There's what happened ... and then there's what we remember. And the latter is so much more important to how we see ourselves and the world. Memory--fallible as it is--is the basis of religion and identity - that's why the Exodus from Egypt is understood as a collective memory, one we can all share together (regardless of how or whether it "happened").
Memory is a funny thing. It’s the basis of our personality, our self-image, our understanding of the world we live in. We rely on our memory every single day.
But ironically, memory inherently is unreliable. How many times have we been sure we remembered something a particular way but found out later that it didn’t happen that way at all? Or how often have we forgotten something entirely only to recall later that it was extremely important and—you’d think—easy to remember?
One of my most embarrassing teaching moments was just like this. I had a new Hebrew student, and her mom was sitting in our lesson. “Let’s start with the basics,” I said. “Let’s sing the Shema together.” “Okay,” she said, waiting for me to begin. But nothing came. Not a word, not a note. I had entirely forgotten the Shema. I was mortified, of course, and I was sure my student’s mom thought I was a charlatan. And funnily enough, I’m sure I’ll always remember this moment of supreme forgetfulness!
In a sense, we’re sort of stuck. Memory time and again betrays us, but we absolutely depend on it. And despite the difficulties, Torah demands that we remember. “Remember Shabbat to sanctify it” (Ex. 20:7). “Remember what Amalek did to you on your way out of Egypt” (Deut. 25:17). “Remember this day on which you went out from Egypt, from the house of slavery” (Ex. 12:3). The expectation recorded in Torah is clear: There are some things you simply have to remember.
However, the Torah also knows that human beings have a hard time with memory. Our minds don’t piece together all the facts in a straight line, and we never retain the full picture. We write stories about the past based on our best recollection of what went on, and as time goes by, the significance of those stories change. And as those stories change, so do we.
This, I believe, is a vital clue to a puzzling detail in this week’s parashah. As B’shallach begins, the People of Israel have escaped from Egypt. Having survived the Ten Plagues, they cross the Sea of Reeds and sing the Song of the Sea in praise of God: מִי כָמֹכָה בָּאֵלִם, “Who is like you, O God, among all the other gods? Who is like you, glorious in holiness, awesome in splendor, doing wonders?” (Ex. 15:11).
And then, they immediately start complaining! As Moses leads them through the wilderness, they cry, “If only we had died by the hand of the Eternal in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve the whole congregation to death” (Ex. 16:3-4). In other words, as professor Robert Alter suggests, the Israelites argue that if the Eternal “is about to kill them in the wilderness, [God] might as well have done the job back in Egypt, where at least they would have died on a full stomach.”
But let’s take a closer look at their words. The Israelites compare their time in the wilderness with their experience of being slaves in Egypt. In the wilderness, they have no food, while in Egypt, they “sat by the fleshpots [and] ate [their] fill of bread.” But was being a slave in Egypt really so wonderful? One midrash paints not nearly so rosy a picture:
In Egypt, the Israelites were enslaved for eighty years, during which an Egyptian would go into the wilderness, catch a ram or deer, slaughter it, put it in a pot, cook it, and eat it—all while the Israelites would watch but not even have a taste. For it says, “we sat by the fleshpots [and] ate our fill of bread.” We sat by—not we ate from—the fleshpots. Thus, the Israelites ate bread but never meat.
So, the Israelites clearly remember that there were fleshpots in Egypt – they even accurately recall sitting beside them. But, when they complain about Moses leading them through the wilderness, they seem to forget that they never tasted even a morsel of meat from those Egyptian fleshpots. Their memory is faulty. And on account of that faulty memory, they generate real anger: They believe that life was better in Egypt, and as a result, they complain against Moses and God.
What does God do? Does God remind them that life actually wasn’t so great in Egypt and tell them to stop complaining? No. They remember having bread and meat, so God sends them bread and meat. Manna falls from heaven and quail appear overnight, sating the Israelites’ appetite and proving that God will provide for them in ways their Egyptian slave-masters never did.
Our memories are real, and they generate stories on which we base our lives. This is just as true whether or not our memories are accurate. As God shows in this episode from our parashah, whether something actually happened is less important to God than how we remember it. For better or for worse, memories are stronger than facts, and the stories that come from our memories make us who we are.
How, then, do we “Remember [going] out from Egypt, from the house of slavery” and all the other things that Torah tells us we’re supposed to remember? By celebrating holidays. By engaging in rituals and religious practices. By telling and retelling stories.
Yes, sometimes our memory will fail us. We’ll be frustrated that we can’t recall an important fact or event, and it may even cost us a grade, a job, a relationship. And sometimes, our memory will save us. It will bring meaning into the dark corners of our lives. It will connect us to others who we by all rights have no reason to know. It will help us understand who we are and how we can become who we want to be.
So on this Shabbat Shirah, on which we sing again the song of freedom and dance like our ancestors on the shores of the sea, let us give honor to our memory. Let us see ourselves through God’s eyes, as people formed out the stories we write and endowed with the power to be a contributing author of the world we live in.
 The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (2004), p. 405.
 Ex. Rabbah 16:4. See below:
שמות רבה (וילנא) פרשה טז
במצרים היו משועבדים ישראל פ' שנה והיה המצרי הולך במדבר ותופס איל או צבי ושוחטו ושופת את הסיר ומבשל ואוכל וישראל רואין ולא טועמין, שנאמר בְּשִׁבְתֵּנוּ עַל סִיר הַבָּשָׂר בְּאָכְלֵנוּ לֶחֶם לָשֹׂבַע (שמות טז ג), לא כתיב באכלנו מסיר הבשר אלא בשבתנו שהיו אוכלין לחמם בלא בשר.
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”