Simcha and the rabbi

On what remembering is for.

Benjamin Samuels

February 23, 2024

A response to The Harper Review’s winter 2024 proposition, “We should never forget the past.”

Dear editors,

Simcha, the drayman, has just suffered the loss of two horses to disease. In despair, Simcha wanders the streets until he sees a light in his rabbi’s window. He enters to find the rabbi praying solemnly for the forgiveness of the Jews while sitting on the floor. The rabbi explains to the peasant Simcha that he is praying, in accord with custom, for the Second Temple of the Jews, which was destroyed by the Romans nearly two thousand years ago.

But Simcha is distraught by the news. He cries aloud. He beats his head against the wall.

“Enough!” calls the rabbi, alarmed.

“How can you say ‘enough,’” Simcha implores the rabbi, “at a time when we Jews are beset with trials and tribulations? The Temple has been destroyed, and Simcha the drayman is left with nothing but his whip….”

Poor Simcha! He is, like most of his companions in Yiddish literature, burdened by thousands of years of history in which he had no part and indeed barely understands. So he handles the Rabbi’s story clumsily and in poor taste. In his panic, he whacks his head on the doorframe and bleeds on the carpet. Maybe it would be better if Simcha forgot it all.

And yet his horses would still be dead—and the discerning reader suspects that this makes all the difference. Tell Simcha to forget the temple, and he’ll only be confused. Will forgetting the temple bring his horses back to life? He can’t forget the temple, but for that matter, he doesn’t seem able to remember it, either. He doesn’t know where or what it is. Its destruction only jibes with what he already knows, which is that the world is against him.

Should we forget the past or remember it? Honestly, Simcha and I aren’t sure how to do either. Sometimes, we feel real low and alone. On those occasions the exile of the Jews from their homeland suggests itself as an image. And don’t call it arrogance. It’s a perfectly appropriate thought for a Jew in his situation. When does one have occasion to remember the Holocaust or 9/11 or the Alamo? Perhaps in synagogues, baggage claims, and Texas.

Maybe the Rabbi remembers the temple in a way that Simcha doesn’t. But I doubt it. Simcha seems wrecked by the news. And, anyway, neither one of them has ever been to Jerusalem.

So Simcha and I appreciate that the rabbi supplies an appropriate metaphor for Simcha’s distress. But the rabbi should appreciate the passion with which Simcha treats his story. Otherwise, what does he want to remember it for?

Vitally,

Benjamin Samuels

Benjamin Samuels is a second-year student at Deep Springs College.