A Hasid once complained to the Gerer Rebbe that he was always forgetting his lessons.
“When you are eating soup, do you ever forget to place the spoon into your mouth?” the Rebbe asked.
“No, of course not,” was the student’s puzzled reply.
“Why not?” asked the Rebbe.
“Because I cannot live without food,” said the student.
“Neither can you live without learning,” responded the Rebbe. “Remember this and you will not forget.”
The Jewish people is a people of memory. Over the millennia, we have gotten pretty good at it. Maybe the best. This talent of ours is rooted in the Torah. The Torah opens with the Creation of the world in six days. On the seventh day, God ceases laboring. It is this ceasing which completes the act of creation. Later, God instructs the Jewish people to replicate God’s act of Creation by laboring for six days and then resting on every seventh. Shabbat, the anchor of Jewish life, is an act of memory.
This weekly cycle of work and rest creates, as Heschel describes it, a Palace in Time. Every Shabbat becomes a memorial for what we are marking today – the Creation of the universe.
And it is does not end there. The entire Jewish calendar is built around memory. All of our holidays memorialize formative events of Jewish history. Exodus from Egypt. Dwelling in booths in the wilderness. Overcoming destruction in ancient Persia. Even in recent times, we memorialize our people’s suffering in the Holocaust, and celebrate the establishment of the State of Israel. Wherever we are in the physical world, our Jewish calendar emphasizes that sacredness is experienced not in space, but in time.
We do not encounter God by walking into particular locations. We encounter God by being present in discrete moments of time.
As America struggle with how to remember difficult parts of its past, it would seem that our Jewish expertise may be able to offer some guidance.
And yet, we are no different than anyone else when it comes to forgetfulness. Especially when it comes to our own lives. What have we forgotten?
At forty one years old, I have forgotten many things.
Sometimes I forget where I put my keys.
I have forgotten the wonder of childhood, the belief that anything was possible, that there was no barrier between what is real and what is magical. At a certain point, cynicism and skepticism intruded and shackled wonder. (For a reminder of what it used to be like, just talk to a four year old.)
I have forgotten the dreams and imagination of youth, when I longed to be an astronaut, a Jedi knight, and a baseball player.
I have forgotten what it feels like to fall in love, to feel unquenchable passion and longing.
I have forgotten what it feels like to be present when a new life comes into the world, or when my child takes her first steps.
The idealism of youth has been replaced by a realism forced upon me by responsibilities and disappointment. The excitement of unlimited possibility has been stifled by the realities of bills and deadlines.
Even more numerous are those things that I cannot even remember forgetting.
We could fill books with everything we have forgotten.
Indeed, we do.
We call Rosh Hashanah Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembrance.
But perhaps that is not the best name. Maybe it should be Yom Hanishkachot. The Day of Forgotten Things.
In the prayer Unetaneh Tokef, our Mahzor paints a vivid picture of the Heavenly Courtroom. God is the Judge, Prosecutor, Expert, and Witness. Vatizkor kol-hanishkachot. God remembers all of the forgotten things. The Book of Remembrance is opened, but God does not read it. Ume’elav yikarei. It reads itself, for the hand-imprinted seal of every human being is upon it.
The image of a courtroom, with the evidence comprised of all of the things we have forgotten, is powerful and scary. But why is the emphasis on the forgotten things?
The nineteenth century Hassidic Rebbe, Yisrael Rizhiner, teaches that God remembers everything we forget, and forgets everything we remember.
We read in the Rosh Hashanah Prayer: “For You remember all forgotten things,” and “there is no forgetfulness before Your Holy Throne.” This means that when a person performs a mitzvah, but then forgets it and demands no reward, then the Lord remembers it; but if the person keeps it in his memory and expects a reward for it, then the Lord forgets.
Also, when someone transgresses and remembers it, and repents of it, the Lord forgets about the sin; but when the a person pays no heed and forgets his sin, the Lord remembers. (Louis I Newman, Hasidic Anthology, p. 400)
According to the Rizhiner, the sins we remembered and corrected. And the mitzvot that we performed for their own sake, the good deeds that we did not allow to go our heads and inflate our hearts, these count as merits on our behalf.
