Why is it that when we want to get a sense of the sacred, we close our eyes? When we want to feel the holiness of a place or a time, we look inside, and close off the outside. We feel that there must be something out there, but in order to see it, we go inward, shutting our eyes.
Ani y’shena v’libi er, it says in Song of Songs—I was asleep but my heart was awake. It is the ordinary waking consciousness that filters out experiences of the sacred, the everyday that blinds us to holy encounters. When we sleep, however, our dreams are full of imaginings, creative and insightful but also sometimes frightening and disturbing.
In Parshat Vayetze, Jacob’s dream is of a most vivid encounter with the Divine, depicted with a gigantic stairway rooted in the ground, stretching away at an angle and reaching into heaven. There upon it are angels, ascending and descending. But God is, as it were, standing on the ground—nitzav—next to Jacob, promising a blessing for him and his descendents and offering protection for all his journeys, going forth and returning.
This is a dream that needs remembering, a witness to a transformative encounter. It cannot hold just in the night. It has to be anchored in waking reality. So Jacob marks the space and sets up a matzevah (from the same root as nitzav)—a standing memorial—to something that happened in sleep. The space is named Beit–El, the dwelling place of God, now seen in the light of day.
Jacob is now aware of something he did not see before. Mah nora ha-makom hazeh—“how awesome is this place,” he proclaims. “God is in this place and I, even I, did not see it.” Jacob realizes in remembering his dream that he can always turn to God for comfort and strength, and vows to be faithful to the God who stands close and is ever present.
Remembrance in Judaism includes this notion of awareness and realization, not just of the past but also what it means for the future. When we read in the Torah about Shabbat,“remember this day to keep it holy,” what is meant is be aware of this special day and act accordingly.
In his famous work Zachor (“Remember”), Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi writes that Jewish memory is a fusion of past and present. Memory is not just a mere recollection of the past that preserves a sense of distance, but it is a re-actualization, a means to act in the present. The Pesach seder is the prime example of a ritual of an ancient remembrance that speaks to every age. Even in the messianic age, we are taught, we should still remember the Exodus from Egypt even if all are free. Ongoing history adds to but does not erase our memories.
Our acts of remembrance are important in our family lives, too, as we say kaddish on the yahrzeit, the annual commemoration, of the death of our loved ones, and insert the Yizkor prayers into our festival services and on Yom Kippur. But the idea of mentioning individual names as a memorial emerged only in the time of the Crusades, and the prayer recited for the dead at a funeral, El Male Rachamim, originated only in the 17th century. The earlier concept was hazkarat haneshamot, collectively remembering the souls of the nation’s departed.
We do this as a nation on Memorial Day in the US, or Yom Hazikaron in Israel, as we remember those who laid down their lives so that we may live freely and with the liberties that we enjoy. As Jews, we have recently commemorated both the 21st anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, and the 78th anniversary of Kristallnacht. These remembrances call us to to act for peace, tolerance, and justice, and stand up for the rights of those who are dispossessed and persecuted. As Rabbi Leo Baeck said in the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1944, “True history is the history of the spirit, the human spirit, which may at times seem powerless but ultimately is yet superior and survives because if it has not got the might, it still possesses the power, the power that can never cease.”
We must put into action for good our memories of the human spirit, establishing memorials of meaning and hope, and awakening to the need for a peaceful and just world.
At the end of our parasha, as Jacob is about to re-enter the land of Israel with God’s promise intact, he sets up a second matzeva, a second standing memorial. This time, it is in response to another encounter while he is fully awake. His uncle Laban has pursued him in order to bring Jacob back to work for him and retrieve the idols stolen by Rachel. Jacob has been exploited enough, and injustice is felt on both sides. The anger of the two men is palpable. Will war break out between them?
But Jacob is no longer a victim; he is an agent of his own destiny, and he knows God is standing next to them both. He can forgive the past in order to move on to his future as Yisrael, the Godwrestler. This place of reconciliation is named Gal-ed ,which the biblical commentator Rashi reads as two words: gal, meaning pile, and ed, meaning witness or testimony.
The 20th and 21st centuries have amassed a pile of testimony about the capacity of human beings to show courage in the face of persecution and oppression. We must not only awaken to their memory, but honor their deeds by working for peace, justice, and human rights. These will be true acts of remembrance.
Rabbi Dr. Michael J. Shire is Chief Academic Officer at Hebrew College in Newton, MA, where he is also Dean and Professor of Jewish Education at the Shoolman Graduate School of Jewish Education and Jewish Studies.
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