Last week, I wrote about the layers of memory that encase the Passover seder, rendering the event each year so climactic and…memorable.
But the act of remembering only makes sense as the heroic efforts of a person swimming upon vast oceans of forgetting. Despite the miraculous powers of the human mind, most people are able to call to consciousness only a small sliver of the people, events, stories, data, scents and textures that they have experienced and learned over the course of their lifetime. Memories can be supremely powerful, but memory, like all human capacities, is capricious and evanescent.
The transience of memory was brought home by a deeply felt essay in the most recent issue of Harper’s Magazine, entitled “Out of Time: The Un-Becoming of Self.” The author, Sally Tisdale, is a nurse by trade and a magnificent writer who draws upon the experiences she has with patients to reflect upon aspects of human dignity and mortality. In this work, she discusses her interactions with people who have dementia. Since our personal and social identity is generally associated with our memories and our ability to remember, when those powers slip away, there’s a sense that the person is no longer there, that they are “gone” or “missing,” “a shell of who they were.” She argues that people with dementia are still fully people, still often capable of humor, emotion, thought and sociability, and need to be accepted as such, on their own terms.
What makes the remembered memory of Pesach significant is that we hold onto it both individually and collectively. We each fulfill the commandment to internalize the memory, to relive the moments from slavery to freedom. But unlike the bulk of our own personal memories, the memory of Pesach will always remain alive because it is embraced by the Jewish people as a whole. Even those of us who are not able to remember achieve this act by being present at the seder table where everyone, individually and together, relives and remembers.
How do your students understand and articulate the complex, fascinating nature of memory? How do they express the relationship between personal memory and Jewish memory? What do you do to help them see the person who is there when their memory is fading or largely absent?
And here’s another new Passover tool, an interactive seder experience from Pardes.