If you wander through any graveyard, as I am recently wont to do, you will find a plethora of old gravestones making the same promise: “We will remember you forever.” Frequently, though, those who made that pledge are also long gone, having taken their memories along with them to the next world. The young person whose life was tragically cut short by an accident or illness and lies buried beneath that marker has no one to remember him anymore, and the knowledge that he once existed is no longer lovingly carried around in the embrace of anyone’s mind or heart. The promise that one will be remembered forever proves time and again to be an empty one.
They say that only the forgotten are truly dead. But who is truly remembered? Even the deeds of those who have been preserved for posterity often have no relationship to the people they really were. Yet as long as we live we are burdened by the psychological need to remember, as well as to be remembered. We are guilt-ridden when we forget for a moment those we feel obligated to remember, and are obsessed with the legacy we want to leave behind.
It has been theorized that we unconsciously block memories that are associated with a high level of stress or trauma. But even though we cannot recall the troubling memory it can still affect us subconsciously, and a repressed memory will sometimes reemerge into the conscious mind. Of course, even those memories that we readily embrace hold us hostage to a past that we would sometimes prefer to forget. Memories of past failings and transgressions entrap us into a perpetual cycle of sin.
How does one free oneself from the burden of memory? The answer is to submit to G-d, and allow the Almighty to do the remembering.
Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the Ten Days of Repentance, is called Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembrance, not because we remember but because we allow G-d, Who never forgets, to remember for us. As we say in the Rosh Hashanah prayers, “For You remember all forgotten things, and there is no forgetfulness before Your holy throne.” Only G-d’s eternal memory can free us from our own memories, and even elevate them and turn our sinful pasts into forces for good.
In truth, the entire Jewish calendar is based upon memory. Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of time, while the other Yomim Tovim memorialize formative events in Jewish history. They do not commemorate our personal memories but rather those of G-d, Whom we encounter by re-experiencing those moments in time. For we are instructed not only to remember but to encounter G-d in the here and now: “To love the L-rd your G-d, to walk in all His ways and to cleave unto Him” (Devarim 2:22).
As our Sages tell us, it is impossible for a finite human being to actually “cleave” to G-d Himself because the Shechinah is an “all-consuming fire.” Rather, the “cleaving unto G-d” mentioned in the verse refers to our obligation to cleave to talmidei chachamim, who also act as the repository for our collective memories: “Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past. Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders, and they will explain to you.”
The memories of our gedolim are not merely sources of inspiration but serve as touchstones for our own memories. All we need to do is tap into them—as I set out to do today.