In his book In the Memory House, Howard Mansfield makes the following observation: “Everything is up for grabs; everything living or dead is a possession-in-waiting. In the Southwest, old Indian sites, undisturbed for centuries are raided. In the deserts, rare catuses [sic] are uprooted. In national parks, trees are stolen. In New England, there is a trade in tombstones from old burial grounds. And so many old weather vanes have been stolen from barns that, says one antique dealer, ‘It’s at a point where anytime I see one, I go up and tell the owners to take it down’…Tradition, cultural memory, has become a trinket, a living room ornament. We have overrun ourselves with ourselves.”
Mansfield goes on to write: “Poster in the Office of Century 21 Real Estate: the earth seen from space, the blue marble. And under the photo: ‘Earth. Represented by Century 21.’ I wanted to leave this quote from Simone Weil on the real estate office door: ‘From where will a renewal come to us, to us who have devastated the whole earthly globe? Only from the past if we love it.’”
The Torah already notes what Mansfield observed. Moses admonishes the people Israel to “Remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past” (Deuteronomy 32:7). There are two benefits to a good memory. First, a good memory does not allow us to commodify our heritage like so many antiques, curios, or relics. Judaism will never be endangered so long as Jews remember that Judaism is much more than an artistic mezuzah on the doorposts or an antique Hanukkah menorah on the mantle. Judaism entails a way of thinking that urges each Jew to perfect the world under the kingship of God. Second, a good memory makes us realize that yesterday’s answers may very well be the solutions to tomorrow’s problems. There is a wellspring of wisdom in tradition and a treasury of insights from the past that ought to be employed to save us from ourselves.
In a real sense, Judaism is a “memory house.” And as we move from room to room we see fresh reminders of how full and beautiful a house it is.