Photo Credit:
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Here for the first time the retelling of the nation’s history becomes an obligation for every citizen of the nation. In this act, known as vidui bikkurim – the confession made over first fruits – Jews were commanded, as it were, to become a nation of storytellers.

This is a remarkable development. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi tells us that, “Only in Israel and nowhere else is the injunction to remember felt as a religious imperative to an entire people.” Time and again throughout Devarim comes the command to remember: “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt.” “Remember what Amalek did to you.” “Remember what God did to Miriam.” “Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past. Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders, and they will explain to you.”

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The vidui bikkurim is more than this. It is, compressed into the shortest possible space, the entire history of the nation in summary form. In a few short sentences we have here “the patriarchal origins in Mesopotamia, the emergence of the Hebrew nation in the midst of history rather than in mythic prehistory, slavery in Egypt and liberation from there, the climactic acquisition of the land of Israel, and throughout – the acknowledgement of God as lord of history.” (Yerushalmi, Bikkurim, Chap. 3: 12)

We should note here an important nuance. Jews were the first people to find God in history. They were the first to think in historical terms – of time as an arena of change as opposed to cyclical time in which the seasons rotate, people are born and die, but nothing really changes. Jews were the first people to write history – many centuries before Herodotus and Thucydides, often wrongly described as the first historians. Yet biblical Hebrew has no word that means “history” (the closest equivalent is divrei hayamim, “chronicles”). Instead it uses the root zachor, meaning “memory.”

There is a fundamental difference between history and memory. History is “his story,” an account of events that happened sometime else to someone else. Memory is “my story.” It is the past internalized and made part of my identity. That is what the Mishnah in Pesachim (10: 5) means when it says, “Each person must see himself as if he (or she) went out of Egypt.”

Throughout Devarim Moses warns the people – no less than 14 times – not to forget. If they forget the past they will lose their identity and sense of direction and disaster will follow. Moreover, not only are the people commanded to remember, they are also commanded to hand that memory on to their children.

This entire phenomenon represents a remarkable cluster of ideas: about identity as a matter of collective memory; about the ritual retelling of the nation’s story; above all about the fact that every one of us is a guardian of that story and memory. It is not the leader alone, or some elite, who are trained to recall the past, but every one of us. This too is an aspect of the devolution and democratization of leadership that we find throughout Judaism as a way of life. The great leaders tell the story of the group, but the greatest of leaders, Moses, taught the group to become a nation of storytellers.

You can still see the power of this idea today. As I point out in my book The Home We Build Together, if you visit the presidential memorials in Washington, you see that each carries an inscription taken from their words: Jefferson’s “We hold these truths to be self-evident…,” Roosevelt’s “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself,” Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and his second Inaugural: “With malice toward none; with charity for all….” Each memorial tells a story.

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Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought. He is a professor at YU and NYU.