelson Mandela, Larry Kramer, Martin Luther King, Steve Biko and Mo Mowlam; and others – their work and dedication to their ideals continue long after they are no longer physically with us. But today I want to talk about one of my Jewish, for want of a better word, heroes, whose murder thirty five years ago was marked recently. Harvey Milk was a gay New York Jew, born in 1930, who moved to the San Francisco in 1972. After moving to the Bay Area, Milk became involved in local politics, and in combating the then prevalent homophobia in American society. LGBT people particularly were often barred from public employment (like teaching), and were vilified by the media and in government. Police regularly raided bars, and if convicted gay men were often evicted from their homes. Hard to imagine now (or is it?).

Milk had a vision of acceptance and equality, and after standing for election three times, was finally elected as a City Supervisor in 1977. He was the first ‘out’ gay politician in the USA. He never flinched from the fight for equality, a fact that 21 years after his death gained him the posthumous award of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Milk couldn’t possibly have imagined the impact his life would have on the lives of those who were not yet born at the time of his death; his demand for equality and justice and freedom remains as part of a paradigm shift in attitudes. 

In today’s world we may not physically take bones with us, but symbolically we too can be like Serach in remembering those who have inspired us to be the best people and the best Jews we can be.

Milk changed the landscape of equality in his own time, and his vision is still needed. A 2013 UK crime survey recently reported that one in six gay or bisexual people has been victim of a homophobic hate crime or incident in the past three years, and murder is still all too common here in the UK and worldwide. 

May Milk’s memory and all the memories of our loved ones and heroes be for us a blessing, and in the words of Siddur Lev Chadash,

‘inspire us to live as they themselves sought to live. We remember them now and they remain in our hearts’.

Ken Yahi Ratzon: May this be the will of the Eternal One

Peter Phillips

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