In Moshe’s valedictory poem to the Jewish people, he teaches Jews in every generation
the value of memory. “Remember the days of old; understand the years of each
generation.” Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, the great rosh yeshivah of the Volozyn
Yeshiva in the second half of the nineteenth century, asks the following question on
this famous passuk. According to the rules of Biblical parallelism, the words zechor–
-remember— and binu—understand—are both expressing the same idea and the Torah
merely utilizes two different terms for the same concept. However, asks the Netziv, why
is the word zechor written in the singular while the word binu is written in the plural
The Netziv explains that when the Torah speaks to the Jewish people as a collective
whole, it utilizes the singular form. However, when the Torah addresses individuals,
it uses the plural form. Zechor—to remember—is an instruction to the entire nation.
They all lived through the experience of the wanderings in the desert and they knew the
triumphs and hardships of their ancestors. The word binu—to understand—is addressed
to each individual because each person understands that which they remember in a
slightly different fashion. Moshe is instructing the Jewish people that they must always
remember as a collective group but must be willing to understand and interpret the events
that they remember according to their own ability and their own life experience.
As we approach Rosh Hashana, I want to thank all of you for participating in my new
website. I appreciate all the good wishes and gain a special sense of satisfaction knowing
that people from all around the world have read my weekly dvar Torah or listened to
my lectures. As a young student, I was struck by the many different ways that the same
event in Jewish History has been understood and analyzed. The late Prof. Yosef Hayim
Yerushalmi taught us that Jews don’t study Jewish history, they experience Jewish
memory and this experience of Jewish memory is encapsulated in the words zechor and
binu and the difference between them.
One of the special additions to the mussaf service on Rosh Hashana is called zikhronot-
–memories. Although we emphasize God’s memory in the verses that are chosen for
this blessing, our ability to remember, to understand and to grow from that understanding
is the foundation our experience of improving ourselves and our community during this
season of the year.
As I wish you a ketivah va-hayimah tovah, a happy, healthy and successful New Year, I
want to encourage you to sign up to receive a weekly lecture or essay via my website.
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