Sermon: Remembering the Trauma of the Pandemic
Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 11 March 2023
Look in some siddurim, especially prayerbooks for those with a kabbalistic bent, and immediately after the daily morning service you will find a list of six passages from Torah.
It’s called the sheish zechirot – the six remembrances.
It is a compilation of the six Torah texts in which there is an explicit instruction to remember something.
According to some authorities, these should be read daily. Hence, they are written down after the morning service as a list – to remind us to remember, as it were.
Two of the six remembrances stand out as slightly different to the other four because of the way that they are expressed. For two of them the Torah instructs both in the positive and the negative –
it says both ‘remember’ and also ‘don’t forget’.
We read one of those passages last week.
Last Shabbat was what is known as Shabbat Zachor – Shabbat Remember. On it, we read the brief account found in Deuteronomy of the attack of Amalek on the Israelites. It begins ‘zachor et asher asah l’cha amalek – remember what Amalek did to you’ and ends ‘lo tishkach – do not forget’.
The other event that we are told to remember and not to forget is the story that Nathan and Itamar have just read for us this morning, the episode of the Golden Calf.
In Deuteronomy, where the episode is retold, we are instructed, ‘z’chor al tishkach et asher hiktzafta et Adonai elohecha bamidbar – Remember, do not forget, that you provoked the Eternal your God to anger in the wilderness’.
The three great formative moments in our story – creation, redemption, revelation – the three foundations on which the edifice of Jewish life is built – they don’t get this treatment.
We are told to remember them, but far more obliquely. None of them get an imperative. The notion of divine creation is remembered through the remembering of Shabbat. Redemption: we are told to eat matzah at Pesach ‘that you will remember’; revelation, we are instructed to be careful ‘in case you forget’.
But for these two events the instruction is a direct one. And we are commanded in two ways: ‘remember’ ‘do not forget’?
Why are these two different?
What do they have in common?
One reflection is that these two events – the narratives that we have read over the last two weeks – represent two deep collective traumas in our shared story. Both sit like a shadow, unresolved, in the Jewish psyche.
The story of Amalek is a story of violent encounter. That first post-redemption experience of an external threat, the encounter with the reality of their own vulnerability. And unlike the bondage in Egypt, this is a story without a satisfactory ending, with no moment of rescue. A constant sense of vulnerability will sit with Israel from that moment on.
And the narrative of the Golden Calf is the great moment of collective failure. Of fracture in the bond of trust and love with God. Something done that cannot be undone. Even after the events are passed, the relationship will somehow never quite be the same again.
Unlike the other narratives described, forgetting these is not just a slip of memory. Not a simple act of forgetting, but an act of suppression. ‘Remember not to forget’: we are being told not to bury these things that are so painful, but to expose them.
An early rabbinic reading of the dual nature of the instruction speaks to this insight. Midrash Sifra, which dates to probably the third century CE, understands ‘do not forget’ as being about our personal, internal remembering – it calls it remembering ‘in the heart’. So why the additional instruction to ‘remember’? This it understands as a requirement to ‘repeat it with your mouth’. That is, it is not enough to know that it happened, it also needs to be spoken about. Psychologically, having been through a shared traumatic experience, Israel are told not to pretend it didn’t happen. It demands an act of will to also speak about it.
For both of these two ‘remember / do not forget’ instructions, there is another interesting feature.
In the narrative, both of the events happen in the first months after the Exodus from Egypt. But the instruction to remember comes 40 years later, on the edge of Canaan.
The instruction is directed not to those involved but to their descendants.
In both cases it feels like the people have moved on, and yet the instruction is – ‘don’t think you can just move on from these kinds of events’. They continue to ripple through your lives and need to be acknowledged.
This sentiment is expressed beautifully in the Jerusalem Talmud which contains a tradition in the name of Rabbi Yossa: “There is no generation that does not have at least a particle of the sin of the golden calf”. The echoes of the trauma stay within us, hiding like a shadow in our self-understanding.
I have never really understood these texts in this way before. I’m sure there are writers far more insightful about the human condition than I, for whom this is blindingly obvious, though I have not come across them – but I have never read these texts in this way.
The reason, I think, is that in my generation we have never lived through a deep collective trauma.
But now we have – and now the amazing insight of our tradition is clear.
Because we too are choosing to forget; choosing to live as if we did not go through recent events.
As if we did not experience a worldwide pandemic together, one that killed seven million people including people we knew and loved;
As if we were not suddenly confronted with our own vulnerability;
As if the basic human relationships that are so central to our lives did not experience fracture;
As if we did not cross the road to avoid passing by strangers;
As if we did not mourn alone;
As if we were not scared or lonely;
We are also choosing to live as if we are not still carrying this with us, bringing it into our encounters with one another;
As if it is not affecting our behaviour still;
As if we are not changed by our experience of the last three years.
The insight of our tradition is that this is neither healthy nor sustainable. That we need to be shaken from this denial. For each of us is changed; Covid continues to play out in our lives, in our interactions, in our relationships whether we acknowledge it or not.
As Yerushalmi might express it, ‘There is no one of us that does not have at least a particle of pandemic within us’.
If we are going to be able to be good and kind to one another and to ourselves, to remake our connections, to understand ourselves, we need to deal with what we have been through. And as Sifra teaches, this means being honest and open that it has happened – ‘It is not enough to remember it in our hearts, but we also need to speak about it in our lives’ – to share it with one another, to bring it back to the foreground so we can understand what it is doing to us and others.
Look in a siddur after the morning service and you will find a list of six remembrances. It is no coincidence that the two that stand out as different are two that describe a collective, traumatic experience shared by our ancestors. For these the wording is different, because for these the remembering needs to be different. The risk is not simply a slip of the memory, not forgetting but suppressing.
So our tradition brings us a deep insight: that these experiences therefore require something different of us, acceptance, engagement, active remembrance.
It is an insight, and an instruction that we too need to recognise in the light of our shared experience.
We, too, need to hear the words of our tradition:
Z’chor, al tishkach.
Remember, do not try to forget.