Rosh Hashanah 5779 - Remembrance, Forgetfulness, and Reframing

Post date: Sep 13, 2018 4:55:08 PM

They say, it’s never too late to have a happy childhood. That saying has grown on me through the years.

As many of you know, mine wasn’t the standard upbringing of most 2nd or 3rd generation Ashkenazi Jews in America, who are my peers.

I was born in Egypt, during the rule of a nationalist leader that hated Israel and despised the Jews living in his country.

We were expelled when I was 9 months old, and my living siblings were 7, 8 & 9. Our apartment in Cairo was confiscated, as were all our assets. We left as refugees.

I used to be bitter about this. Strange, because I was far too young to remember any of it. I learned through the memories of my parents and siblings; through the stories they told, the casual comments. The Arabic language we spoke among ourselves. Perhaps it was acquired, or learned bitterness.

Recently, with the perspective of decades, I wondered, what would have been my life had we stayed in Egypt?

By any reasonable measure, our lives in America have been nothing less than blessed. A long and wonderful marriage to a loving and talented wife, 3 healthy and beautiful children, each of whom is accomplished in their own right, a nice house in a safe neighborhood, a business… I could go on.

Had we stayed in Egypt, we, like most Egyptians over the past 60 years, would likely have been subject to poverty and, as Jews, an added measure of discrimination.

When I took that perspective, I was filled with gratitude, first to God for this journey, and then a little to the dictator who threw us out of Egypt.

It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.

Today is Yom HaZikaron. The day of remembering.

We are commanded to remember, but unlike Passover (when we remember Exodus), Sukkot (when we remember wandering through the desert) and Shavuot (when we remember receiving the Decalogue), the Torah does not tell us what we are to remember on Yom Hazikaron.

When a person forgets their past, it is as though that person has died. When a nation forgets its past, it is as though that nation has died. So in order to grow, we must have roots, and those roots are our memories.

The onus is on us to determine what we remember, how we remember, and why we remember.

Our sages developed this elaborate cycle of prayers in the 10 days of awe so that we might use our remembering to learn and grow, both as individuals and as a community.

So, let’s talk a little about memory.

Is everyone here familiar with Harry Potter? There is a scene in which Harry’s friend Neville, young and clumsy and disorganized, receives a package during breakfast at his boarding school. “It’s a remember-all,” he says to Harry. “You hold it and if the smoke turns red, it means you’ve forgotten something. The trouble is, I can’t remember what it is I’ve forgotten.”

Remembering and forgetting are so often thought of as two distinctive end points on a continuum. On one side there is the Jeopardy genius who remembers countless arcane facts on every subject. On the other, there is the school child who can’t remember their lunch, homework, or mittens.

But, to neuroscientists, remembering and forgetting are only two of many possible outcomes of a complex system involving brain structures, functions, and chemicals over time. Memory is a fantastically complicated intermingling of neurological systems that respond to emotion, environmental cues, discrete facts, and our inner bodily states. But memory, first and foremost, requires attention.

After we attend, we can encode, or, get the information in to our brains. We then store the information. When there is demand for the information, we engage in a process aptly called retrieval.

Getting back to a more linguistic meaning, to Re - member could be thought of as putting things back together. Think of, dismember, to take things apart, and you’ll see what it is to remember.

When we retrieve information from memory, when we re-member, it can be accurate, modified, or false. When the retrieval process fails, or brings up false information, we say that someone has “forgotten.”

In Judaism, our focus seems to be strongly biased toward remembering – we have commandments to “zachor et yom ha’shabat”. We ask God to remember the Covenant - the contract - Zachor et haBrit. And on and on. We teach our children to “never forget” the destruction of our people, and we describe our loved ones no longer here as “zichrono l’vracha” – may the remembrance of them be as a blessing.

Why is this? Is remembering good, but forgetting bad?

Interestingly, the 11th century Jewish scholar, Rav Bahya ibn Pequda in his seminal work, Duties of the Heart, states, “If not for our ability to forget, we would spend our lifetime in grief.”

Popular culture would support such a view, with Tony Soprano saying, “Fuhget about it.” And CeeLo Green’s 45 million YouTube hit song, “Forget you.” This type of forgetting is intentional putting out of one’s mind.

Freud would have referred to intentional ignoring as “repression.” In his understanding, repression is problematic. It’s used to cope with stressors or difficult emotions.

Repression may be contrasted with another problematic psychological phenomenon that occurs when faced with overwhelming emotions or events – that is, re-experiencing the trauma. Re-experiencing can be thought of as “too much remembering” – instead of simply recalling an event, the person re-lives the event over and over, at times that are not under voluntary control.

In cases of repression or in cases of re-experiencing, a person is paralyzed by the past. The past controls, dominates, and directs their day-to-day life. The past controls the present, and therefore, the future as well.

Neither is especially helpful to make meaningful changes, which must be the goal of our remembering today.

Can you imagine a conversation between Rav Bahya and Doctor Freud. The Talmud is full of these kinds of discussions with ancestors who are long since dead. It seems likely that both men would have agreed that in order to move through one’s life with greatest health and least disruption, having learned from the past in order to effect positive change in the future, one must cogently and meaningfully remember and forget.

How can we do this?

At times, particularly after traumatic or tragic events, it may seem unthinkable that anyone can learn from or come back from the past. But, it is especially these events that may inspire and promote growth, understanding, and wisdom.

