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What Does It Remember Like — Kol Nidrei

September 18, 2010

Two months ago, mid-July, we arrived at the last Torah Portion in the Book of Numbers. It is there, in the 33rd chapter, that one finds a lengthy list of the names of every one of the places that we encamped in the wilderness: 42 in total, enumerated in 49 verses. It is an understatement to say that the verses make for dry reading: “They set out from the Sea of Reeds and encamped in the wilderness of Seen. They set out from the wilderness of Seen and encamped at Dophkah. They set out from Dophkah and encamped at Alush. They set out from Alush and encamped at Rephidim…” {Numbers 33:11-14} and on, and on, and on the verses proceed.

I posed this question to the congregation on that particular Shabbat: “Why doesn’t the Torah just tell us, ‘They set out from A and arrived at G, rather than ‘They set out from A and encamped at B; they set out from B and encamped at C; they set out from C and encamped at D, and on, and on and on’”? One answer is that the text provides a precise account of our journeys, even though not every encampment can be verified. The other answer is in the context of Yizkor – “remember” – and it is about the importance of “connecting the dots”: A to B, B to C, C to D, and so on. Some things that might not have seemed significant at the time they occurred achieve greater significance with the passage of time. Remembering significant events in our lives is important because they provide us with the mortar of memories, and memories – powerful and poignant – are what beckon us here now.

But not everything can be, or should be, reduced to lists. Sometimes the memories we cherish are more vivid than the words we might struggle to find to articulate them. In his book called Everything Is Illuminated, author Jonathan Foer writes, “Jews have six senses: touch, taste, sight, smell, hearing…memory…For Jews, memory is no less primary than the prick of a pin…The Jew is pricked by a pin and remembers other pin pricks – when his mother tried to fix his sleeve while his arm was still in it…When a Jew encounters a pin, he asks, ‘What does it remember like? What does it remember like?’”

What do we remember? Who do we remember? To the pins that Foer writes about, we add: photographs; poems, songs, snippets of stories, and the punch lines of jokes; recipes written on index cards and then, with the passage of time, in computer files; prayer books frayed by the hands of previous generations; Kiddush cups that need polishing; Sh’ma pillows; posters that used to hang on walls; trophies in boxes that once proudly stood on shelves; medals and mementos that sometimes tug at our heartstrings; favorite books from yesteryear that were read to us as we sat on our parents’ knees, hearing every word with the wide-eyed wonder of youth; and we ask, “What does it remember like?”

Remember

Tables stretched the length of the house

Tulips on the mantle

My grandmother’s blue glass plate

Aunt Hannah and Uncle Joe’s silver

Nana’s candlesticks

The silver salt bowls from my mother

Freda and Solly’s cut glass horseradish pot

The wedding present seder plate

Grape juice stains on the tablecloth

Thin paperback hagaddot

Silly half versions of songs

And don’t lick the wine from your fingers after

the plagues

Don’t be fooled by the easy domesticity of these

words.

This is more than a recipe for nostalgia.

This is an urgent message of

Survival

Adaptation

Love

Read between the words.

{Hara Person, Women’s Torah Commentary}

The words are Eil moley rah’chamim sho’chane bahm’romeem and the words are Yit’gahdal v’yit’kadahsh Sh’may rah’bah, and between the words there are spaces in which we fill the memories that enrich our lives: the precious, blessed names of those we loved.

We remember them now…

Rabbi Elliot J. Holin