Deuteronomy 8:10-18 - The Call to Remember


The Call to Remember


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'Do Not Forget the Lord Your God'

By Amarnath Amarasingam

The remembrance of God and His relationship to the people of Israel plays an important role in Jewish history. Many religious festivals commemorate historical events in which God intervened directly to aid His people. In this way, worship can be equated to the act of remembering. However, the significance of memory does not help in making it any less fragile. It is fair to say that forgetting is the natural state of our minds – it is remembering that takes effort.

In The Seven Sins of Memory, Daniel Schacter describes seven "sins" which lead to the malfunction of memory: transience, absent-mindedness, blocking, misattribution, suggestibility, bias and persistence. In this paper, I focus only on the sins of transience and bias as they relate to the role of memory in Jewish history and, in particular, to a possible better understanding of Deuteronomy 8:10-18. I argue that Moses' speech in this passage can be viewed as a direct warning against these two sins of memory. The bond that the Jewish people have with each other and with God exists in the memory of their past, which must be guarded against the effects of transience and bias. To this end, religious festivals and holidays provide an annual cause for the celebration and remembrance of the pivotal events in the collective memory of the Jewish people.

The sin of transience can be defined as "forgetting over time." As Schacter notes, transience "operates silently but continually: the past inexorably recedes with the occurrence of new experiences."1 It does not judge what is important and unimportant but functions with the belief that if a piece of memory were important, then a systematic effort would have been taken to remember it. The effects of transience can, for example, leave us in a state of panic and embarrassment when we meet an individual who remembers our name and remembers meeting us on a prior occasion but we feel as though we are meeting them for the first time.

Transience may also cause us to generalize events in the past. For instance, if I were to ask you what you did last Thanksgiving, you can confidently tell me that family visited your home, and turkey was served. This is not a specific recollection of what happened last year but rather "remembering" based on what probably happened. As time passes, memory of the particulars fade and become replaced by generalities based on experiences of similar events. Transience functions under the "use it or lose it" principle – to ensure that the mind is not clogged with useless information; transience serves as spring-cleaning. It trusts that if a piece of information has not been used in a long time, then it probably will not be needed in the future. Thus, a method to fight against transience is reinforcement: "those episodes and incidents we rehearse are protected, at least partially, from transience; those that we don't ponder or mention tend to fade more quickly."2

The sin of bias occurs when "our memories of the past are rescripted to fit with our present views and needs."3 Schacter discusses various different types of biases. The first two, "consistency and change biases", occur when we let the theories we presently have about ourselves influence the way we judge the past. "Recalling past experiences of pain, for instance, is powerfully influenced by current pain levels."4

Third, "hindsight bias" is the "knew it all along" attitude where the past is reconstructed in light of everything we now know. This bias gives comfort, making "us feel good about ourselves, inflating estimates of our own wisdom and prescience" and hindering any opportunity to learn from an experience.5

Fourth, "egocentric bias" is when we give more authority to our own recollections than to those of others. "The self's pre-eminent role in encoding and retrieval, combined with a powerful tendency for people to view themselves positively, creates fertile ground for memory biases that allow people to remember past experiences in a self-enhancing light."6 This, for example, may lead to marital disputes when each partner remembers their own arguments much more vividly and positively than the arguments of the other. Egocentric bias allows individuals to "surround the present self in a comforting glow of positive illusions."7

These two sins of memory are precisely what Moses warns against in Deuteronomy 8. The tone of Deuteronomy is not unlike that of a wise old man reflecting on his experiences. Moses is described in Exodus 4:10 as being "slow of speech and tongue" but in his farewell address, he proves himself to be a man of many words – words emotional and pleading – effusively delivering "one last burst of oratory, a series of three speeches so lengthy and so ornate that the texts take up the entirety of the Book of Deuteronomy."8

Moses' recounting is in essence a reinforcing of memory – a retelling of the collective history so that the people of Israel will never again forget the presence of God in every part of that history. It is a warning to the people "not to forget the covenant of the Lord your God that he made with you" (Deut 4:23). He tells the people that they are special to God – "has any other people heard the voice of God speaking out of fire, as you have, and lived?" (Deut 4:33). They are to love God with all their strength and share and discuss the Law with their children lest they are forgotten or cease to remain a constant part of their lives. He asks that when the people finally receive this land, "a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant…be careful that you do not forget the Lord" (Deut 6:10-12). It is a direct plea to fight against transience, to show gratitude to God for all that He has done, and to not let the memory of it fade with time.

"When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God" (Deut 8:10-11). They must not grumble with God when they are needy and forget Him once those needs are satisfied. It is an odd situation. Moses realizes that this is a God who will satisfy all the needs of a people who only remember Him when they are in need. He has set Himself up to be forgotten. As time passes and God has given them all that they will ever need, transience will ensure that He fades in their memory as the one who gave it to them.

The sin of bias will then guide them to believe that these needs were attained through their own efforts. In other words, transience is what allows the sin of bias to exist – it is because we forget the past over time that we are able to look back and judge those events through the prism of the present.

