“Then all of you came to me and said, “Let us send agents ahead to reconnoiter the land for us and bring back word on the route we shall follow and the cities we shall come to.”  (Deuteronomy 1:27)

            In 1982 historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi published his book Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory.  In the book he differentiates between history and memory.  History is what really happened, trying to produce a God’s eye view of events.  Often it is extremely difficult to accurately recreate events.  But to Jews, and to most human beings, history is secondary to memory.  How do we relate to those events in our minds? 

            An excellent example appears in this week’s portion.  Twice the Torah tells the story of the twelve spies who were sent to scout the Holy Land.  In Numbers God commands the people to send spies.  In our portion in Deuteronomy, the people send spies of their own initiative.  Which is the historical truth?   The literal history is secondary, and many would say unimportant.  What is important is the collective memory of the event.  Ten of the spies bring an evil report.  The people start weeping and long to turn back to Egypt.  God tells the people that if they want to weep, God will give them a reason to weep.  The day became Tisha B’Av (the nineth of Av), the saddest day on the Jewish calendar.

            This week’s portion is always read on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av. This year the fast day begins this Wednesday night and lasts until sundown Thursday.  It commemorates multiple tragic events including the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem.  Later tragedies such as the Spanish expulsion of Jews and the start of World War I occurred on Tisha B’Av.  It is a day seared into the Jewish memory. 

            Suppose tomorrow some brilliant historian were to uncover evidence that the Temples were not destroyed on this day.   The point of Yerushalmi’s book is that such a discovery would not change anything.  We Jews do not commemorate history but memory.  History is always secondary to memory.   What really happened in my home as I was growing up is less important than how I remember those events.   Our memories make us who we are.

            This is true not only for individuals but for nations.  As an American I grew up with memories of the American revolution and stories about George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton (although I probably learned more about Hamilton from a Broadway show.)  I imagine what it would be like to grow up in England.  If the American revolution is taught at all, it would be from a very different perspective.   Today there is a move among some progressives to replace the fourth of July with the 1619 Project, tying the American memory to the history of slavery rather than the American revolution.  1619 was when the first group of African slaves was brought to this country.  It is an important historical fact, but it is not my memory.  I will continue to celebrate the American Independence Day.

            As part of a family, part of a nation, and part of a people, history is important, but memory is more important.  There is a story, probably apocryphal, of Napoleon coming across a Jewish congregation sitting on the floor weeping on Tisha B’Av.  Napoleon asked why they were weeping, and someone told him they were mourning the loss of their Temple.  Napoleon replied, that is awful.  When did it happen?  Someone told him, about 1800 years ago.  Napoleon watched in amazement for a few moments, then said, “Any people who still weeps for their Temple after 1800 years will one day be worthy of having it built again.”             Personally, I am not looking for the Temple to be rebuilt in Jerusalem, at least until the Messiah comes.  But I do know that memory of the past is part of being Jewish.  That is the reason I will be fasting on Tisha B’Av.