Tag Archives: Sam Lesner

Shavuot, Memorial Day and my personal link to V-E Day

22 May
My grandfather, Sam Lesner, during World War II.

My grandfather, Sam Lesner, during World War II.

This year, America’s observance of Memorial Day coincides with the second day of the Jewish festival of Shavuot when we say Yizkor, the memorial prayers in memory of our departed loved ones. We think of them now as on other holidays since they are not physically present to enjoy the festival with us. This year’s convergence of Memorial Day with Yizkor is striking as it comes on the heels of the 70th anniversary of V-E Day when the Allies secured the unconditional surrender of the Nazis. We recall the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who died in the line of service to our country and the Allies in the effort to restore order and justice to the world. We also always have on our minds the six million Jewish martyrs who were slaughtered in the Shoah. Just as we must never forget their death, we also must never forget the brave soldiers who liberated the remnant of European Jewry.

In recent weeks, since the anniversary of V-E Day, I have been reflecting on my late grandfather, Sam Lesner, of blessed memory, who served as an Army medic in the European theater, particularly in France and Belgium. He was in the Battle of the Bulge and bore witness to the ravages of war. During his entire period in the service from his first day of boot camp to the day he returned home, he and my Grandma Esther, of blessed memory, wrote letters to each other every day. These letters were preserved, and over the last few years my mother Roberta Bernstein and her sister, my aunt Judy Holstein, have transcribed, edited and organized these letters. I’d like to share a few selections from my grandfather from the last weeks of the War and his reflections on V-E Day as it happened.

14 March 1945 Somewhere in Belgium

For several days now truck-loads of liberated victims of the Nazi monsters have been speeding down the highway. I can’t describe just what happens to one as these trucks whirl by and the scarred, dirty, weary faces break into spasms of joy and tears as they shout greetings to us. It hurts inside of you.

May 4, 1945 Somewhere in Belgium

My Darling:

Today the mail brought me your letter of April 15, a sensitive, poignant expression of your feelings and the nation’s at-large over the death of the President [Roosevelt, on April 12]. Our great loss, however, has become our great gain, our salvation, for the events which are following the complete destruction of Nazism, which should be cause for a Roman holiday — these events, because of our great loss, are being viewed seriously, quietly, as they should be.

Far better that we are bowing our heads in prayerful thanksgiving instead of making a mockery of the death cries of our brothers. There has been no attempt here to start a “celebration” of the great victories which are being announced hourly. Just a few minutes ago we heard the news of the millions of “mighty” supermen surrendering unconditionally. Perhaps the weekend will bring the last and final chapter to their horror. I don’t think anyone will feel very gay. Our feelings about this are so deep and so intermingled with the loneliness that pursues us at all times that we are more likely to utter a profound “thank God” and let it go at that.

V-E DAY 7 May, 1945 Somewhere in Belgium

My Darling:

It was about 5 PM today when we heard the official news. We were at chow. There was absolutely no demonstration because every man of us at that instant thought only of home. What are our wives doing? What are our folks doing? What are our sweethearts and friends doing? There was some handshaking and then we returned to the barracks and sat on each other’s’ bunks. “Gee, I wonder how our families feel?” It was repeated over and over and none of us had an answer. But I know what you are feeling, my beloved. Because I am suddenly frightfully lonely, I will follow the crowd tonight. We will simply move in a crowd toward the town and the thing will gain momentum as we go along. I don’t know what I’ll do or what I’ll say. I know, though, that I must move and with each step I’ll hear the beat of my heart. It keeps saying, Esther, Esther, the worst of this is over. My Darling, there is hope now, a real, joyous hope. I must go now, beloved. The day is glorious. Last night I smelled the fertile earth for the first time, and I remarked on it to Max. It was a strange sensation, suddenly being so aware of the fruitful earth. “This is spring at last,” I said, little realizing the morrow would be truly spring again for the world. This day then, May 7, 1945, is the beginning. While much of the world’s war-weary bow their heads, we raise ours high and say “thank God” for His safe guidance and protection. Tomorrow, my Darling, perhaps I can tell you just how it feels. For tonight and every night, my love, undivided, and my thanks for the child you gave me.

