Historical Imagination and Jewish Memory

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Apr 13, 2018

Being caught “red handed,” “washing our hands” of a matter, or the metaphor of “bloody hands” all find their source not from Pontius Pilate, William Shakespeare or Sir Walter Scott (as several internet sites indicate), but from the Torah (Devarim 21:1-9) and the law of the eglah arufah, the beheaded calf. When a body is found between two cities, the court measures and determines which city is closer. The sages of that city perform several acts to remove culpability in the death of the individual. “Our hands did not spill this blood” the rabbis declare (Ibid. verse 7).

The Daf Yomi (Horayos 6a) just studied a fascinating topic related to the eglah arufah.

In the penultimate verse of this passage, the Torah relates that the rabbis present at the site of the beheading state:


"כפר לעמך ישראל אשר פדית את ה' ואל תתן דם נקי בקרב עמך ישראל, ונכפר להם הדם" (דברים כ"א:ח)

“Be merciful, O Lord, to your people Israel, whom you have redeemed, and lay not innocent blood to your people of Israel’s charge. And the blood shall be forgiven them” (Devarim 21:8).

The Talmud assumes that the act of decapitating the calf atones for the sins of the generation of the wilderness, those who offered the Golden Calf. Offspring years later can effect atonement upon their forefathers. The discussion revolves around a verse in Psalms 45:17, that “in place of your fathers shall be your sons.” The Talmud agrees that the living can provide atonement for the dead only when part of that atonement is also for the living, as is the case of the rabbi and the decapitated calf, the eglah arufah.

The Talmud continues by citing a verse describing the return after the Babylonian exile.


"ורבים מהכהנים והלוים וראשי האבות הזקנים אשר ראו את הבית הראשון ביסדו זה הבית בעיניהם בכים בקול גדול, ורבים בתרועה בשמחה להרים קול" (עזרה ג:י"ב)

“But many of the priests and Levites and chiefs of the fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this house was laid before their eyes, though many shouted aloud for joy” (Ezra 3:12).

Since there were survivors of the destruction of the First Temple present at the return to Zion after the 70 year exile, they were entitled to offer sin offerings on behalf of their co-religionists who sinned during Bayis Rishon, the First Commonwealth, decades earlier. The Talmud even suggests that those who witnessed the First Temple were the majority of the returnees. The proof text cited above implies that there were more voices crying than rejoicing, implying more returnees who remembered Bayis Rishon than those who had not.  

From a homiletic point of view, I believe, perhaps, there is another way to appreciate this Gemara. My thoughts are homiletic, not in any way bearing on any legal matters. The Jewish people have a magic formula which would make normative the notion that empathy can replace sympathy. I call it historic imagination.

It’s a statement we find in the Pesach Hagadah.


"חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים"

“Each Jew must see himself/herself as if they themselves departed from slavery in Egypt.”

 Maimonides radically changes the phrase by adding one Hebrew letter. By adding a “hey” to lir’os (to see), we yield the Hebrew word l’har’os, which means to show. We must not only see ourselves as slaves on the night of Pesach. We must show ourselves that we were slaves. We must prove to ourselves that very fact.

If I am brought to tears over events I never experienced, it means those events will live on forever and they will be remembered in perpetuity. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has suggested that history is “his story” while memory is “my story.” The phrase from the Hagadah transforms history to memory.

I recently saw a video featuring Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, former chief rabbi of Israel, current chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, father of the current Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel, and perhaps most importantly, the youngest survivor of Buchenwald. He told a story about a meeting he had with former New York City mayor Ed Koch. When the two had met, Mayor Koch, informed the rabbi that he too was a survivor of Hitler. Rabbi Lau, who is truly the face of the survivor community worldwide, diplomatically asked the flamboyant and charismatic politician what he meant since he spent the war years in New York City. The mayor explained that he had attended a convention of international mayors in Berlin, Germany. While there, he was shown the office where Hitler worked and a globe in that room. Hand written on the globe, as per the directive of Hitler, was scrawled the Jewish population of the various countries. In addition to the Jewish populations of European countries German troops had invaded, was handwritten the number 6,000,000 in the United States. So Mayor Koch turned to Rabbi Lau and said, “I too was targeted by Hitler. He just never got to me. I too am a survivor.” Rabbi Lau agreed. Every Jew today is a survivor. Hitler would have killed us all. This is a message Rabbi Lau shares all the time.

We are all survivors because we recall, empathize and re-live the tragedy of the Holocaust and so many other calamities throughout our history.

