There is an old midrash to explain how Moshe discovered his Jewish identity and woke up to his calling as a teacher and prophet. Yocheved, Moshe’s mother, used to sing him lullabies and feed him familiar foods. As she weaned him and led him into the embrace of his surrogate family, the sounds, tastes and smells of his childhood were pushed deep into the recesses of his subconscious. It was when he walked among the Israelites that the sounds of those lullabies and the smells of those familiar foods awakened his Jewish consciousness, launching him on a journey toward the ultimate awareness of YHVH.
Moshe was asleep for those years as Prince of Egypt. We may even say his indifference was an escape from the world outside the doors of his home — one aflame with injustice and oppression. As Moshe becomes aware of his true identity and stands up to the injustice of an oppressive taskmaster, his pampered and comfortable existence in Pharaoh’s palace is shattered.
We can all relate to moments like this in our own lives, moments when the thresholds of our understanding and expectations of the world around us are breached with new awareness, sometimes enabling us to discover new truths or bringing us back to our core identity; an act of remembering truths we once knew and have seemingly forgotten.
We are in slumber states for most of our week. To be awake is to cut through the pages of the newspaper, beyond the incessant attention of presidential debates, impending threats internationally and locally, to find the truths of our lives and keep us focused on our true purpose. It’s what should call us to greater action and response toward the threats of dignity for Jewish women in Israel, and the sobering reminder that there are more than 1 million people in our Los Angeles community who are undernourished and impoverished.
This is the power of memory. Active memory is the capacity to awaken us from our existential slumber, to shatter our beliefs that the rhythms of daily responsibilities and our busyness make up our life’s purpose. Memory links us to greater truths — truths that make us uncomfortable and truths that soften us and bring us assurance that we matter in the lives of others. “Everybody needs his memories,” author Saul Bellow writes. “They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.”
In “Moonwalking With Einstein,” Joshua Foer chronicles his 2006 journey to the USA Memory Championship. The most interesting technique we learn from the book is constructing what is called a memory palace. The trick is to visualize a building, perhaps your childhood home or other home that is most familiar to you, and to imaginatively place facts, numbers and details around the house. Using your imagination and creating new associations with ones that are already deeply rooted in your memory, you simultaneously construct a method to remember significant amounts of information and nurture healthy brain development by creating new neural pathways.
As I read the book, I could not help but relate this technique and its wisdom to our study of the Torah. Perhaps our Torah is one collective memory palace, a cultural and historical edifice of truths that we use to bring familiarity and new understanding to our lives. To read Torah this way is to see how the details, laden with thousands of years of history, is both an awakening to our core identity and an opportunity to build new information and new wisdom into our collective memory as a people, as Jews. The message of Moshe, if not the entire Jewish text tradition, is that we all have the capacity and responsibility to wake up and act in the world for goodness.
In this week’s parasha, we meet a Pharaoh who represents the antithesis to memory. His heart is hardened after each plague as if to say he forgets the awesome power the God of Israel displays time and again. Moshe stands as Pharaoh’s opposite here. He lives in Pharaoh’s palace until he wakes up. It is his determination and resilience to construct a new identity for himself and the Israelites that define redemption. It is through his memory that the bridge between slumber and wakefulness is secured.
Joshua Hoffman is a rabbi with Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative congregation in Encino.