by Amy Newman
What does it mean to remember?
In Parshat Vayeshev, Joseph offers a favorable interpretation of the butler’s dream, and then asks the butler to remember him and to mention him to Pharaoh. The butler forgets Joseph for two years, and only mentions Joseph when Pharaoh becomes agitated by his inexplicable dreams and urgently needs an interpreter.
We remember in two different ways: we recognize, and we recall. We can recognize a memory or experience when prompted, or we can recall information independently without a specific trigger. It is, understandably, more difficult to recall than to recognize; it is easier to sing along with a song on the radio than to provide the lyrics when requested.
When the butler finally told Pharaoh about Joseph, it was an act of recognition, not of recall. Pharaoh sent for all his wise men, desperately seeking an interpreter. It was only in response to his master’s plea that the butler finally realized that he in fact did know a man who could help Pharaoh. What Joseph really wanted was for the butler to recall him actively, right away, not two years later when Pharaoh’s need triggered the butler’s memory.
The act of remembering is central to our lives as Jews. We are commanded to remember- among other things- the battle against Amalek, our slavery in Egypt, and the Sabbath day. It is not sufficient to passively file these experiences into our memory banks; instead, we link these memories to concrete actions. For example, we actively remember Shabbat by reciting Kiddush.
The butler could have fulfilled his obligation to remember Joseph by linking it with the concrete action of telling Pharaoh. He shouldn’t have waited to be prompted; he should have volunteered the information. The butler was in a position to help Joseph out of a terrible predicament by mentioning him to Pharaoh. He passed up that opportunity, and only thought of Joseph when it became relevant to his service to his master.
In our lives, when we become aware of a human need, may we volunteer to meet it, without waiting for a trigger. Let us maintain active memories where the needs of those around us are priorities, not something that will elicit a response only when prompted. May we find the strength to do what the butler could not.