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Remembrance and Teshuvah

Remembrance and Teshuvah September 17, 2021

Haazinu (Deuteronomy 32:1–52)
By Jessica Spencer |

Haazinu is a swansong, a poem declaimed by Moses before he dies and leaves the Israelites to face their future. At this time of year, a time of both reflection and new beginnings, it calls us to remember our past and to take these words to heart for the new year.

Maimonides draws attention in particular to the last line of the first aliyah:

זְכֹר֙ יְמ֣וֹת עוֹלָ֔ם בִּ֖ינוּ שְׁנ֣וֹת דֹּר־וָדֹ֑ר שְׁאַ֤ל אָבִ֙יךָ֙ וְיַגֵּ֔דְךָ זְקֵנֶ֖יךָ וְיֹ֥אמְרוּ לָֽךְ׃

Remember the days of old; understand the years of generations; Ask your father and he will tell you; your elders, they will speak to you [Devarim 32:6]

For Maimonides, the aliyah finishes here for a reason: to induce the community to do teshuvah, return or repentance. He reads the verse as a rebuke against Israel’s past sins. But this isn’t just a reproach—it’s a command. What does it mean to be exhorted to remember? And how can remembrance be part of teshuvah?

On a recent visit home, I was practising Kol Nidrei in my parents’ living room. This year is my first time leading Yom Kippur services, and although I’m a regular shlichat tzibbur, I have never before taken on tefillah that asks so much of me: not only musical range and knowledge of chazzanut, but even focus and endurance. My (secular) mother was sitting nearby. When I paused, she asked:

“Do they know that your great-great-grandfather was a famous chazzan?”

My great-great-grandfather, Markus Moses, was the chazzan of the Great Synagogue of Brussels. He would have been a master of these services that I am learning, and have had his own particular tradition of how to sing the prayers. But this is not a comforting thought as I learn to lead. I have no way to reach that tradition. “Ask your father”—but my father will not tell me, and my elders cannot speak.

It’s not only that he died long before I was born. The family has moved countries three times since then, in the face of persecution and for opportunity. His granddaughter, my grandmother, chose to break with her religious background soon after arriving in England. Even if I could recreate the cadences of my ancestor’s davening, to do so would erase the generations past since then. It would not ring true.

Rashi and the Sefer Chasidim (a medieval German work) both reframe this verse in a way that answers some of my troubles. Rashi interprets “father” to mean the prophets, and “elders” as the rabbinic sages. Rather than asking one’s family, one should ask the leaders of the community. Rashi places the verse in Devarim’s wider context of building the society we want to see. Meanwhile, the Sefer Chasidim expands:

שאל אביך ויגדך (דברים לב ז). ואם תדע שלא ידע להשיב לך זקינך ויאמרו לך מגיד לך הכתוב שאם שאל תלמיד לרבו ואינו יודע להשיב אל ישאל לפניו לחכם אחר פן יתבייש רבו:

Ask your father and he will tell you’: and if you know that he will not know how to answer, ‘your elders, and they will speak to you’. The verse tells us that if a student asks his rabbi and he does not know how to answer, he shall not ask another sage in front of him, lest he embarrasses his teacher.

This is a different approach from Rashi’s. The Sefer Chasidim is concerned about your relationship with your teacher, and what to do when your teacher cannot help. But for both Rashi and Sefer Chasidim, remembrance is not a family responsibility, but a communal one. Whether through teacher-student connection, sage-disciple, or prophet-public, the memories are borne on the scale of the Jewish people. And the Sefer Chasidim answers my question of what to do when parents have no answers. Rather than seeking a surrogate and casting off my own family history, we must create spaces where “elders” speak freely and all can listen.

We famously live in a time of “rupture and reconstruction.” Many Jews today have lost our family traditions. But there are still oral traditions open to us, as well as classical texts. My Yom Kippur davening is enriched by being part of a 100-person whatsapp group, in which participants of all backgrounds share all sorts of clips: Western Sephardic piyutim, Chabad niggunim, and their own compositions. Although some members are professional cantors, most are not, and everyone is able to speak. Remembrance binds us together and writes new narratives.

So, how is remembrance part of teshuvah? Return cannot be done in a way that forgets what has passed. While we may want to return to an earlier age, it is only through understanding previous generations that we learn how we want to change. By following Rashi and the Sefer Chasidim’s approach, and reading this verse on a communal level, we can build a community of ‘elders’ where everyone’s memories are shared and all speak. Only then can we turn to holy work.

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