Judaism is not just about identity. It’s about identifying with. Jewish continuity is not about gestures or ceremonies. It’s about a full identification with our history and our fellow Jews. When Rebbitzen Kotler refused to take tea with sugar after the Holocaust, that was a reminder that she would deprive herself of something she enjoyed because of the pain of others. When Rabbi Aryeh Levin walked into the doctor’s office and announced that his wife’s leg hurt “them,” he epitomized what it means to live outside of oneself. When a Jew spends the morning of Tisha B’av sitting on low benches and fasting, it assures that we never forget what happened to our people over millennia.

When Israel’s traffic, business, media and even personal conversations cease in order to remember the Shoah and its victims, you transport yourself to a different time on the vehicle of “Never Again.” And you don’t just say it; you live it and you mean it. That reverent silence, ironically, empowers the Israeli people to support “loud” military action to prevent civilian atrocities in an enemy nation. Israel’s bombing of Syria is a direct result of its culture of memory.

When Rabban Gamliel, Rebbe Elazar ben Azariah, Rebbe Yehoshua and Rabbi Akiva surveyed what used to be the venue of the Bais Hamikdash(Holy Temple) after its destruction and saw a fox run by, the Talmud (Makkos 24a-b) records all cried except for Rabbi Akiva, who laughed. The crying made sense. They identified with the loss. They experienced it. But the message of the story is that Rabbi Akiva - who is described as the only rabbi who emerged victorious from “entering the orchard” (a metaphor for delving into true Jewish mysticism) – used his historical imagination to see the future redemption as clearly as he saw the current destruction. When Rabbi Akiva explained why he was chuckling at the epicenter of tragedy, his colleagues not only understood what he said: they were comforted by it, the Talmud tells us. The denotation of ‘comfort’ (nechamah) is to regret, or to change one’s mind. Comfort comes when one can switch and see a more global view, to emerge from the acute pain and try to see a bigger picture with a brighter and less gloomy landscape.

The names of the rabbis who accompanied Rabbi Akiva are also known to us from the Hagadah. All but Rabban Gamliel attended the famous nightlong seder in Bnei Brak. Rabban Gamliel plays a prominent role later in the Seder insisting we discuss and show the shank bone, the matzah and the marror. There is no greater moment of historical imagination than at the Seder, as stated above. The same men who used this Jewish tool to transform history to memory at the Temple Mount, did it also at the Seder in Bnei Brak, the home of Rabbi Akiva. I’ve seen it explained that these rabbis – all spiritual titans in their own right – left their home towns for the seder to be comforted by Rabbi Akiva in his home town. They found their relief once again with Rabbi Akiva, the apostle of hope.

The Shulchan Aruch (Even Ha’ezer 126:6) discusses how to write the names of the various Hebrew months for a get or other legal documents. The month of Iyar, which we announce this Shabbos and which arrives on Monday, is to be spelled aleph, yud, yud, resh. Rabbi Akiva Eiger (Ibid) cites a Midrash that the month of Iyar is an acronym for Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov and Rachel. While I’m partial to the name Rachel – it’s my daughter’s name whose Hebrew birthday is today! – We don’t often see her as a fourth to the triumvirate of the Patriarchs. The month of Iyar, it can be explained, is a month of Rachel’s great resilience, hope and ultimate victory. The prophet Yirmiyahu proclaims that in the future, we will hear the weeping of Mameh Rochel, who cries over her children. She will refuse to be comforted until the ultimate redemption comes.

While Yom Hashoah memorializes the world’s worst event which took place every day over several years, the choice of the date was not simple. The Israeli government in the late 40s desired to link the Holocaust to the bravery of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising which occurred around Pesach. But the Hebrew month of Iyar contains the date when the nation of Israel declared independence in 1948 (5th of Iyar) and when a ragged bunch of Israeli paratroopers defied all odds and reunified the holy city of Jerusalem in 1967 (28th of Iyar). We have not experienced the redemption yet; Mashiach has not arrived. There are many reasons that point to spiritual dysfunction that would indicate that we are far from earning our salvation. But God gave us two gifts in this month, events that are widely celebrated and point to the month’s association with hope, redemption and love: the month that requires the greatness of Rachel.

If Rachel’s children can continue to cry for events that took place centuries before they emerged on this earth, we will witness the redemption. A story is told that Napoleon walked into synagogue in Alexandria Egypt on the night of Tisha B’av. He saw them sitting on the floor and crying and asked what happened? When he was told why they were mourning, he commented that such a nation will live on.

Am Yisrael Chai!



A Jew is able to imagine in a detailed way events that we never experienced. This is critical to being part and parcel of a millennia-old Covenantal Community.

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