TIME AND MEMORY – ANZAC DAY
Time. We hold it in our hands; it's ours to use, to create, to build, to connect. Time, it's about now; this present moment is fragile, fleeting and slippery as a newborn baby. Time, it's about yesterday; about memory and history, reflection and recollection. Time, it's about tomorrow, about the future and hope.
Jewish time is heavy with memory. We are saturated in history...our memories are longer than almost any other people. Historical consciousness defines the Jewish experience. The scholar Yosef Yerushalmi noted that the keyword of the Tanach (Bible) is not history but memory or Zikaron Zachor, the command to remember occurs over and over in the Torah.
What is the purpose of memory? Is it to commemorate the past? To enshrine what has been? Surely memory can be a prison; it can chain us to the traumas and terrors of yesterday and yesteryear. Why do we recall the terrible wars, why do we mark Anzac Day and stir up agonising recollections and tortuous questions?
The reason we remember on Anzac Day, as on Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron, is for the sake of the future and not the preservation of the past. It is to ensure that in the present we are now creating; we will not repeat the mistakes of the past. It is to affirm that we are a people of life and not death; we are here to give the world the dreams and aspirations, the actions and goodness that all those millions were prevented from. It is to say: We are here to finish the work you were not allowed to complete.
As Jews we are so familiar with the act of remembering, using it as a tool to build identity and as a way of connecting the past and the future. We observe Pesach every year, not only as a glorious celebration of a freedom past, but as a contemporary commitment to ensuring liberty. As T.S. Eliot expressed it, we care not so much about the pastness of the past as we do about the presence of the past.
The bitter taste of slavery enhanced our appetite for social justice and our protection of the vulnerable. The Torah repeatedly advises us to "Remember you were once slaves in Egypt" and therefore to treat the widow, orphan and stranger with special care and consideration.
Anzac ceremonies speak directly to all Australians about the power of memory and to young Australians in particular, about values and the search for identity and meaning. They bind time past to time present. They evoke a vision for the future.
In a 1999 Anzac Day address, Rabbi Raymond Apple, then senior ADF Rabbi, presciently noted that this day was a preamble to the making of modern Australia, that it was about "reliving the legend and re-dreaming the dream." This is the dream of a nation bonded to its land, its original inhabitants and to one another in mateship, easy-going tolerance, a respect for freedom and diversity, a spirit of courage and determination and an irreverent sense of larrikinism. These are the qualities that make the Australian nation feel good about itself.
If Australia is the dream land, the Jewish people are the dream people. We have always “been as dreamers" (Psalm 126), intoxicated by a vision of healing a broken world and gentling a savage planet. In this country of aged dreams, our ancient visions join together as we strive to create a society, based on respect, inclusion, and caring. Ideals that you can’t take for granted in the current climate of extremism, polarisation and gross intolerance.
Our Jewish ADF chaplains transmit the message of our people to all the people of the ADF- the message of memory that we have refined over centuries of global forgetfulness. Our commitment to those who preceded us. The purpose of memory is not the preservation of the past but the promotion of the future. We cannot bring the dead back to life but we can allow their memory to enhance our lives. We can let reflection and remembrance help us to not repeat the mistakes of the past, to strengthen our commitment to reversing the dictum that all we have learnt from history is that we have not learnt from history.
In his great war classic, All Quiet On The Western Front, Erich Remarque, muses about the futility of war: “How pointless all human thoughts, words and deeds must be if things like this are possible...if thousands of years of civilisation weren’t even able to prevent this river of blood …I see the best brains of the world inventing weapons and words to make the whole process that much more sophisticated and long-lasting”. This was written well before the horrors of WW2 and the atrocities of our century. Our commitment to memory is to strengthen our minds and our hearts to end the blight of war, elusive and illusionary as it may seem. We Jews and Australians are after all the dream people. We continue to dream, aspire to hope and strive to enact the vision.
Anzac Day is not about the glorification of war but the redemption of peace, not about creating better weapons but better words and worlds, not about swords and super-killer drones but ploughshares and super-peaceful apps. We hold time in our hands, we cradle Shalom in our arms, we carry hope in our hearts, we realise the possibility and potential in our actions…