The Trowel of Memory

The Jewish festival of Shavuot begins at sundown on Saturday night. Shavuot, which means “weeks” in Hebrew, is the culmination of seven weeks of counting days from the second night of Passover until now. It is the two month period between the Exodus from Egypt and the journey to the top of Mount Sinai where, tradition teaches, Moses received the Torah from God. Shavuot is the third of the three “pilgrimage” festivals in the Torah, which, along with Sukkot and Passover, hold central to their observance a number of ethical mandates which are essential doctrines of Jewish civilization.

One, that the God of the Universe freed the Jewish people from slavery under Pharaoh with “an outstretched arm and signs and wonders.” Remember the Ten Plagues from your Passover Seders seven weeks ago? For more than 3,000 years we’ve re-enacted this drama in order to teach the values of remembrance, freedom and deliverance to every generation. Memory is a strand of Jewish DNA.

Two, that there is no such thing as freedom without the Law. Total freedom is chaos, not unlike the “formless and void” of the pre-Genesis universe. Jewish Biblical creation mythology posits that the creative process at the beginning of all time was a process of Divine ordering. It is structure, forming, shaping, naming—that is the real work of creation. It is why the rabbis of the Talmud argued that this process is an eternal, ongoing covenantal relationship between God and the Jewish people. Unlike the Jeffersonian American ideal of a God who starts a clock and then steps away, Judaism’s notion of creation is one that requires constant attention, ongoing work, the sanding and smoothing and polishing of the stones of human existence. The road to the good and the making of peace is our job here on Earth. Rabbi Tarfon said in the first century, “You are not obligated to complete the task but neither are you free to desist from it.” We are all obligated to do our part, in every generation. From Mount Sinai to the Talmud to today, the work of understanding God’s will, of discernment and enactment, is, well, a process. Law is dynamic, evolving, adaptive. It is a structure that requires constant maintenance in order to provide the undergirding necessary to build a just society.

The third ethical mandate teaches us the importance of empathy and understanding the other. It insists that while the Jews have their own unique story to share with the world, so do others with whom we share this planet. “Be kind to the stranger because you were strangers in the Land of Egypt,” is a phrase repeated thirty-six times in the Biblical narrative, a commandment repeated more than any other. Indeed, the number of mentions it receives is a marker of its centrality to what it means to be a Jew. Put differently, because we have suffered in our own history, we are commanded to be cognizant of the suffering of others. And further, such awareness aggregates empathy and understanding, kindness and compassion, hope, and justice and peace. Call it ancient Near Eastern crowd-sourcing at its finest.

Beyond the faith structures of Jewish civilization are the historical underpinnings of Shavuot. It is alternately called the Festival of First Fruits because in ancient Israel, this is the season in which the land begins to bring forth its produce and for ancient agrarian societies, this was worthy of festive celebration. Shavuot was a joyous celebration on kibbutzim in early modern Israel, where the land and its cultivators partied on tractors, danced with floral wreaths and consumed milk and honey to amplify the glory and the blessing of bounty. Of course, for many years now, the vast majority of agricultural workers in Israel are foreign, making for new challenges in the interpretation of the law and what it means to till the soil. How these workers are treated is not only a matter of Israeli policy but of Jewish ethics and morality. History, text, tradition and the ongoing evolution of the Jewish people from one generation to the next demands no less of us. “Be kind to the stranger,” not just because she is farming your fields and providing the food that you eat, but because “you were strangers in a strange land.” The narrative thread continues.

Early Israeli Kibbutz celebration for Shavuot
Foreign worker on Israeli Kibbutz, 2015

I’m not sure what it is about this year but the proximity of Shavuot to D-Day had me thinking about the connections between these grand narratives. The themes of liberation and the law, of the fight for freedom and the sacrifice endured by millions in order to defeat evil, runs deeply between these two singular, historical events.

David Chrisinger has a powerful piece in the New York Times about the World War Two reporter Ernie Pyle and the transformative and tragic experience he had landing on Omaha Beach seventy-five years ago. His story is not to be missed. Already hard-driving and hard-drinking, Pyle was shattered by D-Day and after a short respite back in the States, returned to the war in the Pacific only to be killed by a Japanese sniper in Okinawa. Of the D-Day landing Pyle wrote, “Here in a jumbled row for mile on mile are soldiers’ packs. Here are socks and shoe polish, sewing kits, Bibles, hand grenades. Here are the letters from home…” In a letter dispatch he wrote, “Sometimes I get so obsessed with the tragedy and horror of seeing dead men that I can hardly stand it. But I guess there’s nothing to do but keep going.” Pyle’s words bring to mind the midrash about the Israelites dancing in victory on the shores of the Red Sea. God upbraids them saying, “The dead Egyptians are my children, too.” Even in victory, there is profound loss, bodies the detritus of brutal battles.

Ernie Pyle

The only American photographer to land on Omaha Beach on D-Day was the Hungarian Jewish refugee Robert Capa, another hard-driving, hard-drinking artist who was traumatized by what he witnessed and who, like Pyle, died in battle in an early skirmish in 1954 in the First Indochina War. In his memoir, Slightly Out of Focus, Capa introduces D-Day in the following way:

“Once a year, usually sometime in April, every self-respecting Jewish family celebrates Passover, the Jewish Thanksgiving. The Passover celebration proceeds along the well-known lines of Thanksgiving, the only difference between the two being that the Passover feast has everything and turkey too, and that the children of the very old world get even more sick than the children of the very new world.

When dinner is irrevocably over, father loosens his belt and lights a five-cent cigar. At this crucial moment the youngest of the sons—I have been doing it for years—steps up and addresses his father in solemn Hebrew. He asks, ‘What makes this day different from all other days?’ Then father, with great relish and gusto, tells the story of how many thousands of years ago in Egypt, the angel of destruction passed over the firstborn sons of the Chosen People, and how, afterwards, General Moses led them across the Red Sea without getting their feet wet.

The Gentiles and Jews who crossed the English Channel on the sixth of June in the year 1944, landing with very wet feet on the beach in Normandy called “Easy Red,” ought to have—once a year, on that date—a Crossover day. Their children, after finishing a couple of cans of C-rations, would ask their father, ‘What makes this day different from all other days?’”

Robert Capa Photograph, D-Day Landing, June 6, 1944

I believe what Capa does for us here is bring us back into the Passover narrative in his time, universalizing the war against fascism for his generation and reminding us that the ways in which we identify with the broad themes of what it means to be a Jew in our own day has enormous consequences for the world we inhabit and will leave to our children.

The Jewish story, which culminates this week on the gift of revelation and the law on Mount Sinai, forty-nine days after experiencing the trauma of war and liberation from slavery, flows into a greater river of human narrative where, as the saying goes, there is always more that unites us than divides us.

Each community in the family of humanity, when it uses the trowel of memory to turn over the soil of compassion and understanding, lends its words and deeds to a discourse of freedom and justice for all.