May 23, 1945 Ciney, Belgium

Yesterday, I witnessed a sight that filled my eyes and my heart with tears. For some days now, prisoners of war and political prisoners have been returning to their Belgian homes. The small, shabby Ciney is ludicrously decorated with the “palm of welcome” which are small uprooted trees, stuck in the cobblestones in front of the returning man’s
home. Max and I, walking to town, drifted toward the railroad station where a crowd had gathered. We knew then that a trainload of victims was due. Children, their arms loaded with makeshift bouquets of field flowers, dashed about excitedly. Finally, the train pulled in and stopped. The few who were returning to Ciney jumped off as many others stood in the doorways of the long train of boxcars. There was a rush as fathers
grabbed up their kids, crushing them and their flowers. I shall never forget one little girl who was too young to know such emotion, clinging to her “hero” Daddy as he held her high in his arms. That child was sobbing with the suddenly released emotion that was far too mature for a child. Will men remember those moments of reunion with their children and direct their lives toward a world of peace? Or will they forget again and start fighting each other with the hatred and savagery of wild beasts? Even in this small community, already the seeds of future wars and disturbances are being planted. It is a bitter thing to watch. May God grant them the wisdom to settle their differences without violence. So, until tomorrow, my love, Daddy

My Grandfather’s eloquent words speak for themselves and need no augmentation or interpretation 70 years later. I’ll just add that our festival of Shavuot commemorates the pivotal moment when the people of Israel collectively entered a covenant that transformed us into a community bound together by shared obligation. Our Torah was not only God’s gift to Israel, but a gift to the world as a blueprint for justice and human decency. V-E Day symbolized a moment of hope that the global community would stamp out hatred and enter a new era of understanding and cooperation. In 70 years, our world has grossly fallen short of that vision, as my grandfather eerily predicted in post-War Belgium exactly 70 years ago. And yet, we must never forget the heroism of the American GIs who left behind their families and the security of home to fight and defeat the ruthless enemies of that era who enacted unthinkable death and destruction.

As we recall our loved ones during the Yizkor service, let us salute those who have served our country and are still with us to bear witness to their trials. Let us also recall with special deference those who are no longer with us who served our country and defended our freedom. Some of them died in the line of duty, and some were blessed to return and rebuild their lives and families. We honor their memory for the Jewish values and the American values that they bravely defended. May the memory of our all of our departed loved ones inspire us to strengthen our country with the values for which it stands and to pave the way for everlasting peace.

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All the World’s a Stage–Moses’s Dramatic Flair in Smashing the Tablets

14 Feb
Moses breaking tablets (Rembrandt)

Moses breaking tablets (Rembrandt)

Expanded upon 2/13/14 blog post

The last couple of weeks have confirmed more than ever how obsessed America is with celebrity. Even when events of much greater consequence to our daily lives occur, more newsprint, more air time and more Internet bandwidth are given to celebrities in the news. Why do we grant equivalent if not greater importance as a society to people who entertain us rather than people who produce for society in other ways, such as manufacturing and teaching? There may be numerous answers to this question. One is that entertainment is a vital human pursuit that makes us, well, human. We need to be entertained to nourish our souls, and the people who entertain us play important roles. Furthermore, the songs singers sing to us; the stories actors perform for us; the games that athletes play for us become part of our individual stories. Their successes and failures become metaphors for our own.

Let’s consider some recent headlines to illustrate this point. Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the Beatles first trip to America and their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. It’s amazing how these four men, their music and the moment they stepped onto the American stage all continue to capture our imagination. Their music was transformative in that it feels current, even decades later.

