Memories

Yom Kippur Morning 5774

Dara Horn’s new novel “A Guide for the Perplexed,” begins,

What happens to days that disappear? The light fades, the gates begin to close, and all that a day once held—a glance, a fight, a taste of bread, a handful of braided hair, thousands of worries and triumphs and regrets—all of it slips between those closing gates, vanishing into a dark and silent room. When Josephine Ashkenazi first invented Genizah, all she wanted to do was open those gates.[1]

The protagonist Josie Ashkenazi has invented a computer program that catalogs and files everything. It uses the camera in your phone, your computer, your home security cameras, everything to record each of life’s moments in a way that is searchable. So when her six year old daughter declares that she is unable to go to school because she can’t find her shoes, Josie merely types “Tali” and “Shoes,” and a video appears which was recorded by her phone of the moment Tali’s shoes dropped off of her feet in the car on the way home from school the day before.

In fact, she has recorded every moment of her daughter’s life. Every moment. She shows her daughter the video from the store when they bought those shoes together, and both are reminded that it hadn’t been a very pleasant experience since Tali had knocked over a display and Josie had yelled at her. Josie realizes she hadn’t remembered that part until she saw the video. There was no denying the experience, no remembering it differently or recasting the moment, it was there to be replayed perfectly exactly as it had happened. Tali tells her mother that she is lucky no one recorded every moment of her childhood. Of course this is upsetting to Josie because she invented Genizah precisely because she believes deeply in the value of preserving every moment and every memory. She asks Tali, “Lucky? Why?” And Tali answers, “Because you get to remember everything the way you want, instead of how it really happened.”[2]

Memory is such a vital and important and tricky thing. We believe in our memories, we depend on them, and yet we also know that memory can rarely be trusted completely. I’ve been doing a little reading about how our brains make memories. As I understand it, preserving a memory requires a restructuring of the connection, the synapse between our neurons. Our brains change with each memory we store away. A short term memory, some bit of information we only need to store for a small amount of time, makes only a very minor chemical change to the synapse. But the prevailing theory of long term memories suggests that a memory we store away because we wish to always remember it, the moment our child was born, a first kiss, a tragedy, for these our brains make bigger changes. For these our brains take protein and build the memories into our synapses. Once the memory is built in it has generally been considered to be solid and not easily be undone, scientists call this,  “consolidated.” But there is some newer research that contends that each time a memory is remembered, each time we dust it off and look at it again, or repeat the story to someone else, the memory gets “reconsolidated” the act of remembering the memory changes it. We may edit the memory based on other memories or other experiences that came after that memory. The relationship ended badly, so the memory of the first kiss changes. Something beautiful grew from the tragedy so the terrible details are forgotten. Neuroscientist Dr. Karim Nader suggests that reconsolidation may be helpful to us by recasting our old memories in light of everything that has happened since the original experience.[3] It is perhaps a way to keep us looking forward rather than living in the past, remembering a moment is different than experiencing a moment. In fact when we are unable to differentiate between remembering and experiencing, that’s when we run into post traumatic stress. Generally our brains are wired to protect us from this to allow our memories to be remembered or blocked rather than repeatedly experienced.

Dara Horn’s book had me wondering which is better. Is it better to remember every detail exactly how it happened or to remember our experiences colored by our emotions re-consolidated by what we know since our memory was first formed. And a bigger question—is it better to remember everything, to store every moment of our lives permanently or is it better to let some of the moments in our lives go, letting them slip beyond the closing gates, literally not allow them to take up space in our brains.

It is definitely easier to win arguments if you remember everything. Even better if you have photo, video, or Googleable evidence to prove the accuracy of your memory. But is it healthier? Does it make our lives better? Does it make our lives holier? Certainly memory has a lot to do with repentance. How can we reconstitute our lives into holier, better ones if we never understand the hurt we’ve left in our own wakes. How can we repair the damage we have done if we don’t even remember doing any damage? If we never remember that we made a mistake?

Is it holier to remember or to forget? As Jews our entire religion, culture, everything is built on remembering. We reenact biblical experiences through observing our holidays and eating certain foods. Every year at Passover we are taught to experience the seder as if we ourselves came out of Egypt. And we eat charoset to remember the bricks and morter, saltwater for the tears we cried. On Shabbat the tradition is two Challot rather than one to remember the extra serving of Mannah that would fall in the wilderness on Shabbat. On Sunday we will build our Sukkah to remember our ancestor’s struggle to survive the desert in fragile huts and we will experience their struggle when we eat and sit in the sukkah, even if it rains on Sunday. At weddings we break a glass to recall the destruction of the Temple. When our ancestors were brought in exile to Babylon the psalms tell us they proclaimed, “If I forget you O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning, . . . let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.”[4] We remember the first Temple and the second, we remember the pogroms, Chmielnitzki, Stalin, Hitler, Treblinka, Auschwitz, Babi Yar. We remember 1948, 1967, and 40 years ago today we remember 1972 and the Yom Kippur War. We remember the handshake on the White House lawn and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. We remember Ilan Ramon. Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer. We remember Sandy Koufax, Hank Greenberg, and Mark Spitz. Stephen Spielberg, Kirk Douglas, and Natalie Portman. We remember Emma Lazarus, Shel Silverstein, Philip Roth. We remember Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Bella Abzug. We remember Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, Isaac Mizrachi, Vidal Sassoon. We remember Kandinski, Chagal, and Alfred Stieglitz. Unfortunately, we also remember Ivan Boesky, Michael Milkin, and Bernie Madoff. Not only do we not forget Jerusalem, we do not forget anything or anyone that lifted us up or brought us low.

