And Jacob Lived...and Lives Through Us

Dear Friends:

Like any of you who are on Facebook, I have received many messages from friends whose New Year greeting includes photos of the past year. Moments in time, captured by the camera become our memories. Photography means "writing with light". Looking at old movies or old photographs has a way of casting a spell on us. It transports us into the past. For a few short minutes we feel we are reliving an early time in our lives.  We look at our younger selves, people we love who are no longer alive, our children, now grown, as youngsters, laughing, dancing, mugging for the camera.

As Ida Fink, Polish/Israeli Nobel prize winner, writes in her short story "Traces", "the people are gone but their footprints linger on."

Studies of memory have demonstrated that we do not only remember past events, but we also remember the feelings associated with those events.  We smell chicken soup and suddenly we are a child in our mother's kitchen.  We hear a synagogue melody and instantly we are a child we are sitting next to our father in shul, playing with the strings on his tallis.  We look at photos of our grandmother, and we recall the unconditional love she offered. Our lives are deeply enriched by the memories of our past.

This phenomenon has great relevance for our understanding of our relationship to history. As Jews, and as human beings, we are able to expand our memories far beyond our personal experiences. By reading and studying, we enlarge our historical perspective to include the generations that preceded us. The more expansive our knowledge of the Jewish past, the more intense and the more vibrant should be our connection to Judaism. We see the past not as something distant and impersonal, referring to others; but rather, we experience history as part of our own extended memory. It is personal and immediate.  Just as we vicariously experience the exodus from Egypt on an annual basis at the Passover seder, our tradition encourages us to not only identify with our ancestors but also to view ourselves as though we are them.

This week's concluding section of Genesis includes Jacob's blessing of his grandchildren and concludes with the words "Let my name be named in them, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth." Jacob wanted his descendants to feel linked to their righteous ancestors, so that they would live their lives to be worthy progeny. They were to recall their ancestors not as abstract personalities, but as genuine presence in their lives.

For the Jewish people, history has always been experienced as a dimension of the present and as an intimation of the future. As we go through life, we bring along our ancestors. We carry their names, we learn of their special qualities so as to emulate them. We feel their presence. Photographs yellow with time; they are evanescent, ephemeral.  Inherited memory, too, needs to be recalled and imprinted upon us or it is evanescent.

Professor Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, in his magisterial work Zachor, makes a distinction between history and memory. History is an academic discipline dedicated to uncovering data from the past. It is cold, objective, dispassionate. On the other hand, memory is warm and personal - and sometimes faulty.  Professor Yerushalmi notes a paradox that while modern Jewry has experienced a phenomenal explosion in the field of Jewish history, at the same time the Jewish memory seems to have declined seriously. Jews may know more facts about Jewish history, but they may feel less connected to those facts.

Home movies and old photographs are made of inanimate material. The people in the pictures cannot change. They are as if frozen in amber. As Susan Sontag reminds us in her book "On Photography", "Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood". What gives life to the figures is our memory. The data of Jewish history can only come alive if we animate them, if we treat them not as abstraction but as real and ongoing presences in our lives.

I am in Israel this week with my daughter and her family. The blessings of grandchildren are very much on my mind.

In Vayechi, Joseph comes to visit Jacob, as he lies on his deathbed, bringing his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim with him.  With deep emotion, Jacob says: "I never even hoped to see your face. But now God has even let me see your children."  He blesses Joseph. Then he places his hands on the heads of the two boys. He blessed them and said "In time to come Israel will use you as a blessing. They will say ' May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh."

So we do to this day.  At the Shabbat table, parents will put their hands on their children's heads and bless them. Our children and our grandchildren are our future.  There is an exquisite sense of symmetry in this blessing as Shabbat enters and the words in the evening prayer from Psalms which is recited at the end of Shabbat: "May you live to see your children's children - peace be on Israel."

What is the connection between grandchildren and peace?  Surely this, that those who think about the future make peace.  To bless grandchildren and be blessed by them, to teach them and be taught by them, to love them and be loved by them -these are the highest Jewish privilege and the serene end of Jacob's troubled life.  Jacob lived...and he lives on through us.

Shabbat shalom


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