The recent passing of Shirley Temple Black reminded us of the young girl who brought song and smiles to our nation in the midst of the Depression. She then grew up and became a distinguished diplomat and public servant, blazing a trail for women in public service. Sid Caesar, who died this week, revolutionized American comedy, bringing Borscht Belt humor to the masses via television. Pete Seeger, the granddaddy of American Folk music, used joyful song to galvanize multiple social movements including for civil rights, labor and the environment. These were not just three people who grew old and died. They touched people’s souls in personal ways and were transformative figures through their genres of entertainment.

Other entertainers in the news remind us of the fragility of life, its complexity and occasional tragedies. Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s death by a drug overdose reminded us of the dangers of substance abuse and that some of the most accomplished and celebrated actors are not immune from this disease. New public allegations that Dylan Farrow was molested as a child by Woody Allen forces the issue of child sexual molestation back into the limelight. We are forced to confront not just whether or not we think Woody Allen is a creep but whether our society has turned a corner in confronting the seriousness of the broader issue of child sexual abuse.

Any of the celebrities I mentioned and their respective achievements and failures would probably warrant a sermon in his or her own right. I’ve chosen to briefly survey these recent newsmakers to highlight the extent to which people who entertain us grab our attention. We live vicariously through performers such as these because, as human beings, they help provide structure and purpose to our lives.

In this light, perhaps it should not come as a surprise that among the numerous roles that Moses plays in leading the Israelites, he is also a great performer on the public stage. We see his flair for the dramatic on full display in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ki-Tissa. The reading contains the famous–or infamous–story of the Golden Calf. The Israelites fear that Moses is not returning from the mountaintop, and they make a graven image–a golden calf–in direct violation of the second of the Ten Commandments that they had just received. God is incensed and threatens to destroy the people. Moses, not having yet seen the idolatry has enough distance to put God “on the couch” as it were, and talk him out of destroying the people. However, once Moses sees the idolatry himself, his rage is so great he throws down and breaks the tablets of the Decalogue.

The above is the plain sense of the text. The Midrash and commentators probe a little deeper to try to get inside the head of Moses to see what he was really thinking and why he would take such an extreme measure.

The Midrash in Shemot Rabbah says: When Moses saw there was no future hope for Israel, he threw in his lot with theirs and broke the tablets and said to the Holy one blessed be He: They have sinned, but so have I with the breaking of the tablets. If you forgive them, forgive me too; as it is said; “and now, if you will forgive their sin” forgive mine too. But if thou do not forgive them, do not forgive me but “blot me out I pray from Your book which You have written.”

According to the Midrash, Moses has a flair for the dramatic, and it is none other than God whom he needs to impress. Abarbanel, the 15th century Spanish commentator agrees that Moses has a flair for the dramatic but takes a different approach: Moses did not break them on the mountain itself when he was first apprised of the sin of the calf, but he broke them in the camp. For had Israel not seen the Tables intact, the awesome work of the Lord, they would not have been moved by the fragments, since the soul is more impressed by what it sees, than by what it hears. He therefore brought them down from the mountain to show them to the people and then break them before their very eyes.”

Moses may have been the great lawgiver, but his job description also included Actor-In-Chief. It’s possible that both the Midrash and Abravanel are correct and that Moses was playing to different audiences at the same time–God AND the people. In this case he gave the performance of his life. Moses shows that a leader is tasked with engaging the soul as well as the mind. He intuitively understood that the people needed a performance. They needed drama. In fact, his absence for forty days prompted their yearning for the ritual performance of the Golden Calf. His clamping down on that act of idolatry had to be even more dramatic in order to get his point across.

