As I have aged, I have learned to be somewhat more forgiving of my own brain. When I was younger, it seemed that I remembered everything. Today, I sometimes feel lucky if I remember the most important things: to spend time with my children, to eat lunch during a busy day at work, to tell my wife how much I love her.
How many of us are sometimes frustrated by not being able to remember something? Where you left the keys, as a relatively innocuous example, or something more contentious, like your spouse’s birthday. How many of us wish that our brains worked more like the RAM in a computer – efficient storage that is always available and easy to find? Wouldn’t it be awesome if you never forgot anything?
You may have heard that there are a handful of people in the world who are endowed with a curious condition that enables them to remember everything. That is, you give them a random date on a calendar, from fifteen years ago, and they will tell you what they wore that day, what they ate for lunch and who they bumped into on the street. This condition is known as “hyperthymesia,” and although it does not allow for “total recall,” it does allow a person with the condition to remember virtually everything that relates to them. For example, while a person with the condition might remember what clothes she was wearing on a certain day, she may not be able to recall what her friend was wearing, unless the friend’s outfit was somehow related to her personally. Dozens of cases have been reported in the last 13 years or so, since the condition was formally identified by neurobiologists. The actress Marilu Henner, whom you may recall from the late ‘70s/early ‘80s TV show, Taxi, apparently has this condition.
Imagine for a moment how cool that might be! School would be a breeze; you would never be embarrassed again by not knowing the name of somebody who you met five years ago at a party after a few drinks; you would never misplace your keys ever again. Speaking as a rabbi, I could definitely see how such a condition would make my life and my work so much easier.
And yet, maybe not.
There is a good reason to forget things, and perhaps the reason why, evolutionarily speaking, this feature did not become standard among humans.
Certain things need to be forgotten, and particularly those things that cause us pain and emotional anguish. We need to forget the pain of loss, the grief associated with the death of a parent or sibling or God forbid, a child. We need for ebb of time to dull the sharp memories, the ones that push our sorrow buttons. We need for those memories to be less fresh, so that we can go on about our lives with some semblance of normalcy.
Not to forget entirely, of course. But rather, to lessen the heartache somewhat. For the person who remembers clearly what he or she did on any particular day, a great personal loss must be ever-present. The stabbing pain of feeling like, “How can I possibly live without her?” must be as fresh a decade later as it was at the start of shiv’ah.
Thank God for the hollowing-out of memories that time brings. We learn to live with loss, but of course it takes time. That is the point of shiv’ah, of sheloshim, of yahrzeit – the calendrical framework of Jewish mourning. Seven days of deep pain, pain which prevents us from leaving the house, which can only be slightly soothed by the presence of others in our homes bringing comfort. Then three more weeks of somewhat less grief, when we saunter out of our homes, return to work maybe, but still feel like nothing’s quite right. And then the balance of a year, in which we acknowledge our ongoing grief by limiting our joyous activities.
And thereafter, we set aside just a few days for remembrance, to recite prayers of memory.
Memory is essential to Judaism, and our framework of mourning is known to be one of the best. But even beyond that, we have not one, but two days in the contemporary Jewish calendar called “Yom haZikaron,” the day of remembrance: Rosh Hashanah we all know. Less known to American Jews, but extraordinarily important in Israel is the national Memorial Day for fallen soldiers, a day marked by solemn ceremonies around the country, set aside for public grief for those who gave their lives defending the State of Israel. (It is an unfortunate shame that we Americans do not take our own Memorial Day as seriously as Israelis do.)
But even so, our relationship to memory is complicated. Our tradition wants us to remember things that we did not personally experience: the entire holiday scheme of the Jewish year is intimately tied to our history: the Exodus from Egypt; receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai; wandering in the desert; the destruction and rebuilding of Jerusalem; the Sho’ah. We are, in some sense, striving to constantly relive our ancient, communal memories, to make sure that we do not forget, that we remember to connect our gratitude for what we have today with all of those past events. We have a history that stretches back thousands of years, and we carry it with us wherever we go. That is an essential piece of Judaism.
