The act of remembering ... is the heartbeat of Jewish spirituality.
The quintessential element of Jewish spirituality occurs again and again, in Torah, in Aggadah and in Jewish practice. It’s profoundly simple. But make no mistake. Simple is not the same as easy.
The Talmud (Niddah 30b) says that in the womb, a light shining above the baby's head allows it to see the world from end to end. An angel teaches the unborn child all of Torah. At the moment of birth, the angel strikes the infant on the upper lip and the baby forgets everything. What’s left is an instinct, a residual memory and love of Torah.
Another rabbinic legend says that all Jews were present for revelation at Sinai, including those not yet born and who were not yet Jews (Shavuot 39a). In the collection known as Midrash Tanhuma, Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani adds: “Their souls were there, even though their bodies had not yet been created.”
The act of remembering – remembering what we were given in the womb and what we were given at Sinai – is the heartbeat of Jewish spirituality. In prayer, we recite and reenact our communal memories, the archetypal core of the Jewish people.
The liturgy of our Siddur is a blend of recited collective memories and fanciful reenactments. Every time we take the Torah from the ark, we reenact revelation at Sinai, the power of the moment and the commitment of our people. We live that commitment by reading, studying and fulfilling Torah.
Earlier in the service, we pretend to be angels when we recite the Kedusah, reenacting an imaginary debate between the angels, reminding ourselves of the paradox that God is both as far away as the high heavens and as near to us as our own breathing.
Our festivals are reenactments. We reenact the journey from freedom to revelation on Passover and again when counting the Omer. We reenact the journey in the wilderness on Sukkot and revelation at Sinai on Shavuot. And the Torah instructs us not only to keep Shabbat but to remember the Shabbat (shamor v’zakhor).
Judaism is deeply invested in creating and maintaining collective memory. Remembering our past, our history and our roots. Remembering our commitments to God. Remembering our commitment to each other.
Six times in Torah we’re commanded to remember specific events: the exodus from Egypt, receiving Torah at Sinai, Amalek’s attack on the Israelites, our making the golden calf, Miriam’s punishment and Shabbat. An odd mix. Yet, with six memories, we can understand the formative history of our people.
Memory is the gateway into Jewish spirituality. It is the daily practice of remembering what we already know deep inside. It’s about waking up again and again to one simple truth: God is present in this moment.
When Jacob awoke from his dream of a ladder connecting heaven and earth, he said: “Surely God was in this place and I didn’t know it” (Gen. 28:16). But upon waking he remembered. All we need to do is remember.
It’s so easy to forget that God is right here, right now. Even Jacob forgets that God is present.
Rabbi Nachum Twerski of Chernobyl, the 18th-century hasidic master known as the Me'or Eynayim, compared the Mishkan -- the tabernacle -- to a person's soul, a "dwelling place" for God. Our souls are meant to house holiness. From seeing that imaginary light in the womb to experiencing the mythological collective memory of Sinai, our souls are primed for visions of God.
A spiritual tabernacle exists in us all. When we fill that tabernacle with memories of God, spirituality becomes resident in our bones. Then we pick up Torah and mitzvot with resounding love. We become vessels of holiness. All we have to do is remember.
Alden Solovy is an acclaimed liturgist of over 700 original works of Jewish liturgy. He will be teaching an online course, through the Reconstructionist Learning Networks in collaboration with Ritualwell, entitled "Ingredients of Prayer: Writing Contemporary Liturgy," beginning October 16th. Learn more and register.