Last Yom Kippur, I paid tribute to my late grandfather, Sam Lesner, who was the film and entertainment critic of the Chicago Daily News. His birthday was February 16, and he would have been 105. In a 1978 lecture on the Yiddish theater, he said the following:

“It has been written that ‘[a]ll the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely the players’ (Shakespeare). For Jews everywhere, that is more than a literary catch phrase. It’s a philosophy for living, for surviving. For, do we not daily reenact our traditions? Do we not daily reenact our faith? And do we not daily rededicate ourselves to continuity of a vast, varied and colorful heritage, the Jewish heritage?

“It has also been written that ‘[t]here is that smaller world which is the stage, and that larger stage which is the world’” (Isaac Goldberg, early 20th century journalist).

“And yet another sage has written the theater is not a game. It is a spiritual compulsion. Once it celebrated the gods. Now it broods over the fate of man. Mensch trocht, Gott lacht (Man plans, God laughs).”

My grandfather’s words continue to ring true. So, the next time we read an obituary about an entertainer or a story about a fall from grace of a celebrity, let’s remind ourselves that it’s only human for us to consume such stories because we need performers in our society. But let us also remember that Moses himself was also a performer who mustered his dramatic skills to inspire a nation towards repentance and renewal.

Shabbat Shalom

Writing the Next Act on Yom Kippur

15 Sep
Sam Lesner, my grandfather, had a storied career as the film and entertainment critic for the Chicago Daily News. Here he is (seated on right in checkered blazer) with  other reporters interviewing Julie Andrews in Austria on the set of "The Sound of Music." Sam began his career by reviewing the Yiddish Theater.

Sam Lesner, my grandfather, had a storied career as the film and entertainment critic for the Chicago Daily News. Here he is (seated on right in checkered blazer) with other reporters interviewing Julie Andrews in Austria on the set of “The Sound of Music.” Sam began his career by reviewing the Yiddish Theater.

This sermon was published in the Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-edward-bernstein/yom-kippur_b_3916468.html

A slightly updated and corrected version appears below.

Writing the Next Act on Yom Kippur
Rabbi Edward C. Bernstein
September 15, 2013

I recently discovered some lost treasures. My late grandfather, Sam Lesner, of blessed memory, came back to life after 23 years when I heard his voice once again after finding and digitizing some old cassette tapes. My Grandpa Sam was the film and entertainment critic of the former Chicago Daily News. In the early 1930’s, while working in an entry-level job filing clippings in the newspaper’s library, it became known to the editors that he was a trained musician and that he was fluent in Yiddish. As a result, his first “beat” was covering Chicago’s Yiddish theater and reviewing these productions. Nearly fifty years later, he recalled the golden years of Chicago’s Yiddish theater in a lecture to the Chicago Jewish Historical Society. A cassette tape of that lecture in November, 1978, is among the old tapes that I rediscovered this summer. He opened this lecture as follows:

“It has been written that ‘[a]ll the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely the players’ (Shakespeare). For Jews everywhere, that is more than a literary catch phrase. It’s a philosophy for living, for surviving. For, do we not daily reenact our traditions? Do we not daily reenact our faith? And do we not daily rededicate ourselves to continuity of a vast, varied and colorful heritage, the Jewish heritage?

Grandpa Sam continues, “It has also been written that ‘[t]here is that smaller world which is the stage, and that larger stage which is the world.'” (Isaac Goldberg, early 20th century journalist)

“And yet another sage has written the theater is not a game. It is a spiritual compulsion. Once it celebrated the gods. Now it broods over the fate of man. Mensch trocht, Gott lacht (Man plans, God laughs).”

My Grandpa Sam’s voice emerged from the past to discuss the vital role of theater in capturing the human condition and the remarkable interplay between the theater and Jewish values. In reflecting on this lecture, I’m reminded that Yom Kippur is a play of sorts. Each one of us is a player, and we are acting out our own deaths. We wear white costume, just like we dress a loved one to be buried. We have a script, the mahzor (High Holiday prayer book), that guides us with language to confess our sins, just as one does before dying. We fast and deprive ourselves of bodily pleasures that the dead don’t enjoy. We can call these rituals method acting. If ever there was a day to act out as if it’s our last, it’s today, Yom Kippur. Everything up until now has been Act I, maybe also Act II. We can shape the next act and how we interact with the characters in our lives.

