Parashat Mattot

The Language of Memory

From the Bible to today, the Chosen People rise again after every destruction.

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Much of this binary reconstruction is driven by a pervasive rabbinic conviction that Israel's survival depends on God's favor rather than man-made weapons. Rabbi Elazar ben Shamma, a witness of the Hadrianic persecution and a disciple of the martyred Rabbi Akiva, picturesquely formulated the conviction of Israel's uniqueness: At Mount Sinai "a book and a sword descended from heaven conjointly." What God meant to say by this set of symbols was twofold: "If you abide by this written Torah, it will protect you from the sword. If you don't, the sword will smite you" (Sifre, Ekev, 40). That is, the word is the mightiest weapon of all.

There is a touch of irony in the depiction of Moses as a man of speech, for in his first encounter with God, he had described himself as "slow of speech and slow of tongue" (Exodus 4:10). But the point of the midrash is the potential of the human spirit to transcend the physical world. Speech in this context stands for a spiritual affinity that engenders religious experience. Through the vehicle of Torah, Israel creates an environment that softens the harshness of reality with divine meaning. Ultimately, Jews live in their head.

Jewish history attests the power of the spirit. Where are the ancient empires that decimated Samaria in 722 B.C.E., Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. and 70 C.E., the Jewish communities of the Rhineland in 1096, Spanish Jewry in 1492 or European Jewry in the Holocaust? The vanquished long outlived their oppressors. Inestimable losses and unimaginable suffering failed to deplete the spiritual reservoir of the Jewish people. On the contrary, the vanquished survived to write the history of their losses. Memory rendered past calamities into an anguished present that never fades. And memory is the function of speech.

The 24-hour fast of Tishah b'Av celebrates the resilience of the Jewish spirit. Even as we commemorate the destruction of two Temples and other dark moments of our history, we pay tribute to the unbroken faith and indomitable will of our people. Thus rabbinic Judaism rises from the ashes of the Second Temple, the talmudic academies of Ashkenaz after the First Crusade, Lurianic kabbalah after the Spanish expulsion and the State of Israel, and the renaissance of American Judaism after the Holocaust. Mourning is the language of memory, the passage to recovery. As we move during the course of the day from lament to resolve, we affirm the primacy of the spirit in a world awash with violence.

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Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch served as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.