The Power of Memory

Posted on December 10, 2021 by Rabbi Arnie Gluck

This week’s parashah, Vayigash, offers a clear and powerful example of what has been called writing one’s spiritual autobiography.

In Genesis 45:4-8 Joseph offers this remarkable retelling of his story:

“Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come forward to me.’ And when they came forward, he said, ‘I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. … God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God…’”

Joseph’s words are powerful and moving. But, objectively, they bear little resemblance to the events as they were described in the previous chapters of Genesis. Clearly, this is an interpretation of the facts that one might reasonably describe as revisionist. So, why does Joseph do it? Why does he rewrite his story?

In the strictly factual version, Joseph is a victim, the object of the malice of others. His brothers threw him into a pit and sold him into slavery. Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him, and when he refused her advances she told her husband that he had attacked her. Then Potiphar had him thrown into prison.

Now, in Joseph’s retelling, he has become the author of his own story. From once being the object, he has become the subject. He has shaped a narrative that gives meaning and purpose to his life — a narrative that is empowering.

The historian Yosef Chaim Yerushalmi wrote about the difference between history and memory. History, he said, is the attempt to uncover objective facts, to determine what happened.

Memory, by contrast, is the attempt to derive meaning from events of the past, to construct a narrative that helps us define who we are and what we want to be.

We Jews are a people of memory more than history. Our tradition is one of storytelling that has shaped our identity and informed our aspirations.

Consider the Passover Haggadah’s retelling of our enslavement in Egypt. It goes beyond recounting our suffering to emphasizing the ways that we resisted our oppressors. In the face of great cruelty, we preserved our dignity and identity. We didn’t change our names. We helped each other bear the burdens imposed upon us. We were courageous and resilient. To this day, this is the story we tell our children, and it is one that inspires pride.

Another example is the way our tradition speaks of the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. Factually, in both instances, we were vanquished by our enemies, first by the Babylonians and then by the Romans.

But that’s not the story we tell. According to the Talmud, the First Temple was destroyed on account of idolatry, and the Second Temple because of baseless hatred among our people.

According to the historical facts, we were hapless victims. Our narrative, by contrast, offers us a positive way forward. It bids us to examine our deeds and empowers us to be better, kinder, and more faithful people who can learn and grow.

Another example is Israel’s take on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, which is Israel is called Yom HaShoah v’HaG’vurah, Holocaust and Heroism Day.

By adding the dimension of our people’s heroic resistance, Israel’s remembrance of the darkest chapter of our history is infused with light and enables us to see ourselves as a proud and strong people capable of defending ourselves and determined to do so evermore.

Like Joseph, our lives have their ups and downs. Things happen to us, many of which are beyond our control. But Joseph teaches by his example that we have a choice. We can see ourselves as objects, victims of circumstance or of the malice of others, or we can choose to be the authors of our stories, to construct narratives that are empowering, that lift up our dignity — stories of our endurance and resilience, tales of fortitude, courage, and strength.

May we ever be a people of memory whose stories inspire us to chart a path to a future that is bright with promise for ourselves and for generations to come.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Arnie Gluck