Pesach and Genetic Memory
By Rabbi Ben-Tzion Spitz
As a child, I would sometimes have nightmares. The nightmares were filled with emaciated, starving people, crowded into dark wooden barracks. And they were filled with fear. Fear of an unknown, unspoken, imminent, gruesome death. There was no hope. It was no longer a question of “if”; it was only a question of “when”.
My grandmother survived the extermination camp of Auschwitz. My grandfather survived both the German and then the Russian labor camps. They never spoke of their experiences. My father also never spoke of what little he knows of their Holocaust travails. Yet somehow, without a spoken transmission, I have always had a strong visceral aversion to all things relating to that dark period of our history.
I might have been influenced by a Jewish education that remembered and commemorated the Holocaust in somber annual ceremonies and educational activities. It might have been the few pictures and accounts we saw and heard from others. It might just be a heightened sensitivity to such a horrid past or just a hyperactive imagination. But for whatever reason, I have a strong irrational loathing of Holocaust matters.
Where do these feelings come from? Have I unconsciously inherited some of the trauma of my grandparents? Or can memories be passed on genetically? There are some scientists that now believe it is possible.
In December of 2013, Brian Dias and Kerry Ressler of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences of Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, published a tantalizing discovery in the scientific journal, Nature Neuroscience, (link to scientific article and link to the less technical version).
They describe experiments where a mouse is exposed to a smell while simultaneously receiving an electric shock to its body. The mouse learns to fear that smell. What is surprising is that both the child and the grandchild of the mouse also exhibit fear of the smell, despite no previous encounter with the smell. This seems to prove some type of inherited memory, or at the very least sensitivity to an ancestor’s experience.
If in fact, humans also have the capacity to inherit memories from their ancestors, or at least some sensitivities, it may help us better understand some of the rituals in Judaism.
In Jewish custom and tradition, there is perhaps no ritual that aims to transmit some experiential memory as strongly as the Pesach Seder.
Pesach celebrates and commemorates the exodus of our newborn nation from the enslavement of the Egyptian empire more than 3,300 years ago. It was a momentous, transformative event in the history of the world, when one people was separated and removed from the midst of another, with accompanying miracles, plagues, terror, and destruction, including the divine annihilation of the Egyptian military, the strongest fighting force in the world at the time.
To remember our exit from the bondage of Egypt and the formation of our people, the Torah itself, in its recounting of the event, mandates a variety of actions that are meant to be repeated for generations and are critical components of membership in the nation of Israel. This is so much so, that one who does not fulfill some of the specific commandments of Pesach is considered as if they are “cut off” from the people of Israel.
The most famous commandment is the eating of the Matzah, the unleavened bread. We also have the eating of the Maror, the bitter herbs, the drinking of four cups of wine (or grape juice); the abstention from and removal of Hametz (leavened products) from our diet and our possession; the recounting and elaboration of the Exodus event at the family table. There is the explicit demand of the Hagada (the text we use at the Pesach Seder) to feel as if we ourselves escaped Egypt.
Can you imagine the taskmaster’s whip brutally lashing into your scarred back, reopening barely healed wounds, forcing you to inhuman feats of strength, though part of you is ready to die? Can you imagine the relief and the wonder when plagues start to hit your Egyptian oppressors, giving you, finally, the much prayed for break from the arduous enslavement? Can you imagine the sight of all your brothers and sisters, all your cousins and uncles, your entire tribe, the entire people of Israel getting ready to leave the cursed land of Egypt? Can you imagine the fear, the awe, the amazement, as you, together with your fellow escapees of the people of Israel have your back against the sea, with the entire Egyptian army bearing down on you, only to have the sea miraculously split, for you to walk on dry land within the sea and then to see the Egyptian army drowning at your feet? Can you imagine all of this? Can you talk about it? Can you convey this to your children? That is what the Pesach Seder is about.
If we say that on the Seder night we are reliving the events of the Exodus, then it hints at the possibility that we may, in some fashion, have lived through those events. What if memories somehow can be transmitted biologically? What if there is some momentous memory that our ancestors have passed down to us that is nestled deep within our subconscious? There would at the very least be some comfort, some familiarity, perhaps even a sense of déjà vu at certain reenactments. The Seder would serve to reinforce those memories. Those memories would continue to breed true in future generations.
At the Seder, our senses are exposed to a variety of memory triggers. We have the unusual but memory-stirring food, the strange but familiar aromas, the ancient time-worn liturgy, the ancestral songs, the Biblical rituals and all in the presence of family. If there is any holiday that demands the presence of generations together, of parents, children, grandchildren, it is the Seder.
There is something unique in the power of the Seder. It is perhaps our strongest anchor to our memories and connection to our past. It is the perhaps our strongest anchor for the demands, tasks and challenges of the future. Let us prepare ourselves well for our role as physical, spiritual and educational conduits of this great chain of our history.
Chag Kasher Ve’sameach!