by Marc Gafni
The Seder is a mystical magical night. It is the Jewish Fourth of July commemorating the annivarsary of our freedom, celebrating the liberation and birth of our nation. But it is ever so much more than that. It is the night when parents give their children the gift of identity. Via this rite of passage, parent transmits to child a core certainty about his or her place in the world. The child learns that he is infinitely valuable and dignified; he understands intuitively that his existence in the world as a Jew has meaning and purpose.How does such powerful “certainty of being” emerge from a festive meal celebrating an ancient historical event? In the monotony of daily living, certainty of being seems perpetually elusive. Part of the problem lies in how we experience time. We often live by the words of a medieval adage, “The past is no more, the future not yet, and the present is as the blink of an eye.” In this conception, we have no anchor in the torrential stream of time. Swept away are all vestiges of a rooted identity. The fleeting present is divorced from past and future. A radically different way to experience time is what I term “Passover Time” — a present which holds both past and future.
Prisoners who were incarcerated for decades in the gulag say that their ability to experience life through the prism of their memories and dreams was an anchor of hope in an unbearable present. It was this ability to live in “Passover Time” that gave them the strength to withstand a reality which denied their value and dignity. It was this that gave them hope.Memory is the essence of hope: this is the deep meaning of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav’s teaching that when a Jew wakes up in the morning, he must remember the world as it could be — as it will one day be. As Gabriel Marcel writes, “Hope is a memory of the future.” In response to the question of “Who am I,” the human being answers, “I am my memory and my dreams; I am my history and my hope. Both past and future live in the present and inform my core identity. I am the sum total of my memories of past and future. They give my life its unique cast, character and form.”In the Jewish weltanunschanuung (world view), individual memory does not stand alone. It is merged with the memory of the people, as the collective and the personal join together. A Jew’s identity is formed by the symbiosis of the story of his person and the story of his people.In contrast to the Jew is Amalek — a people without a memory. This conception underlies the Kabbalistic teaching that Amalek equals safek (uncertainty). Consider this historical example: The children of Israel have left Egypt. As they journey into the desert, “the nations tremble.” Fresh in their memory is the awesome display of Divine power which characterized the Exodus. Not surprisingly, all of the nations refrain from attacking Israel. Only one nation attacks: Amalek. Why? Because Amalek has no memory. Amalek lives in a reality severed from past and future. It is for this reason that Amalek is the biblical symbol of evil.
For the Greek, evil comes from a lack of knowledge. Plato wrote that virtue is knowledge and ignorance is the source of evil. For the Hebrew, however, the primary source of evil is loss of memory, not lack of knowledge. Appropriately, Amalek — the symbol of evil in Jewish sources — is the person or the people without a memory. One of the modern incarnations of Amalek was the Nazi movement. Elie Wiesel tried to capture the essence of what the Nazi said to the Jew in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “‘Forget,’ they were told. ‘Forget where you came from; forget who you were. Only the present matters’.” The Nazis not only wanted to kill the Jews, but also wanted to destroy their certainty of identity. Thus the Nazis’ method: the destruction of memory.
It comes as little surprise that the major intellectual activity of contemporary Nazi sympathizers is historical revisionism, or Holocaust denial. To revise history is to destroy memory, which is to murder once again. Redemption in the biblical model depends on the eradication of Amalek. Redemption is the recovery of memory. Thus it is appropriate that the Jewish response to Amalek is: “Remember what Amalek did to you when you left Egypt. “The Passover Seder is a meal of memory. We remember and identify with the certainty that Israel felt in the infancy of its nationhood. The 40 years in the desert are Israel’s “early childhood.” G-d acts in the role of the loving, supportive parent, providing the children of Israel with food (manna) and protection from the elements. We remember G-d’s unconditional love for us. Throughout the radical uncertainty of all the subsequent years, it is the power of this unconditional love which sustains us.We end the Seder with a dream for the future. Next Year in Jerusalem. Not only Jerusalem, the physical city, but Jerusalem, the symbol of a better tomorrow. In the Passover Seder, we give our children the promise of a dream and the sweetest gift of all: the gift of memory.