In a world torn by identity struggles and narrative conflicts, the need for a history of Am Yisrael’s birth appears obvious. As we sit down on seder night to recount the events recorded in the Haggadah, it may seem to us that this is indeed what we are doing – setting our past on a solid foundation. But there is no word in Hebrew for history. When the Torah speaks of the past there is only memory of what was and the desire to tell its story. The going out from Egypt is the only story which the Torah commands us to tell for all time. Through this mitzvah it becomes not only about the past, but about the future as well.
The Rambam grounds the mitzvah of recounting the Exodus in the verse “Remember (zachor) this day, on which you left Egypt.” (Exodus 13:3) The word zachor in this context cannot mean the recollection of a past event. After all – how can we remember an event which we never experienced? Therefore the Rambam goes on to explain its usage, saying “…just as Exodus 20:8 states: “Remember the Sabbath day.”
The fifth commandment is clearly not an injunction to simply remember an experience, personal or otherwise. Rather, it is a command to recall the seventh day of creation in order to infuse meaning into my present relationship with the holiness of time. Memory may look back at the past, but it is always with the eyes of the present. Zachor is a call to identify with what was in order to integrate it into present identity. It is a recollection of the type we desire when we ask another person – what’s your story? We are asking how their present self understands its emergence from its past.
The Rambam goes on to say that the preferred practice for the mitzvah is to evoke questions from our children which can drive the telling. He is also careful to warn us against locking the story into our personal understanding, requiring that it be fit to the child’s way of knowing. Recalling the Exodus is so central to maintaining the chain of generations that the Torah commanded “And you shall tell your child…” on the very day we left. Nevertheless, allowing our children’s questions to shape the mitzvah is about more than Jewish continuity.
Memory is our present experience of events which are located in the past. The problem is that without extreme mindfulness the present is a fleeting space to occupy. In reality most of us live in a dynamic tension between our thoughts of the past and our aspirations for the future. The Rambam notes that even if one does not have children, they are still commanded to ask questions of themselves in order to help the story unfold. The mitzvah of telling our story is driven by the future, ours and our children’s.
Perhaps this is why the Rambam locates the the mitzvah of maggid in two verses. The command to remember is a call to know the story of our past in a way than can shape present identity. And when we remember by telling our children the story, we ensure an identity which can empower us to build the future about which we dream.