Remembering as a Prelude to Reliving

Rabbi Nachman Cohen explains the relationship between the daily mitzvah of remembering the Exodus and the mitzvah of Passover eve

There are two distinct mitzvot regarding the Egyptian Exodus.  The first is zecher yetziyat Mitzrayim [remembrance of leaving Egypt].  This mitzvah requires that each and every day and night, we verbally recall the Egyptian Exodus.  The second is sippur yetziyat Mitzrayim [recounting the leaving of Egypt].  This mitzvah requires that on the eve of the fifteenth of Nisan, one details for his family, in an eyewitness-type account, all of the sufferings which Israel experienced in Egypt and the miraculous manner through which God redeemed us.

The Haggadah mentions Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah’s contention that the mitzvah of remembering the Exodus should be fulfilled during the evening as well as during the day.  Considering the fact that the mitzvah of remembrance, zecher yetziyat Mitzrayim, relates to the rest of the year, why does the Haggadah bother to include this discussion during the Seder, when we are fulfilling the mitzvah of recounting, sippur yetziyat Mitzrayim?

This question requires us to understand the nature and function of the mitzvah of zecher yetziyat Mitzrayim.  Perhaps this is best understood when studied against the backdrop of other mitzvot which mandate remembrance.

Forgetting and Denial

The Torah requires that every Jew remember six events.   These are:  Shabbat, Miriam’s talebearing, Revelation, Amalek, God’s wrath towards Israel in the Sinai Desert and the Egyptian Exodus.  With regard to Revelation and Amalek, not only does the Torah command that we recollect, but it also admonishes us not to forget.  This is puzzling.  Aren’t the two synonymous? If we remember, we will not forget.  A clue to the solution of this riddle can be gleaned from the Biblical narrative of Joseph.

After Joseph interpreted the dream of the wine butler, he requested that the Egyptian tell the authorities of his unjust imprisonment.  The Torah then states, “And the wine-butler did not remember Joseph and he forgot him.”  What is the significance of this second term, “and he forgot him”?

The import of this term comes from the very next paragraph.  When Pharaoh becomes enraged at his servants, the butler suddenly shouts out, “I now recall my sin [against Pharaoh].”  The Torah hereby reveals that during the two years since his pardon, the butler had completely blanked out any memory of his transgression and its aftermath.  So painful was this event that the butler buried it deep within his subconscious and there it remained until Pharaoh’s present display of anger jogged his memory.

From this story we learn that forgetfulness is tied to denial.  But this is only one element.  A study of korbanot [sacrifices] will reveal a second constituent which is crucial for our understanding.

Forgetting Is Sinful

When someone commits a karet [excision]-level sin inadvertently, he must bring a sacrifice.  Why?  He did not commit the crime willfully.  In fact, at the time he transgressed, he was not aware that his act was sinful!

This teaches us a great deal about Judaism’s approach to forgetfulness.  Namely, Judaism believes that Adam was created with a mind which could instantaneously access every bit of information that was stored in it.  However, because Adam’s shame and anguish would have been too great a burden to bear — God blessed mankind with the ability to block out very painful memories — in short, with the ability to forget.  (Similarly, Chazal point out that God blesses a grieving family that after twelve months the memory of their loved one and the pain of his passing will begin to fade from their minds.)

At Mount Sinai, Israel had rectified Adam’s sin so that forgetfulness was unnecessary.  Consequently, had Israel not sinned with the Golden Calf, and had it received only the first set of Commandments, they would never have forgotten any of the Written and Oral Torah.

Yet, if forgetfulness is presently the state of the human mind, how could the Torah obligate a sacrifice under these circumstances?  The answer is to be found in the laws of Torah study.

Review, Review, Review

The Torah admonishes us that we not forget its laws.  In his Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Ladi sets out a method of continuous review of one’s studies which precludes his forgetting what he learned.  The upshot of this is that although we live in an era in which forgetfulness is inevitable because of mankind’s sins, it is possible for us to keep beneficial memories alive through constant repetition.

