Memory has sustained us as Jews over thousands of years through a most challenging history. Our faith and our people are founded on the collective memory of ‘Matan Torah’ – the revelation at Sinai – and our shared experience over millennia from diaspora to diaspora. The Torah repeatedly exhorts us to ‘Remember’ (e.g. Exodus 20:8/11, Deuteronomy 5:15 and 25:17). Indeed, we are commanded always to ‘Remember the past days; understand the years of every generation…’ (Deuteronomy 32:7).
Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov taught his Chasidim that, spiritually, “Forgetfulness leads to a state of (permanent) exile while Remembrance is the secret of redemption…collective and individual”.
Much of life is typified by its pace of change which invariably takes us by surprise. Past memory is vital in providing us with guidance, context, and the wisdom of experience. This year, with the sudden advent of Covid-19, we are faced profoundly with the realisation that life can be fleeting and outside our ultimate control. Many of the certainties and comforts we have lived with for so many years and taken for granted are suddenly no longer pertinent.
This extends to many aspects of our lives. It includes important communal fixtures like the annual AJEX Cenotaph Parade, to recognise and honour Jewish military service to the Crown. This flagship Remembrance event – now in its 86th year – has had to adapt and will this year be shown as an online ceremony on Sunday 15th November at 2.30pm. It is noteworthy that this parade is not just about Remembrance itself, but also about appreciating and understanding the experience and sacrifice of previous generations.
When engaging with Soldiers suffering from PTSD in the aftermath of war, I have seen how vital it is not to gloss over past experience – however painful. It is fundamental to support people to remember even the most traumatic of life-events and then build rituals of memory in order to lay toxic demons and nightmares to rest. In this way, memory profoundly honours and supports both the living and the dead.
Certainly, people in professions that encounter death and loss every day – including caregivers, clergy, and medical practitioners, have long understood the importance of channelled and ritualised Remembrance – both collective and personal. It is an established therapeutic principle that is vital for healing (and learning) which enables us to reflect and Remember and not ignore or suppress. By this we can go on living our lives in meaningful ways that honour those who have gone before us and learn precious lessons from their accrued wisdom, deep experience and sacrifice. Moreover, it is indeed a truism that ‘Those who do not learn the lessons of history are destined to repeat them…’
In light of all of the above, we must remind ourselves that memory is precious, and Remembrance is not only a duty but a great privilege. When we do that, our gain is to reinforce the faith that no challenge is insurmountable or hopeless – whether crisis, war or even pandemic. For, over our long history, our predecessors and patriarchs faced all of the above (and more) yet survived and even flourished. So too, with Hashem’s help, will we.
Chanukah, which we will soon celebrate, is also profoundly an act of memory, commemorating the triumph of the Jewish Maccabees over Greek rulers (164 BCE). This is not just about the physical victory against mighty Greece but also the unlikely spiritual triumph of Jewish faith and values against Hellenism. Its sanctity derives from miraculous survival against all odds and predictions – and this is encapsulated in the miracle of the flask of oil. This is alluded to in an earlier biblical episode where Moses wonders; ‘If the bush is burning, why is it not consumed? (Exodus 3:2-3).
Remembering remarkable Jewish survival and the sacrifice of Servicemen and Women, can inspire us against the challenges we are faced with at this time. AJEX is built upon this foundational principle and is widely recognised both inside and outside our community as the voice of Jewish Veterans’ Remembrance. The current Armed Forces Jewish Community (AFJC), is the counterpart organisation – guarding the flame of continuing Jewish service. Together these two strands form a formidable association for the Remembrance of Jewish military and civic service in the UK.
I invite you on this AJEX Shabbat (14th November, 2020) to join us in saying our prayer of Remembrance. In light of what is continuing to unfold around the world, it is more important than ever to ensure we come together in Tefilah. The first AJEX parade took place to combat antisemitism and we can draw strength from the resilience of past generations and remember the courage and sacrifice of all who served.
May we always cherish memory – even as we recognise that it is only by looking back that we can, biSiyata deShmaya, truly see ourselves forward.
Join the AJEX Ceremony of Remembrance this Sunday 15th November at 2.30pm online: www.youtube.com/AJEX_JMA