Living a Life That Matters Through Selective Memory
Rabbi Edward C. Bernstein
Rosh HaShanah, Day 1, September 5, 2013
In the weeks leading up to Rosh HaShanah, I’ve been driving around town with my grandfather. This might not seem out of the ordinary, except that my grandfather has been dead for 23 years. Still, he’s been with me in the car. Let me explain.
For years I’ve kept in storage dozens of cassette tapes. Does anyone remember those? My collection includes lectures of great rabbis, great cantors singing high holiday music and lectures from college and Rabbinical School. A few weeks ago, I came across several cassette tapes that are very special to me. In 1987, as part of a high school history project, I took an oral history of my grandfather, Sam Lesner, of blessed memory. He had a distinguished career as the film and entertainment critic for the former Chicago Daily News, and he personally knew many of the great actors and entertainers of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. To research my project, I went to his office with a tape recorder and asked him questions about his life. The result was three one-hour-long cassette tapes, with each hour devoted to a different aspect of his life. The first hour was about his early years and family roots. The second was about his Army service in World War II. The third hour is the story of his career in journalism. I’ve had these tapes with me all these years. I’ve wanted to do something with them, but never got around to it. As technology advanced, the cassette tape become obsolete. I don’t even own a tape player anymore. Due to a confluence of circumstances, I was drawn to those tapes this summer and was able to digitize them. I can now listen to my grandfather’s voice from the past as I drive around Palm Beach County. It is as if out of a heap of forgotten magnetic tape, my grandfather has come back to life. When I listen to him in the car, I picture him sitting next to me.
Around the time I rediscovered my grandfather’s tapes, I read a remarkable new novel that explores the power and limits of memory. Dara Horn, a brilliant young Jewish American novelist who writes meticulously researched historical novels has just published “A Guide for the Perplexed.” The great medieval rabbi Maimonides wrote a philosophical treatise by that name, and it plays an important role in the plot. The novel weaves together a contemporary fictional story with two historical episodes in Jewish history: the multi-faceted work of Maimonides in 12th century Egypt, and the discovery of the Cairo Geniza by Solomon Schechter in 1896 in which he found documents written by Maimonides with his own signature.
The main character, Josephine, or Josie, Ashkenazi, is a contemporary software designer and tycoon. She creates a program called Geniza that is designed to remember every detail of your life and organize it so that it can be easily retrieved when needed. Your child forgets where she put her shoes? The system of digital cameras installed in one’s house interacts with the software so that all you have to do is type in “shoes” in your tablet, and you are shown a picture of where the shoes are. Without spoiling anything, here’s the essence of the plot: Josie gets caught up in an adventure in which while visiting Egypt on business and is kidnapped amidst the post-revolutionary chaos there. In this adventure, Josie’s talent for preserving memories becomes her only means of escape. Another layer of the story is the intense sibling rivalry between Josie and her older sister Judith. The novel is a midrash on the Joseph story in the Bible with Josie and Judith filling the roles of Joseph and Judah in the Bible. In her novel Horn explores the question of whether two sibling obsessed with memory can put those memories in check in order to achieve forgiveness.
The author juxtaposes the Geniza found by Schechter and the electronic Geniza created by Josie to explore a vital question: what happens in a world where nothing is ever forgotten? How valuable would it be to have at your fingertips a detailed record of everything you ever said and anything anyone ever said to you? What would become of our personal memories? Is forgiveness possible when forgetting is impossible?
My grandfather’s tapes are part of my own personal Geniza. I’ve saved so much over the years in various outdated media formats–cassette tapes, slides, VHS video tapes. Hearing the voice of my late grandfather again has been a special blessing, and it has rekindled in me the warm, loving relationship that we had. What if, however, I came across tapes documenting every moment of my childhood? Would I want to relive every moment? I almost certainly wouldn’t waste my time recalling mundane tasks of daily life such as every time I took out the garbage or bought groceries for my mother. When we think about it, it’s clear that we have selective memory. We choose to remember some things and not others. If we were to remember everything, we would be paralyzed. Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a book called “Living a Live That Matters.” Part of living a life that matters is learning how to sharpen use of our memory tools.
Memory is a key theme of Rosh HaShanah. The Torah refers to this day as Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Rememberance, a name that is repeated many times in our liturgy. Whose memory are we talking about? On the surface, it seems that it’s God’s. It’s as if we seek to jog God’s memory. In our appeal to God for our own benefit, our ace-in-the-hole is zechut avot, the merits of our ancestors. In our Torah and Haftarah selections on this holiday, we read of God remembering Abraham, Isaac, Sarah, Hannah and Rachel in their time of need, and we pray that our association with them will bode well for us.