Over the High Holy Days, we prepare to raise the curtain on the next act. We reflect on how we can live a life that matters in which we enrich our lives through our relationships with others. In that context, if today were our last day, what would we do to ensure such a legacy? Would we seek to settle old scores and exact revenge for past wrongs done to us? Would we do nothing because a day is too short for anything meaningful? Chances are, we’ve tried those scripts already, and they’re getting stale.

On Yom Kippur, our day of renewal, our tradition provides us with stage directions and a powerful script. The day is further enriched by the improvisational theater that we provide ourselves.

Our stage directions that we’ve inherited call on us to emulate the Master Player on our world’s stage, God. The Torah instructs us lalechet bidrachav, to walk in the ways of God. In the 13 divine attributes, God tells us in the Torah that He is El rachum v’chanun, merciful and gracious God, erekh apayim v’rav hesed v’emet, slow to anger and abounding in loving kindness and truth. The Midrash says, mah Hashem rachum v’chanun, af ata tehiye rahum v’chanun. Just as God is merciful and compassionate, so too you should be merciful and compassionate (Sifre Devarim, Ekev).

Next, we turn to the script of our tradition. The mahzor attempts to capture the complexity of God that we strive to emulate. As I wrote for Rosh HaShanah, in the Un’tane Tokef prayer, we declare that God is zokher kol ha nishkachot, God remembers everything that has been forgotten. In other words, God is the ultimate data bank of everything in human history. Or is He?

God is a versatile cast member who plays many parts. Our rich liturgy offers another metaphor: not God the data bank, but God the parent who uses selective memory. Avinu Malkeinu, zochreinu b’zikkaron tov lefanecha—Our Father Our King, remember us before You with a good memory. Use Your selective memory, God, for good. God knows how to let go, but do we?

Here’s a classic story about not using selective memory. A man complained to his friend that whenever his wife gets angry, she becomes historical. “You mean hysterical,” the friend corrected him. “No,” said the husband, “I mean historical. She starts listing everything I did wrong in the middle of an argument that begins with: “You always…” or “You never….”

Why do we opt for the blame game script? We do so because this satisfies our sense of outrage and indignation. Since we are the injured party, we feel righteous. Our victimhood makes us morally superior as we look down with scorn on the person who hurts us. It provides us with the weapon of guilt to use against the offender. Our mahzor script invites us through prayer to think differently.

Since we pray, and since the rabbis envision us imitating God’s best attributes, the rabbis reach the conclusion that God also prays. The question is what, and to whom, does God pray?

“The rabbis ask: What does God pray? May it be My will that My mercy may suppress My anger, and that My mercy may prevail over My [other] attributes, so that I may deal with My children through the attribute of mercy and, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice.” (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 7a)

God understands the enormous negative power of anger and so He prays to be rid of it. God’s vulnerability is a mirror image of our own. God models for us openness to vulnerability and change. So, having engaged with stage directions and a rich script, we now have the task of turning to “improv.”

The renowned Hasidic rabbi and psychiatrist, Abraham Twerski, provides some guidance on how we can essentially write our own play, or at least the next act. He writes about some of his patients feeling paralyzed by resentment and the liberation that forgiveness brings about. He quotes one of his patients saying: “I came to realize that hanging on to anger was not affecting the people who hurt me. They don’t have headaches, indigestion, or insomnia. I do. Why should I suffer because of their wrong behavior? So I just stopped thinking about them, and my anger evaporated. Hanging onto resentment is akin to letting people you don’t like live rent-free inside your head without paying rent. I’m not the kind of person to let people do that, so I evicted them from my head.”

