Remembering Not to Forget

Washington D.C. is one of my favorite places to visit and my family and I had a blast visiting all kinds of sites over the Labor Day weekend. We toured places we had never seen, like Arlington National Cemetery and the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Virginia, we saw the monuments on the National Mall, and the Smithsonian Museum of American History, where numerous artifacts from our nation’s history, like the table and chairs used by Generals Grant and Lee to sign the surrender papers at the courthouse in Appomattox, are on display. We also went to Ford’s Theater where President Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth, and Petersen House across the street where he died the following morning. I reveled in touring these sites, probably because I enjoy seeing the substance of history. As we stood in Ford’s Theater, I kept remarking to my children, “Do you realize that this is the actual place where Lincoln was assassinated? This is the actual place!” (noting my glee, they quickly began to mock me every time I made that comment throughout our visit).

The problem is, Ford’s Theater isn’t really the actual place that Lincoln was shot. As we were exiting the building, I stopped to listen to one of the guides explain that following Lincoln’s death, the people of Washington were so distraught about what happened there that John Ford, the owner of the theater, couldn’t reopen his theater. He received permission from the Federal government to put on a show in the summer of 1865, three months after Lincoln’s death, but on the night the show was supposed to open an anonymous letter was received at the theater threatening to burn down the building. Eventually, the government took it over and converted it into an office building until it was refurbished as a museum in the middle of the 20th century. Everything in the theater is a recreation, with the exception of one of the chairs in the presidential box from which Lincoln watched Our American Cousin with his wife and the Rathbones. It seems that the people of Washington, and perhaps the entire country, couldn’t tolerate being reminded each day of such a painful moment in the life of the nation, or for them personally.

History is not solely a subject taught in classrooms, it pulsates with life lessons that are meant to deepen and enrich our lives. From the history of Ford’s Theater, we learn that memory can be painful and cast a shadow over us. Why would we want to be reminded of something painful or hurtful? Who would want to continually encounter the evidence of something that stirs up bad feelings? Ironically, the Torah asks that we do just that in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei:

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt – how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! (Deuteromy 25:17-19)

In puzzling language, the passage commands us to not forget to keep alive the memory of barbarians—the tribe of Amalek—who assaulted and terrorized our ancestors ages ago. We’re told to “blot out the memory” of Amalek, an apparent ritual that can be performed only if we force ourselves to remember the evil they committed.

Why would anyone want to do that? Perhaps the answer is that our memories shouldn’t be selective. It may be less emotionally taxing to avoid remembering painful things, but one we start choosing our memories we cut off a large repertoire of our experience. Remembering something painful may also remind us of our strength to persevere, to survive and to grow from difficult experiences in our lives. Allowing ourselves to remember unconditionally affirms that we possess a wide gamut of emotions that make us fully human.

And that’s something worth remembering.

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