This explains why one is required to bring a sacrifice for an inadvertent act.  It is because forgetfulness can be overcome.  Hence, if we forget, we are to blame.

Remember and Do Not Forget

It follows that there are two components in a person’s inability to remember an event:

  1. Forgetfulness which is a consequence of Adam and Israel’s sins.
  2. Forgetfulness due to denial and rejection. (The second is noted in halachah by Rabi Meir. He explains that one is not culpable when he simply forgets his Torah knowledge. The Torah only censures one whose forgetting is a consequence of denial and rejection.)  The first type of forgetting is what the Torah has in mind when it speaks of “zachor [remember].”  “Lo tishkach” [do not forget] is meant to overcome the second.

We can use Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s thought to explain the basis for the Six Zechirot [required remembrances].  Through its commands, the Torah points out to us that by constantly bringing these important events to the fore, we will overcome the human condition and not forget them.  But this speaks only to the “zachor” and not to the “lo tishkach.”  It is to this that we must now turn our attention.

Lo tishkach” comes about when one ousts a memory (consciously or subconsciously) because it is too painful.  Thus, when the Torah states “lo tishkach,” it is alerting us to the fact that this is a memory that human beings wish to obliterate.  Yet, why should we have a desire to forget Revelation (which includes in the first commandment reference to the Egyptian Exodus) and the Battle of Amalek?  Why would we wish to deny these events?

This leads us to the following fundamental question:  What exactly is the mitzvah of zecher yetziyat Mitzrayim [remembering the Exodus]?  Rabbi Chaim of Brisk writes that it is an extension of kabbalat ohl Malchut Shamayim [“accepting the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven”].  This means that there is no mitzvah in simply remembering the historical events of the Exodus.  Rather, the mitzvah is to remember,  “Ani Hashem Elokeichem asher hotzaiti etchem” — that it is Almighty God who took us out of Egypt.  If we think about it, this thought is painful for us for the following paradox.

Each of us has been instilled with the Godly attribute of independence and creativity.  This is meant to allow us to fulfill the mitzvah of “vehalachta b’drachav” [emulating God].  Yet, at the same time, we are required to completely negate our independence of thought and action and subjugate ourselves completely to Him.  In an effort to retain independence, every individual resists the need for subjugation  and attempts to avoid directly confronting the Prime Directive of “Ani Hashem, I am the Lord your God.”  Thus, in order to help a person to overcome his proclivity for independence, the Torah commands us “lo tishkach.”

Zachor is a Prerequisite to Recounting

Above we noted that the mitzvah of sippur yetziyat Mitzrayim [recounting the Exodus] requires that we relive the story.  Is this possible?

In the 1960s, Dr. William Penfield carried out experiments which essentially showed that the brain retains all information given to it.  During brain surgery, when he activated certain sections of the brain, patients did not simply remember past events, s/he actually relived them.  This showed that the problem of recall is simply one of access.  If, as explained above, memory loss is due to denial and rejection, remembrance can come through consciously fighting against this rejection.

This explains our original question — why the daily mitzvah of recalling the Exodus is mentioned in the Haggadah.  Each member of the nation of Israel carries the spiritual DNA of collective Israel, which includes the major events and experiences of Klal Israel.  Due to the Amalekite influence, access to these memories is blocked.  Daily remembrance of the Exodus removes all barriers — spiritual chametz — and allows access to the latent plethora of memories surrounding the Egyptian experience.  Thus, by having tenaciously fulfilled this mitzvah throughout the year, our efforts culminate in the rewarding experience of being able to actually “relive (and not just relate) the story of the Egyptian Exodus” at our Seder table.

Rabbi Dr. Nachman Cohen is spiritual leader of the Young Israel of North Riverdale/Yonkers and the author of the “Master a Mesechta” series.  He currently is completing a book presenting a new approach to the understanding of midrashic debates.

This article was featured in the Spring 1996 issue of Jewish Action.
We'd like to hear what you think about this article. Post a comment or email us at