Moses realizes how powerful the sin of bias is: "when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God" (Deut 8:12-14). "You may say to yourself, 'My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.' But remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms His covenant, which He swore to your forefathers, as it is today" (Deut 8: 17-18). Moses tells them clearly: you may take pride in what you are doing for yourself now, but you must remember that it is God who allowed it to happen. It may be your power and the strength of your hand but it was God who freed those hands from servitude so that your strength may be put to use.

Deuteronomy 8 is a call to remembrance; it serves as a warning against transience and the sin of bias. In Deuteronomy, Moses' "voice functions fairly indistinguishably from God's own – and then closes off the text by stipulating that nothing in the future is to be added or subtracted to it…hence Deuteronomy introduces into the Bible for the first time the concept of canon – a bounded, accepted body of authoritative literature."9 Thus, Moses' speech – with the call to remember as an integral part of it – receives a brand of authority.

The Hebrew Bible is not shy in demanding memory. According to Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, the Hebrew verb zakhor ("remember") appears in the Bible about one hundred and sixty-nine times, often with either Israel or God as the subject.10 It is mainly through the recollection of their history that the people of Israel know God and so it is not surprising that remembrance is seen as a religious responsibility. The call to remember is made with the knowledge that transience is a fact of life; that remembering God one hundred, one thousand or two thousand years after the pivotal event that bound their history together is effort enough to warrant a special relationship with the divine.

So what are the Israelites to remember? Must they remember every single event in their history – the causes, the dates, and the significance of every war? The command to remember is not to make historians out of the people of Israel. The events they must remember are those watershed moments where God reaches a hand to aid his people. "It is above all God's acts of intervention in history, and man's responses to them, be they positive or negative, which must be recalled."11

For Israel, the pivotal event that binds them together and binds them to God is the Exodus. As Amos Funkenstein indicates, the historical "consciousness" of a particular group is usually tied to common victory over a common threat and a "hero" of some sort who made this victory possible "Nations are meant to remember their heroes 'forever'; to perpetuate the memory of a person means to have it entrenched in the collective memory"12 – the hero of the Jews in none other than God.

Paul Connerton states, "the fact that we no longer believe in the great 'subjects' of history – the proletariat, the party, the West – means, not the disappearance of these great master-narratives, but rather their continuing effectiveness as ways of thinking about and acting in our contemporary situation: their persistence, in other words, as unconscious collective memories."13

Religious ritual takes on the same role – it was only in the beginning that people had to be taught to perform them and be reminded to remember. Today, they are for the most part ingrained in routine and are a form of "memory" that does not need remembering. Connerton argues that our knowledge of the past is "sustained by performances."14 Religious ritual and prayer, for example, are all external indicators of an internalized memory, which do not necessarily require complete attention to be performed effectively or sincerely. This internalized memory is what Moses seems to be advocating in Deuteronomy – because even if God is not spoken to with sincerity at times (due to the fact that it has become routine), at least He is spoken of. Moses seems to have sensed that making an act habitual is the perfect defence against the effects of transience. Most rituals and festivals are repetitive and "repetition automatically implies continuity with the past…[they are] the commemoration of myths which are attached to them and as recalling an event held to have taken place at some fixed historical date or in some mythical past."15

In the Hebrew Bible, expression of the central events in the history of the Jews is given through remembrance. "Nowhere is this theology of memory more pronounced than in Deuteronomy. For the Deuteronomist the test of showing that the new generation of Israel remains linked to the tradition of Moses, that present Israel has not been severed from its redemptive history, is to be met by a form of life in which to remember is to make the past actual, to form a solidarity with the fathers. This test is to be met in cultic demonstration; Israel observes festivals in order to remember."16

Passover, for instance, is purely historical, reminding pious Jews of the major event in their history – the day when God intervened in their lives and freed them from bondage. These festivals serve as weapons against transience in that they annually reinforce a memory, and weapons against the sin of bias in that God, not man, plays the prominent role in the story. The reading of the Torah can also serve a similar purpose. One of the techniques memory experts recommend to help remember past events in one's life is to keep a diary. A diary preserves not only an account of past events but also a record of the emotions felt during those events. Likewise, the Torah can be seen as the diary of the Jewish people, something passed down from generation to generation, to be read and reread in order to remember God and their special relationship to Him.

Amarnath Amarasingam is a graduate student in the Department of Religion and Culture at Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

Notes 1 Daniel L. Schacter. The Seven Sins of Memory. (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002): 13

2 Ibid. 31

3 Ibid. 138

4 Ibid. 139

5 Ibid. 149

6 Ibid. 151

7 Ibid. 153

8 Jonathan Kirsch. Moses: A Life. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1998): 329

9 Everett Fox. The Schocken Bible, Volume 1: The Five Books of Moses. (New York: Schocken Books, 1995): 842

10 Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi. Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1982): 5

11 Ibid. 11

12 Amos Funkenstein. Perceptions of Jewish History. (California: University of California Press, 1993): 4

13 Paul Connerton. How Societies Remember. (Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1989): 1

14 Ibid. 4

15 Ibid. 45

16 Ibid. 46


from the June 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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