Remember the days of old

Bar-Ilan University
Parashat Haazinu/Rosh Hashanah 5772/2012
Parashat Hashavua Study Center
Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A
project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the
Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's
International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center
Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
Michael Avioz1
"Remember the days of old"— The Importance of Remembrance in the Bible
Sefer Dukhrania ("The Book of Remembrance") is the name given to the Torah by the
Aramaic translations from the land of Israel,2 and this name is a proper and fitting
application of what Moses said in the poem, Haazinu, in which he commanded Israel,
"Remember the days of old" (Deut. 32:7).
The root z-kh-r (to remember) appears in the Bible in the form of a verb over 200 times.3
The nouns zekher (remembrance) and zikaron (memory) are also derived from this root.
Sometimes it is the people who are to remember (100 occurrences), sometimes the Lord (68
Sometimes the command, "remember such-and-such" appears with the
addition of the opposite "lest/do not forget." Menahem-Tzvi Kadari4 defined this root as
follows: "to keep something in mind after having forgotten it." This is generally the sense of
the verb in the kal form.
To Kadari's definition we must add an interpretation that
necessarily follows from remembering: one who remembers ascribes significance to the
things being remembered, be they names, people, or events.
Dr. Avioz teaches in the Bible Department.
See the Neophyte Targum, ascribed to Jonathan, on Ex. 12:42, and the Targum of Ex. 15:18.
Sometimes the verb p-k-d is also used in the sense of remembering.
Milon ha-Ivrit ha-Mikrait, p. 247.
It has been observed that this root does not necessarily denote looking to the past. For
example, consider how it is used in the third passage of the Shema: "That shall be your
fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them" (Num.
15:39). Here remembrance comes in the context of a set of actions aimed at the present
and future: seeing, remembering, observing. There are other instances in which the root zkh-r looks to the future: Isaiah, comforting us over the Babylonian exile, says, "You gave no
thought [Heb. z-kh-r] to the end of it" (Isa. 47:7), and Ecclesiastes exhorts a man to enjoy
himself, "remembering how many the day of darkness are going to be" (Eccles. 11:8).
Deuteronomy especially lays emphasis on the importance of preserving our memories, lest
we forget: "But take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously, so that you do not
forget the things that you saw with your own eyes and so that they do not fade from your
mind as long as you live" (Deut. 4:9).
What, according to Deuteronomy, are we to
remember? The period of bondage in Egypt (Deut. 15:15, 24:18), what the Lord did to
Pharaoh (Deut. 7:18), the tribulations of wandering in the wilderness (Deut. 8:2), the
people's complaints (Deut. 9:7), that it is the Lord who gives us might (Deut. 8:18), what
happened to Miriam and what Amalek did to us (Deut. 24:9, 17-19). Remembering the
exodus from Egypt contributes to more significant observance of the commandments of the
Sabbath and of freeing slaves (Deut. 5:14).5 According to Deuteronomy 6:7, the technique
for passing on memories to succeeding generations is one of repetition and oral
transmission: "Impress them upon your children" [the Hebrew verb means more literally to
repeat until the message is learned]. Similarly, the point is made explicitly in Psalms (78:37):
…things we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us. We will
not withhold them from their children, telling the coming generation the
praises of the Lord and His might, and the wonders He performed…that a
future generation might know—children yet to be born—and in turn tell
their children that they might put their confidence in G-d and not forget Gd's great deeds, but observe His commandments.6
Regarding the laws of the Sabbath in Deuteronomy, chapter 5, see Amos Frisch, Yegi`a Kapekha—
Yahas ha-Mikra el ha-`Avodah, Tel Aviv 1999, pp. 80-88.
For a comprehensive rhetorical analysis of Psalm 78 with reference to memory, see Edward
Greenstein, "Mixing Memory and Design: Reading Psalm 78," Prooftexts 10 (1990), pp. 197-218,
especially p. 201. In Greenstein's opinion this psalm should not be viewed as an historical psalm. The
objective of the psalm is to sharpen the memory of the psalmist's audience. Thus memory acquires a
not only a theological but also a psychological function.
Hence the purpose of passing on information is not merely intellectual; it is a means of
transmitting a message regarding the importance of observing the commandments. One
generation tells the next and thus the shared memories, shared experiences and shared
observance of the commandments help the people form a coalesced group. Remembering
the theophany at Sinai and the covenant made with the Lord are the basis for the people's
faith in their G-d.
This kind of remembering has been called "collective memory."
According to Yael
Zerubavel,7 appealing to history creates national identity, and collective memory helps
understand the uniqueness of the people in comparison to other national groups. Likewise,
cultivating memories is part of an ongoing process of forming a nation. Collective memory
organizes the events of the past and historical time from an ideological standpoint, along
several dimensions: the historical importance of various periods, their negative or positive
impact on the history of the nation, etc. Those in charge of shaping the memory are
authorized to decide which events will be preserved in the national memory and which will
be erased.8 Since in the Torah only Moses was authorized by the Lord to determine what
would be remembered and what not, Scripture censures the people's selective memory of
the time they spent in Egypt (Num. 11:5): "We remember the fish we used to eat free in
Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic."
Other prophets, as well, were authorized to decide which events would be remembered and
which forgotten: "Do not recall what happened of old, or ponder what happened of yore! I
am about to do something new; even now it shall come to pass, suddenly you shall perceive
it" (Isa. 43:18-19).
Remembering leads to nostalgia over the past; it leads us to wish for events that made a
favorable impression to recur in the present and future. Thus, the people recall the good
food they had in Egypt (Num. 11:5), and thus the psalmist in Psalm 74 describes the events
of the past in order to encourage the Lord to remember them and again come to their aid.
Remembering the past opens the door to hope for changing and improving the wretched
condition of the psalmist and the people in the present. Isaiah, the prophet of comfort, calls
on the people to remember Abraham and Sarah in a way that will give them encouragement
Y. Zerubavel, Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition,
Chicago 1995.
Avner Ben-Amos, Historia, Zehut ve-Zikaron: Dimuyei Avar ba-Hinukh ha-Yisraeli, Raanana 2002, p.
75; Efraim Yaar and Zohar Shavit, Megamot ba-Hevrah ha-Yisraelit, I, Raanana 2001, p. 129. Cf. H. Y.
Yerushalmi, Zekhor: Historia Yehudit ve-Zikaron Yehudi, Tel Aviv 1982.
(Isa. 51:2).9 In Psalm 137 the people remember Zion, long for her, and promise never to
forget her: "Let my tongue stick to my palate, if I cease to think of you, if I do not keep
Jerusalem in my memory even at my happiest hour" (Ps. 137:6).
Counter-memory also reverberates in Scripture: repeated depictions of the same events in
the perspective of time but from a different point of departure. Deuteronomy gives shape
to events mentioned in other books of the Pentateuch in such a way as to clothe events of
the past in new garb (for example, compare the story of the scouts in Numbers with that in
This is also done by the prophet Ezekiel in his description of earlier
traditions which he imbues with new understanding.
We conclude with a few words on the verses of remembrance recited in the New Year
liturgy. These verses are said in order to encourage the Holy One, blessed be He, to
remember His promises to the patriarchs and their progeny, and thus to inscribe them in the
book of life (Rosh ha-Shanah 32b). May we be favorably remembered by the Creator and
may we all be inscribed in the book of life and granted a year of good health and peace.
Translated by Rachel Rowen
Amos Funkenstein calls this a "typological experience," i.e., and experience that one would like to
have again and again. See his book, Tadmit ve-Toda`ah Historit ba-Yahadut u-ve-Sevivatah haTarbutit, Tel Aviv 1991, p. 34.