And yet, even though we set aside one day a year to mourn the desolation of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and then the Romans, we do not relive that every day. We understand that communal grief has its day. Even though we remember and mourn the 6 million murdered by the Nazi machine in our own time, we also still acknowledge that there can be joy in our lives. On Shabbat morning, we read from Megillat Qohelet, the book of Ecclesiastes (3:1-4):
לַכֹּ֖ל זְמָ֑ן וְעֵ֥ת לְכָל־חֵ֖פֶץ תַּ֥חַת הַשָּׁמָֽיִם׃
עֵ֥ת לָלֶ֖דֶת וְעֵ֣ת לָמ֑וּת עֵ֣ת לָטַ֔עַת וְעֵ֖ת לַעֲק֥וֹר נָטֽוּעַ׃
עֵ֤ת לַהֲרוֹג֙ וְעֵ֣ת לִרְפּ֔וֹא עֵ֥ת לִפְר֖וֹץ וְעֵ֥ת לִבְנֽוֹת׃
עֵ֤ת לִבְכּוֹת֙ וְעֵ֣ת לִשְׂח֔וֹק עֵ֥ת סְפ֖וֹד וְעֵ֥ת רְקֽוֹד׃
A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven:
A time for being born and a time for dying, A time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted;
A time for slaying and a time for healing, A time for tearing down and a time for building up;
A time for weeping and a time for laughing, A time for wailing and a time for dancing;…
The words of Qohelet ring across the ages: we cannot dwell in grief forever; neither can we ignore that grief. Rather, there is a time for that.
Qohelet does NOT say, there is a time to remember, and a time to forget. But the Catalogue of Times also reflects back to the opening verses of the book (1:4-5):
דּ֤וֹר הֹלֵךְ֙ וְד֣וֹר בָּ֔א וְהָאָ֖רֶץ לְעוֹלָ֥ם עֹמָֽדֶת׃
וְזָרַ֥ח הַשֶּׁ֖מֶשׁ וּבָ֣א הַשָּׁ֑מֶשׁ וְאֶ֨ל־מְקוֹמ֔וֹ שׁוֹאֵ֛ף זוֹרֵ֥חַֽ ה֖וּא שָֽׁם׃
One generation goes, another comes, But the earth remains the same forever.
The sun rises, and the sun sets— And glides back to where it rises.
With each rising and setting of the sun, life goes on. Our pain will ease; the peaks and troughs of life will even themselves out. And we continue. We go on. We live with our memories, the painful ones and the joyful ones. We do not forget, but we manage with what is on our plate.
This is the last Yizkor / remembrance service that we will observe in the one year of mourning following the anti-Semitic attack in our neighborhood. There will always be a before and after in Pittsburgh; there will always be a weightiness in our hearts for those whom we lost, and for the sense of security our community lost. That day will be seared in collective memory forever. We will never forget.
I must say that I am somewhat relieved that the actual Yahrzeit (annual day of remembrance which corresponds to the day on the Jewish calendar when a loved one passed away) is a few weeks after the date that the rest of the world will associate with Pittsburgh. When the media people doing follow-up stories leave, when the cameras have moved on, we will muster our grief together and mark the 18th of Heshvan (November 16, 2019) by saying Qaddish as a community – quietly, mournfully, appropriately.
The horror of that day and its aftermath will continue to live with us. But as it recedes in memory, as we learn to grapple with it from a distance, as we remember those whom we lost, we also re-establish our sense of selves: who we are, what we stand for, and why we must continue to lean into our tradition. We re-establish our violated sanctuary as sacred space.
I remember Cecil, who wrote me notes of gratitude which I could not read. I remember Dan, always with a smile, always with a friendly update. And my memories of them drive me forward to proudly wave my lulav and etrog, to recite words of tefillah with my community, to celebrate around the Shabbat table and resonate with our ancient tradition.
I continue to meditate on the words of Qohelet – dor holekh, vedor ba… vezarah hashemesh uva hashamesh – one generation goes, and another comes, the sun rises and the sun sets – and understand that I am neither the first nor the last Jew to feel the pain of hatred, of persecution, of murder. I will not be the last Jew to cry out in anger and frustration, as Rabbi Levi Yitzhaq of Berditchev did in bringing a din toyre, a lawsuit against God. I will not be the last Jew to recite Qaddish for martyrs.
But I will certainly do whatever I can to try to make this world a place where more Jews, and more people everywhere, are liberated from painful memories.
As we turn now to Yizkor, the service of remembering, we should be at once grateful that memories recede, and also grateful that we have the framework of our tradition to guide us through dark times and to sanctify our holy moments.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shemini Atzeret, Monday morning, 10/21/2019.)