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January 31, 2020
5 Sh'vat 5780

Parashat Bo
Exodus 10:1 - 13:16


Just two days ago, while walking along an embankment by the Mississippi River, my husband and I came upon a Holocaust Memorial that was raised in the city of New Orleans almost 20 years ago. It happened to be Holocaust Remembrance Day. The memorial is a piece of kinetic art by the Israeli artist Yaacov Agam that reveals multiple images based on where you stand, as the complexity of the meaning slowly takes shape. Agam’s piece goes from destruction to hope, depending upon which angle you look at it.

It was striking to see the monument on Holocaust Remembrance Day. The information about the piece was worn away and in need of replacement; most people simply walked by it. That’s what we do when the story isn’t our story, isn’t it?

When I became a rabbi, I was required to submit a thesis. My thesis confronted the question “what will we do when there are no more survivors to tell the story, not only the story of death and destruction but of life before?”

This week’s Torah portion provides a bit of an answer, as I reflect upon on it from a different vantage point. Parshat Bo (Exodus 10:1 – 13:16), tells the story of the last three plagues and the going out from Egypt. The parashat does something else; it places the story, the story we tell every year at our seders, into our calendars. Rosh Hashanah may be the birthday of the world, but it is the month of Nisan that marks the beginning of our year. It marks the beginning of our march toward freedom and redemption, a march we have yet to complete, so we tell the story again and again.

This process of turning memory into action is not an easy one. In Chapter 13, we are told to remember this day and what actions to take in order to remember. We are given the outline of the modern seder, to tell the story in such a way that our children will comprehend and eat only a certain kind of food for seven days.

So what do we do when there are no more pictures to post of survivors? We tell the story, we go to places that have objects, and we link ourselves to the past by seeing how it is relevant to the present. But the story we tell cannot just be the story of destruction. It needs to include the story of what came before. Is it perfect? Of course not. Does it have challenges? Absolutely.

So why are enjoined to look to the past, to put it on our calendars, whether it is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz or Passover? I think in part that we remember because we human beings have a strong need to mark time, to differentiate one moment from the next. That need is both apparent in the way we celebrate and in the way we mourn.

Looking back is not only a point of nostalgia. It is a marker of where we have been and how much further we have to go as individuals, as communities, and as citizens of the world.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Linda Shriner-Cahn

Sat, September 19 2020 1 Tishrei 5781