The Musaf Amidah has three supplements, Malchuyot, which praises the majestic God; Zichronot, which praises God who remembers us; and Shofarot, which praises God who was revealed amid the sounds of the shofar. Each unit contains an introduction, ten Biblical verses and a concluding prayer.
The Zichronot section quotes verses that deal entirely with God remembering. The summary statement of Zichronot leading up to the closing blessing contains a phrase that is repeated in the prayer Un’tane Tokef: zokher kol hanishkahot: God remembers everything that is forgotten. In other words, God is the ultimate Geniza, the memory bank of everything in human history.
If God indeed remembers everything, we’ve got a problem. Why do we need to jog God’s memory on Rosh HaShanah? Why do we need Yom HaZikaron? Isn’t God omniscient and omnipotent—all-knowing and all-powerful?
According to some parts of the Hebrew Bible, the answer is no. God’s memory goes astray. God doesn’t always remember accurately.
Consider this verse from Jeremiah 2 (v2):
”Thus said the Lord: Zacharti lach–I remember you, the devotion of your youth, your love like a bride, when you went after me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown.”
This is God’s memory of what happened in the wilderness when the Israelites wandered for 40 years. Interestingly, this charitable memory is missing many aspects of those years. What about the Golden Calf? What about Korah’s rebellion? What about the constant complaints? What about the sin of the spies? These were dark episodes during that time.
The narrative of the Torah itself tells a more complex story. The Book of Numbers is about God’s consistent frustration with the Israelites in the desert. It’s hardly a story of devotion on the part of the people to God. Certainly God did not forget the people’s rebelliousness. It seems, rather, that God has selective memory.
When our ancestors spoke of God’s memory, they were more in tune with their own memory, including their own selective memory. God remembers what God wants to remember and is not necessarily the big data bank in the sky that we might be led to believe that God is. Rabbi Neil Gillman, based largely on Maimonides, teaches that there is no accurate way to describe God. All we have are metaphors, which are based on our limited human experience. A classic metaphor is that God brought the Israelites out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. No one really believes a giant hand came out of the sky and transported over a million people. Our description of God’s memory in prayer is a metaphor, based on our own experience of memory.
Sometimes memory is a blessing, but sometimes it is not. Through our memory, we are able to tie together our life experiences into a coherent narrative. It is even necessary. Jewish tradition history calls upon us to remember the evil of Amalek and more recently, we must remember the Shoah. In the lives of our families, we recognize how terrible it is when a loved one suffers from dementia or Alzheimer’s. Their loss of memory becomes synonymous with a loss of identity.
And yet, with all the gifts of memory and the curses of losing memory, it is sometimes a blessing to be able to forget. When we want to build a relationship with someone, we manage to forget past slights. In parenting our children, how convenient it is that we can forget the trials of child rearing. Another great literary work on memory is “Funes the Memorious” by Jorge Luis Borges. The main character suffers the opposite of amnesia–he remembers every detail of his life and is completely paralyzed by his memories.
When we don’t let go of bad memories, they can be all consuming, and they are not a blessing. I’m sure many of us can think of family feuds that last so long the parties cannot even remember the original cause of the fight, only that the other side is wrong. In other cases, a fight can last for decades, with both sides remembering exactly the offense done to them, when and where it took place and their feeling of anger and hurt as a result. Think of the healing that selective memory could bring to rifts between parents and their adult children or between adult siblings or between spouses.
Rosh HaShanah is Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Remembrance. But perhaps more accurately it should be called the day of Selective Remembrance. God, like us, resorts to selective memory. God, like us, does not want to remember the bad times or the sleepless nights of parenting. Instead, God says zacharti lach–I remember the devotion of your youth in the wilderness.
When we turn our memories into Genizas that recall every single slight ever done to us, we become paralyzed by distrust, enmity, and ill will. When we are able to be like God and use selective memory, our personal Genizas are transformed into a life force that inspires us with the wisdom of our ancestors.
The blessing of Zikhronot ends by praising God as zokher habrit –who remembers the covenant. Let this be a prayer for all of us for all of our relationships, to remember the blessings of being in relationship with other human beings. Living this blessing is part of living a life that matters.
Today, we appeal to God’s parental love in order to look over our misdeeds and embrace us with the unconditional love inherent in a close relationship. As we appeal to God’s selective memory, let us also look inside ourselves and pray that God might give us the strength to develop appropriate selective memory, and may we direct it towards healing in our relationships.
Ken Yehi Ratzon