In the chapter prior to today’s Torah reading, Sarah, saddened and dejected after years of failing to conceive a child, spurned God’s prediction that she would become pregnant.

Today’s Rosh Hashanah parsha begins with God “pakad et Sara.” Pakad is the same verb used when God speaks to Moses at the burning bush. God remembers Israel. Like all Hebrew verbs, pakad, or the infinitive, lehifaked, has a range of meanings. It can mean to remember, to seek, to visit, appoint, or to attend, as in to attend to one’s obligations.

The translation “attend” may be the most relevant, not least because neuroscience has demonstrated that attention is a necessary (and sometimes sufficient) component of memory. “Attend” itself is a difficult concept to fully define, but one of its meanings is to be present with.

Taking this definition, the passuk in question would be translated as, “God was present with Sara.”

This is a kind of attending that requires selfless courage - to be present with someone is to feel their pain, hold their fears, celebrate their triumphs, and join their dreams. To be present with someone is to dampen our own thoughts, feelings, and judgements and be fully engaged with them and their experiences. To be present with someone is to show them the ultimate act of dignity.

If fully attending to another person requires courage, attending to ourselves requires compassion.

So many of us reflexively, automatically impose judgements on ourselves - on our thoughts - “I can’t believe I’m thinking about that right now!” - on our emotions - “Geez - get a grip! Grow up!” - and our choices - “Gosh, I wish I hadn’t… Man, if only I had…”. In so many cases, this is our memory taking over the present moment - our conscious memory of past events, or our subconscious memory of the many messages given to us over time by adults, peers, by society at large, and now, by ubiquitous social media.

Judgement of ourselves is quick and easy - it is modeled for us as children and reinforced by an endless, repository of diet plans, fitness trends, self-help gurus, and conspicuous consumption.

What is the not so subtle message with all those things? … You’re not good enough!

In fact, it is hard to imagine how anyone living in our modern world does not believe themselves to be too fat, too weak, too lazy, or too un-hip.

To move past these judgements requires, first and foremost, attention. We must attend to and recognize such thoughts or reactions if we have any hope to move past them.

This is particularly trying when such thoughts or reactions stem from the vivid, emotionally-laden memories we carry with us after tragedy, trauma, distress, or potently, rejection from people whose love and approval we seek.

And this brings us to an insight about remembering that can enable us to forgive, and by doing so, move forward in our lives.

Consider the story of Joseph. When his brothers came to Egypt for food, Joseph messed with their heads.

To refresh your memories, Joseph was favored by his father, our patriarch, Jacob, but despised by his brothers, who threw him in a pit and left him to die.

Midianite merchants found Joseph and sold him as a slave in Egypt. From this traumatic beginning and humble life, Joseph rose in stature until he was 2nd in command in Egypt.

In the meantime, a draught in Canaan forced Joseph’s brothers to travel to Egypt to purchase food. Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him.

In short, he provided them food, but slipped a goblet into their satchels. As they were leaving, a guard chased them, found the goblet, then brought them back to be punished - for stealing the goblet!

Joseph was screwing with them! Clearly, Joseph had not yet reconciled the hurt he felt his brothers caused him years before. I’m sure that everyone here today knows personally how difficult it is to get over the pain and abuse of your family, whether real or perceived.

But after the brothers finally professed their remorse for their actions from years before, Joseph broke down in a wailing that could be heard throughout Pharaoh’s palace. He could no longer contain his pain, but something turned in him.

Instead of reliving his pain in front of them, as he had done until that moment, he reframed the whole of their sordid past, saying, not that it was their fault, but that it was indeed God’s plan that they had set in motion.

Contrary to hurting him, what they really did was set into motion a grand set of events that would bring him to become the viceroy of Egypt and save the entire family from famine. Precisely because of their actions, their entire families, the Jewish nation, would survive.

It’s never too late to have a meaningful childhood.

When we do teshuva, return, a critical spiritual process of these High Holidays, although we are “returning” we ourselves are not the same person we were before. Like the saying goes, you never step into the same river twice.

We don’t return in order to regress. We return in order to progress!

When we return, we are looking to make a better future, but we are armed with the knowledge of how our actions previously led to pain and difficulties.

In the Une Taneh Tokef, a central prayer of the Musaf Amidah, we say Teshuva, Tefilah, and Tzedakah Maavirin et Roaa Hagezeira.

Return, prayer and performing acts that make God’s justice manifest, will enable us to endure (aver - to pass over) whatever our future holds.

If we are successful, we can engage with our past when we re-member it. We can see the difficulties we endured as steps on a path that will lead us to a better future.

Today is indeed Yom Hazikaron, the day of remembrance. But it is also Yom Truah - the day of the shofar blasts, when we are commanded to hear the shofar, the great Call To Action. This clarion call, which is as ancient as our people, urges us to create a better future.

May the first action we take this Rosh Hashanah, be to engage with our past more fully, May we know that whatever hardships we experienced, whatever pain we have known, it is integral to our lives. It is what made us who we are today, but it is not who we are today.

Our past is what has brought us here, and, if we can re-member and reframe it, that past will actually nurture us and carry us forward into a more fulfilled future. It is our choice to make.

May we all find gratitude for our unique blessing that is our life.

It is never too late to remember a happy childhood.

Shanah Tovah Umetukah.

Samuel Asher

Yvonne Asher