Toward Shabbat: Terumah

Exactly one year ago today in the Jewish calendar, at 7:04AM on the 7th of Adar, I received the following text from my childrens’ school:

SAR Academy and High School are closed today, 3/3/20. Please check your email momentarily for more information.

The email that arrived five minutes later explained there was a suspected case of the coronavirus in the school community, and that the school had been closed as a precautionary measure. That afternoon, another email informed us school would be closed on March 4 as well. The next day: school would remain closed until March 9. When Shabbat ended on March 7, we found out that our children were to be in precautionary quarantine until the middle of the month. School would reopen on March 17.

School did not reopen on March 17.

We each have our memories of how our world completely changed last year, be they of one specific moment, or of the growing realization of the enormity of what we were experiencing. As we begin to mark the one-year anniversary of the pandemic’s arrival in New York City, we will undoubtedly spend much time remembering—the losses, the loneliness, the silver linings, the memes. From the profound to the silly, from the devastating to the uplifting, we will remember.

Tomorrow we will read Parashat Zakhor (literally: Portion of Remembrance), a special Torah reading for the Shabbat that precedes Purim, which instructs us to remember the Amalekites’ attack on the most vulnerable of the Children of Israel in the desert. While every Jewish holiday is in some way a call to remember, with this Shabbat’s reading, we commence a period in the Jewish calendar that particularly emphasizes memory: Parashat Zakhor and remembering Amalek; Passover and the Exodus, which we are instructed to recall every day of our lives; Shavuot, biblically a harvest holiday at which the memory of our ancestors is invoked when bringing the first fruits offering to the Temple, and rabbinically the time at which we remember and reenact the revelation at Sinai. The spring commemorations of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s memorial day for fallen soldiers), and Yom Ha’Atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) are contemporary additions to this period of the calendar, that ask us to remember our more recent past.

Notably, these instructions to remember are both selective and paradoxical. We are commanded to remember not all past events, only particular moments. Each generation is asked to remember events that it did not actually experience. In this sense, the scholar Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi argues in his book Zakhor, Jewish memory is distinct from Jewish history. Its purpose is not to construct an understanding of historical truth, but rather to inform our present and our future: we remember Amalek not out of bloodthirsty vengeance for an event that actually took place, but—at least in some reads of this commandment—to be on the alert to the presence of oppression and cruelty in our own times, and to do our part in its eradication. We remember Egypt and our liberation not because it is a good story and one of historical accuracy, but because doing so is meant to engender in us compassion and empathy, and the ability to build a society rooted in those qualities. We remember the Shoah not to wallow in victimhood, but to affirm our commitment of “Never Again.”

Jewish tradition teaches us: Memory of our past is constitutive of our individual and collective future.

In the coming weeks, we will be doing a lot of remembering about this year of global pandemic. We will remember the pain of so much illness and suffering and we will again mourn those whose lives were lost. We will remember the inequity we have witnessed, and continue to witness, in healthcare, education, vaccination access, and more. We will remember the quiet, an eerie blessing, when our cities shut down. We will remember medical professionals dressed in garbage bags for lack of PPE. We will remember the 7:00PM cheer for frontline workers, the generosity of strangers and everyday citizens, the ingenuity of those who figured out how to lift our spirits by bringing music, dance, and all other forms of art into the streets and into our living rooms. We will remember how the verb ‘zoom’ became a noun and an adjective, how we have been saddened yet pleasantly surprised by our transformation into a virtual community.

The question our tradition puts before us is how will we relate to all these memories? Will we relegate them to history, or will we allow ourselves to learn from them and be changed by them? Will we turn our memory of this recent past into a better future—for ourselves and for our entire world? This is the meaning of our Jewish obligation to remember, this is the work we are called to do in the months ahead.

May God grant us the strength to fully live into the exhortation of this Shabbat: ‘Zakhor!’— ‘Remember!’

Shabbat shalom.