Rabbi Twerski’s anecdote resonated with me earlier this spring in a deeply personal way. I was forced to confront a demon from my life’s first act that was occupying space in my head without paying rent, and I suddenly had to do some “improv” to chart my path. A guy I went to school with from pre-school through high school sent me a friend request over Facebook. It gave me great pause. My recollection is that from preschool through fifth grade this fellow teased me relentlessly. In later grades, the memories of those early years haunted me. We then went our separate ways, and I haven’t seen him since high school. However, as I moved through adulthood and became an educator, any time I encountered the concept of bullying, the image that came to mind was being tormented by this fellow when we were young boys. In recent years, as I connected with more and more friends from childhood on Facebook, I noticed that several old friends from school were friends with my old nemesis. While I have many Facebook friends whom I barely know, I just couldn’t pull the trigger and send him a friend request. My image of this guy from 35 years ago was renting space in my mind. Then, out of the blue, he asked me to be his Facebook friend. Part of me wanted to accept it right away, but I also wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to ask him to bear witness to my pain. I felt it was the honest thing to do.

I wrote him an email. I hit the send button. Then I waited. The next day, I officiated at a funeral. At the cemetery, I finished the service and walked from the grave site to my car. I pulled out my phone to check my email. I saw there was a response to my Facebook message. Despite the long car ride back home ahead of me, I had to read it in full. It was a beautiful, contrite letter that was completely validating. The writer not only apologized for the way he made me feel, but out of his own initiative he went on to describe in vivid, accurate, detail a specific incident from childhood in which he teased me and his deep regret over it. He concluded his letter: “I do understand. I do acknowledge. I am sorry.” I accepted his friend request.

I couldn’t have staged the scene any better. I was sitting in a cemetery. It was the perfect setting to bury the fear, dislike and distrust I had of this person for most of my life. I felt the curtain rising on a new act. I was so moved by the risk this man took in “friending” me, for his courage in responding to me, and for his eloquent and humble note. I said the blessing of thanksgiving:

Praised are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who has given us life and sustained us and allowed us to reach this moment. It was liberating writing back and officially forgiving him and signing off as “Your Friend.”
If life is a play that is carried out on the world’s stage, then sometimes we have to consider that our total life experiences up to the present moment are only the first or second act. We have the ability to shape the next act.

For those of us who have unresolved tensions with people who are living, the time is NOW to get to work towards healing. Our loved ones whom we lovingly recall in Yizkor would expect nothing less from us. We can write the next act of our lives.

Writing a successful next act requires teshuvah, a complete return to shleimut, wholeness or integrity. This process includes saying selichah, I’m sorry, to others for wrongs we’ve committed towards them, and it includes granting mechilah, forgiveness to others for their slights towards us. We say to God, “Selah lanu, mehal lanu, kaper lanu, forgive us, pardon us grant us atonement.” What we expect of God, we must also demand of ourselves.

So, those of us giving free rent in our minds to the anger and resentment that we hold towards someone, we give ourselves a gift to evict those thoughts. Let’s change the script from a tragedy to a story with a happier ending. If there are relatives or friends with whom there is unresolved tension, speak to them on Yom Kippur or immediately thereafter. Say that you’ve given thought to your relationship and want a fresh start. Each of us can raise the curtain on a new act.

We recall our departed loved ones on Yom Kippur because we acknowledge our own mortality. We are acting today as if it is our last day. Recognizing our mortality, as we do now, reminds us of the urgency to change our ways. It may be the last act.

Let us honor the memory of our loved ones with a Jewish Tony Award of zikkaron tov, remembering them for their goodness. Let us bring zikkaron tov, good memories, into our present relationships. Let us not live like we’re going through the motions on stage. Let us live a life that matters.

Living a Life That Matters Through Selective Memory

7 Sep

Living a Life That Matters Through Selective Memory
Rabbi Edward C. Bernstein
Rosh HaShanah, Day 1, September 5, 2013

Shanah Tovah,
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
Amen.