Two different Remembers

Rabbi Dr Andrea Zanardo, PhD
6 min readJan 28, 2023

We Jews, me and you, belong to the best Book Club in the world. There are other clubs and associations out there, all great and good. But our Book Club is the real thing. As you know, because you’re here, our Book Club meets every Saturday morning. During our meetings, such as today’s, we read from the best Book ever written, the Torah. We read and re-read it every year, all year long. And when we are done reading it, we start anew and reread it; there are so many things to discover inside our Holy Book! It has so many inspiring passages and stories. Not to kill. Not to sacrifice human beings. Not to oppress strangers. Remember that you have been a slave.

One of the best things is that parts of the Book circulate beyond our club and have become part of the general culture. For example: “Remember what has happened and tell it to your children” is a passage from our Book. This principle has become the main motivation for an important day, Holocaust Remembrance Day, that takes place every year toward the end of January. On Holocaust Remembrance Day, there are ceremonies all over the Country. Yesterday King Charles and Queen consort lit memorial candles at Buckingham Palace. Yahrzeit candles have been lit in major landmarks in many cities. Here in Hove, there was that emotional and very moving ceremony at the City Hall. I invite you tomorrow to Meadow View Cemetery for a ceremony led by your Rabbi, which is me, at 11.00 AM.

Every public recurrence has a theme, a central motif. The central motif of Holocaust Memorial Day is this Jewish-ly inspired principle. “Remember that it has happened; tell it to your children”. I said “Jewish-ly inspiredly” and not Jewish for a good reason. Let me explain.

Remembrance constitutes the central theme of a large part of Holocaust literature. For example, the famous poem by Primo Levi If this is a man (the same title as his masterpiece)

You who live safe

In your warm houses,

You who find on returning in the evening,

Warm food and friendly faces:

Consider if this is a man

Who works in the mud

Who does not know peace

Who fights for a scrap of bread

Who dies because of a yes or a no.

Consider if this is a woman,

Without hair and without a name

With no more strength to remember,

Her eyes empty, and her womb cold

Like a frog in winter

Meditate that this happened

I commend these words to you.

Carve them in your hearts

At home, in the street,

Going to bed, rising;

Repeat them to your children,

Or may your house fall apart,

May illness impede you,

May your children turn their faces from you.

This poem is patterned along a Jewish prayer, the Shema

“Carve them in your hearts, At home, in the street, Going to bed, rising”

[my translation from Italian]

And yet, the moral imperative of remembering the Holocaust is different from zakhor, the mitzva of remembering the exodus from Egypt. The context is different. And this time, the context is everything.

In this week’s Torah portion, we find the zakhor! the commandment to celebrate Pesach, “remember and teach to your children”. But prior to that, in the paragraph before it, we read another commandment, “This will be for you the first of the months”. It is the institution of the Jewish calendar. This, by the way, is the first commandment addressed to the Jews and to the Jews only. Before that, there were commandments addressed to all humanity. Jews and not Jews

It makes sense. Before the commandment to remember the Exodus from Egypt, the Torah institutes the Jewish calendar. So that we can remember the exodus at a proper time, at a date set according to our calendar. and not according to the Egyptians. Which would have been a bit weird; imagine celebrating the exodus from Egypt and, a few weeks after that, the birthday of Pharao…

Let’s move backwards a bit in the text. We find the last dialogue between Pharao and Moses just before the final plague, the makat bekhorot, the death of Egyptian firstborns.

Picture the scene. A series of nine terrible plagues struck the kingdom of Egypt. It used to be a superpower, and now the economy has been destroyed by a series of catastrophes: hails, invasion of locusts, invasion of frogs… It was militarily powerful, but now even the strongest among its soldiers suffer from these strange diseases: lice, boils… Pharao has employed his best scientists, the magicians and sorcerers, to stop what is happening, but the situation has only worsened. Imagine how the King of Egypt does feel. Humiliation does not even begin to describe his feeling. He now understands that there is a Higher power to which he is ready to concede. He summons Moses and says: “You wanted to go? To worship God in the desert? So be it! Go worship wherever you want, but come back in three days”. But Moses replies: “Forget about it. We will go where God wants us to go. And by the way, we will stay there. We are not about to come back”. Frustrated, Pharao kicks Moses out of the room: “You won’t see my face again!” says Pharao. “Oh yes, indeed”, answers Moses. And we know what happens after that: the last plague, the death of Egyptian firstborns, and the final departure.

You see? The Biblical commandment of zakhor!, remembrance is the last of a sequence of events. First, Moses says to Pharaos: No thanks, we follow God’s laws and not yours. Then the Jewish calendar is instituted; from now on the Jews will organise their time in their own way and not according to a non-Jewish calendar. Jews are commanded to remember the Exodus and the plagues once they have conquered their self-determination and can decide what to do with their own time. As slaves, of course, they did not enjoy such a luxury. We see now, I hope, the difference between Holocaust remembrance and the Jewish commandment of zakhor.

On Holocaust Remembrance Day, we remember a tragedy, we hope that the young generations will learn, and as adults, they won’t be accomplices of crimes against humanity. The Biblical commandment of zakhor, and the holiday built around it, teach a different teaching., They teach that you can adequately remember only if you are free to follow the mitzvot, live according to the Jewish calendar, and identify yourself as a Jew.

There is a time for everything, as it is written in the great Book we read at the meetings of our Book Club. There is a time to join the European Countries to commemorate our national tragedy and the tragedies of other nations and peoples. And then there is the time when we remember the Exodus from Egypt, together with our children and grandchildren, so that they learn that life without freedom is not life, and freedom without purpose, without faith, is not real freedom.

I genuinely hope to see you all tomorrow at the Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony. At the same time, as your Rabbi. I want you to remember the next meetings of our Book Club when we read and discuss the most engaging, noble and inspiring Book ever written in history, A wonderful Book; perhaps, dare I suggest, divinely inspired.

See you tomorrow, and meanwhile, Shabbat shalom.

Brighton & Hove Reform Synagogue, 6 Shvat 5783 / 28 January 2023

[I owe Mark Oppenheimer the idea of Jewish people being a Book club]

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Rabbi Dr Andrea Zanardo, PhD

I’m the first Rabbi ever to be called “a gangster”. Also, I am a Zionist.