On History and Memory: A Message for the 2020 Jerusalem Marathon Tour with Ryan and Sara Hall
One month from now, we will embark on a journey to explore together one of the most historically-rich regions of the entire world. However, we all know that the history of the Land of Israel cannot really be compared to the history of other parts of the world, for Israel---and only Israel—is the Land of the Bible. Nowhere else can we visit the battlefield where David fought Goliath, stand over the spring where King Solomon was anointed king, or walk in the footsteps of Jesus. Therefore, I thought it appropriate to share with you a short thought on the literal meaning of “history” in Israel.
The truth is, the Hebrew language has no word for “history.” Only “memory” (zikaron). How can we understand this linguistical nuance, and how is it relevant to us?
For one, “history” is often something distant. “Memory,” on the other hand, is always personal. No matter how hard I try, I will never be able to connect to an historical event the way I can connect to a memory. I can learn everything possible about King David, trek in his footsteps, and even visualize him besting Goliath while overlooking the Valley of Elah. And while I will certainly learn valuable lessons, there is nonetheless a certain experiential dimension that I will never be able to access simply because I have no real connection to an event that I cannot personally remember.
In Israel, however, we see the history of our people in this land as part of our collective memory. We see ourselves today as the next link in our national story that began nearly 4,000 years ago with Abraham’s journey to the Land of Canaan, and that will, with G-d’s help, continue long after we leave this world. Hence, the events of the past that we learn about become much more meaningful and relevant when you see yourself as personally invested in and part of the story. Furthermore, this feeling of connection is not just a game of semantics. To understand, we must understand the second aspect of the Hebrew word for “memory.”
“To Remember” in Hebrew is not a passive verb; it is an active one. In the book of Exodus, when G-d “remembers” the Children of Israel, he doesn’t just say, “Gosh, I forgot you were down there in Egypt in slavery. Let me now sit here and think about you. Don’t worry, my thoughts are with you.” Quite the contrary. When the Bible uses the word “remember,” it is a signal that tells the reader that an extraordinary action is about to happen. Indeed, this is exactly the case in the book of Exodus. G-d “remembers” the children of Israel, and the next thing he does is brings the plagues upon the Egyptians and leads the Israelites out of slavery. When G-d “remembers” Sarah in Genesis, she then conceives at the age of 90 and gives birth to Isaac. Think of it this way: when G-d “remembers,” it is as if a stargate to another world opens up, and the spiritual energy associated with that particular “memory” comes into the physical world.
What is truly amazing is that we humans are imbued with that same power. When we “remember,” we, too, open up a portal to the past that allows us to tap into a spiritual energy.
As runners, we have a unique ability to understand this mechanism of memory. We call it the mental part of running. In Ryan Hall’s book, Run the Mile You’re In, he writes about his experience running in the Beijing Olympics in 2008. The heat was brutal and he had lost sight of the lead pack. He was struggling. So he prayed to G-d. From then on, one thought, one mission filled his mind: encourage others. And that was exactly what he did. From that moment on, he found a new energy, and while he never did catch the lead pack, Ryan finished the race strong. Ryan quotes the verse from Proverbs 11:25 that says, “The soul that blesses will prosper; he who sates others will himself be sated.” Indeed, that was the spiritual energy into which Ryan was able to tap. Ryan says G-d was answering him. But in reality, this is only half the story. Ryan also was “remembering” G-d. In other words, he took action. He did not just repeat the words “encourage others” to himself; he actually encouraged others. Every runner he saw or passed, he gave to them words of encouragement. It was his actions, not just his thoughts, that gave him access to that hidden strength.
When you touch down in the Holy Land and traverse it from north to south, east to west, I challenge you to make it personal. When we read from the Bible or speak of history, see those events as part of your own “memory,” your own personal story. And try to see yourself and your journey through the Holy Land as a continuation of that story.
If you can do that, then even long after you return home, the memory of this experience will give new meaning to old Biblical verses, help you to understand the word of G-d in ways you never thought possible, and allow you to tap into a spiritual energy that will never fail to
bring a smile to your face.
Safe travels, and I can’t wait to meet you in Jerusalem.