What is the value of memory? It can serve as a corrective and can enable events to be retold, leading to a different outcome.
When we remember events of the past, we see them again. We have a chance to envision them in a new light. Hazinu is in the penultimate section of the Torah, one of the last chances Moses has to send the people off with the lessons he wants them to have.
The verb “zachor” is used in the imperative command form in Hazinu, “Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations. Ask your father and he will tell it to you, your elders and they will say to you” [Deuteronomy 32:7]. I am curious about the significance of this form and what it means here and elsewhere in the Bible.
When Moses beseeches God not to destroy the entire Jewish people in the aftermath of their almost unforgivable transgression with the Golden Calf [Exodus 32:1-6], he asks God, “Remember Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, your servants to whom You did swear yourself and … multiply their seed like the stars of heaven” [Ex. 32:13]. The plea works, and God regrets (the same verb used when contemplating the flood’s destruction of the earth in (Genesis 6:6) the planned destruction proposed to Moses. It is clear in both stories of God threatening destruction that the agency of God’s memory is the decisive element in God’s change of plan.
Two other biblical stories have instances of remembering an event to repeat it differently. When Joseph’s brothers appear in the court of the Pharaoh to ask for food, Joseph recognizes them, but they aren’t aware that he is standing before them [Gen. 42:7]. Readers are aware that Joseph is planning something when he “remembers the dreams that he dreamed about them” [Gen. 42:9] and then declares Jacob’s sons to be spies. What Joseph is doing here, with his memories, is creating a situation where a son of Jacob will be left in a pit, as Joseph was [Gen. 37:24], but enabling the brothers to now behave properly as brothers and take their brother out of the pit. It takes two tries, when first Simon [Gen. 42:24] is jailed, and then there is a threat that Benjamin will be incarcerated [Gen. 44:12,17] but finally Judah, on behalf of the collective, pleads on Benjamin’s behalf [Gen. 44:18-34]. Memory is the agent that sets the story in motion.
When we remember events of the past … we have a chance to envision them in a new light.
In the Book of Esther, when the king is unable to sleep [Esther 6:1] he asks to have his “book of zichronot” (memories, or chronicles) brought to him and read. With the assistance of this written memory, the king is able to undo past lapses in courtesy, and properly thank Mordechai for saving his life from the threat of assassination.
In both these stories, a character is able to re-experience a past event, stage it again, enabling an alternate outcome. In Hazinu, Moses is exhorting the people to have a connection with their past that will influence their future. The Midrash picks up on “asking your father” to mean looking to the past to understand it differently. This verse is the one cited when the rabbis of the Talmud [BT Shabbat 23a] are discussing how we are able to say the blessing “who has sanctified us with His commandments” over the Chanukah candles even though there is no explicit command to light Chanukah candles in the Torah and the rabbis are the ones who instituted the lighting ceremony. Rav Nehemiah says that by looking to the past, quoting “ask your father and he will declare unto you, your elders and they will tell you” [Deut. 32:7] we can gain the understanding of why we are commanded to light the menorah.
Rashi’s comment on this verse is even more explicit in connecting past and future. He says that “consider the years of each generation” means “you have not directed your hearts to the past,” expressing the value of memory. Rashi adds, “to know in the future that it is in God’s power to do good for you and to bequeath to you the days of the Messiah and the World-to-Come.” This memory, then, is about the future as well as the past.
The mechanism by which memory works is precisely this one, a way of looking back at the past in order to improve and ameliorate those past events. As with the stories of Joseph and King Ahasuerus, as well as the earlier stories of Moses himself, what Hazinu is saying is that all of the Torah exists as a memory for us to learn from, until we are finally enabled to reach the ultimate perfection.
Beth Kissileff is the editor of the anthologies “Reading Genesis” and the forthcoming, “Reading Exodus” (Bloomsbury).