Is it better? Is it healthier to remember each of these moments to experience them again and again? Are we doing the work of continuity or are we participating in group post-traumatic stress? Must we always remember events exactly as they happened, or might we remember how we wish, leaving out the uncomfortable bits, the painful or embarrassing ones.

Rosh Hashanah is not only the New Year, it is also the Day of Judgment, “When even the hosts of heaven are judged,”[5] and Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembering when we are called to remember our behavior during the past year and spend the 10 Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur making amends and rectifying where we can the harm we’ve done to others. But then we come to Yom Kippur and we stand before God in fasting and prayer awaiting the sealing of our fate. In which book were we written the Book of Life? Did we remember well enough did we make enough of a change to be written for another year of remembering, or is it the other book we were written in? The book that will make a memory of us, the Book of Death, which declares the end to our days of remembering.

And what about God’s memory? Yom Kippur comes every year. Every year we stand here we repent, we do Teshuvah, our turning away from past misdeeds, our promise not to repeat them.  If we Jews, if we humans were really able to repent, really able to change, wouldn’t we come to a time when Yom Kippur is no longer necessary. Is it possible that we could ever turn so completely that there would be a year with nothing to repent either individually or communally? And of course we laugh at such an idea. We don’t wait to see how the year goes before scheduling in Yom Kippur. It has been on the calendar for the last 5,000 700 and 74 years, no doubt it will be on the calendar for at least the next 5000 700 and 74 years. Whether or not the public school system remembers it, it will most likely be there. So why then do we feel forgiven, written in the Book of Life again and again by a God who must see that each year we miss the mark, each year we repent, and then we miss the mark again, sometimes the same mark is missed and repented for every year. Doesn’t God know this about us?

Later today, during our Mincha service we will read the Book of Jonah. The story of a man sent by God to warn the people of Ninevah that because of their great sinning God will destroy them. Of course Jonah is uninterested in warning these people—why should he? What is the point of telling evil people that they are evil? Jonah does not believe they are willing or even capable of change. Of course getting Jonah to Ninevah requires a giant magical fish to first swallow him and then spit him out, and the amazing thing that happens is that when Jonah warns them of their imminent destruction, the people listen and they repent and God forgives them and decides not to destroy the people. Jonah is enraged by this, doesn’t God know the people will just go right back to being evil doesn’t God know that this change is only surface deep, doesn’t God remember their behavior what they have done? God ultimately explains to Jonah that as the creator of these people, the one who nurtured and watched over them, God would be greatly distressed by their destruction, these people as God says, “who do not yet know their right hand from their left.” These people who have not yet learned what they need in order to fully repent. God has compassion for these people God perhaps chooses not to remember, God perhaps chooses to forget. Rosh Hashanah is the Day for Remembering and perhaps after all the looking back, after all the repenting and the teshuvah, the turning, we come here today praying that God will forget. That God will forget that we have stood here every year and that we will need to come back again next year. We pray that God’s compassion will involve God’s forgetting.

A Genizah is a burial place for old papers and prayerbooks, any document with God’s name on it, which cannot then be thrown away. It’s a storage facility of everything we no longer need but cannot allow ourselves to destroy. The ancient Jewish community of Cairo used their Genizah to hold everything. Every scrap of paper, grocery lists, deeds of sale, personal letters. They did not throw out a single thing. When Solomon Schechter travelled from Cambridge to Cairo to investigate this Genizah in the attic above the women’s section in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in 1896, he found Maimonides’ rough drafts of his important scholarly work including his opus “A Guide for the Perplexed.” These scraps of paper were written by our ancient scholar’s own hand. They now sit in Museums and libraries, they are studied to see what he changed what he kept before he published his work. Would he have wanted that? Would he have wanted later generations to scour his papers that he had ostensibly thrown away?

We may not have our own Cairo Geniza, a storage place for every old paper we have, we may not even have a mini storage rental to fill with our old stuff we don’t want but can’t part with. And so far we don’t have a computer system to record and categorize in a searchable way everything that ever happens to us. But it might not be too far off. Already my computer and phone can remember important numbers and addresses for me, my GPS remembers street names and directions for me, my calendar remembers and reminds me of appointments, Siri can remember absolutely anything for me, and I can video quickly and easily any event I choose with very little effort. I can also broadcast every one of these things to the world with very little effort. With all of this technology there may be very little that I myself must remember, but once it’s out there, there may be very little that the world might ever forget.

So do we spend this day Yom Kippur remembering everything, every hurt and every mistake exactly as it happened? We should have done that already, that is what Rosh Hashanah and the Days of Awe are for. Perhaps this year we can learn the lesson God teaches Jonah, the lesson that we are human, it is hard for us to change, we think we’ve changed and we find we haven’t, we’ll be back here again next year. What we need from God, what we need for each other, and often what we need for ourselves sometimes is to forget. Perhaps in the forgetting we will find compassion and perhaps if we can find compassion for each other we will also find it for ourselves. And if we can find it for ourselves perhaps next year we really will have changed.

[1] Dara Horn, “A Guide for the Perplexed: a novel,” WW Norton and Company, New York, 2013, p. 1.
[2] Ibid. p. 5.
[3] Greg Miller, “How Our Brains Make Memories,” Smithsonian Magazine, May 2010.
[4] Psalms 137: 5-6
[5] Rosh Hashanah liturgy