But I suspect that many of us tend to do the opposite. We act as if we are entitled to be rewarded for our actions. We behave greedily, without taking responsibility for our mistakes, and yet we expect everyone else to pay for theirs.
And today, on the day of Judgment, it is the forgotten things recorded in the Book of Remembrance that determines our fate.
One of the three special sections of musaf is Zikhronot, remembrances. Let’s recall some of its opening words:
Before You stands revealed all that is hidden, and every mystery from the moment of creation.
Nothing is forgotten in Your awe-inspiring presence, nothing concealed from Your gaze…
We cite ten verses from the Bible extolling Divine memory. God remembered Noah and all of the animals on the ark, and caused the waters of the flood to subside. God heard the cries of our ancestors in Egypt, and remembered the Covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. As destruction threatened Jerusalem, God remembered the idyllic time during the Exodus when God and Israel were like newlyweds.
We bring up these memories to remind God of moments when compassion overcame the demands of strict justice.
Remembrance is more than just awareness. It is attentiveness. God does not just remember Noah, God saves him. God redeems our enslaved ancestors and restores an exiled people to its home.
Why have we placed these verses in our Machzor? Could it be that we are pleading with God to remember because we feel that we have been forgotten?
We are surrounded by so much suffering. Recent hurricanes and earthquakes remind us that, for all of our civilization and technology, we are helpless before the power of nature. As we have just seen, God does not seem inclined to hold nature back.
Despite our immense privilege, living in the wealthiest country at the wealthiest time in history, so many of us feel that we do not have control over our own lives. Housing is insecure, employment is shaky, relations are frayed. Has God forgotten us?
Maybe we pray so fervently to God, the Rememberer of Lost Things, because we feel lost and abandoned. Or maybe, on this New Year, we are reflexively pleading with ourselves to remember. Perhaps it is we who have forgotten.
We have forgotten to be attentive to the needs of our neighbors. We have forgotten to look at the world with awe and wonder. We have forgotten to open our hearts in prayer and gratitude for all of the blessings that we take for granted.
Perhaps we need to add an “al cheit,” to the list of confessions that we recite on Yom Kippur. Al cheit she-chatanu lefanekha be-hese’ach ha-da’at – “For the sin that we have committed before You of neglect and lack of conscious attention.”
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov was a gifted storyteller and a vivid dreamer. His tales are imaginative, mystical, and deeply symbolic. He tells a story of an angel named Yode’a, which means, “he knows.”
There is an angel who watches over people, even in the dark. This is Yode’a, the Angel of Losses. He watches lives unfold, recording every detail before it fades.
This angel has servants, and his servants have servants. Each servant carries a shovel, and they spend all their time digging, searching for losses. For a great deal is lost in our lives.
Even we, who are ourselves lost, search in the dark, aiding Yode’a.
And with what do we search? With the light of the soul. For the soul is a light planted in us to seek after what has been lost.
What kind of light is it? Not a torch, but a small candle. With it we can search inside deep wells, where darkness is unbroken, peering into every corner and crevice. (Howard Schwartz, Leaves from the Garden of Eden, p. 21.)
How much have we forgotten! How lost we are! But we are searching. The way to search, the way of the tzaddik, is to use the light emanating from our souls to illumine the darkness. How can we use our souls to remember forgotten things?
Let’s begin remembering right now. Turn to the person sitting to your right. Tell that person one thing that you appreciate about them. It has to be something you have never told them before.
I bet it feels pretty good to be acknowledged, to be remembered. I bet it also feels pretty good to acknowledge someone else. That is the feeling of our souls illuminating something that has been forgotten.
Let’s each commit to doing this at least once more today.
We can make the angel Yode’a‘s job a little easier and help ourselves and each other regain a little bit of what we have lost on this Day of Forgotten Things.