“Remember when?” and “remember the time that?” These phrases that often come up when I am hanging out with my buddies. We reminisce about times that we had together; we tell jokes about experiences we shared.
Nostalgia is so important to society that the movie industry has made it into a multi-billion dollar venture – where they make remakes of movies but make them worse; yet, people are more than happy to go because of nostalgia. They don’t even mind so much that the movies are worse because they feel so good about remembering how they felt when it originally came out! What are we up to – Spiderman Fifty? I’m sure people don’t keep going to see them because the writing is so good.
Similarly, in the music industry, there are still plenty of “classic rock” stations going strong. What’s wrong with contemporary pop? Well, actually, everything. But also, people love to relive the good times they had in their childhood, and listening to their childhood music brings back all of those warm fuzzies.
The Day of Remembrance
Indeed, we talk a lot about our memories, making it fitting that memory plays a prominent role on Rosh Hashana. Our sages, in fact, refer to the day as Yom HaZikaron – which translates to the day of remembrance. In the Shemoneh Esreh prayer of Mussaf, we find an entire section dedicated to Zichronot (remembrances). We also, however, find something quite bizarre in this section.
The section begins by talking about how Hashem remembers everything that has happened:
“You remember the deeds of yore and account for the primal creations. Before you, all the wonders are revealed and many hidden things from since creation, for there is no forgetfulness before the seat of Your glory, and nothing is hidden from before You. You remember all that is done, and nothing in creation is concealed from You….”
In brief, this is an ominous warning that we can sneak nothing past the all-knowing God, with the implication that we are all at high risk for punishment since we have sinned and God knows it.
However, this section of Zichronot continues in a very different direction. It begins to address the times when Hashem remembered individuals not for bad but for good.
“For the remembrance of all deeds comes before You, and You investigate the deeds of all; Noah, too, You remembered in love and You recalled him with regard to salvation and mercy…”
And from here onwards this theme of remembering the good of our forefathers becomes increasingly stronger.
Praying to Remember The Bad or The Good?
Granted, there is quite the curious contrast between the beginning of the blessing – in which the one praying talks about how Hashem remembers all of their mistakes and shortcomings that they need to apologize for – and the second half where the one praying seems to “remind” Hashem of how they have some really great relatives such as Noach. But even more perplexing is the following basic question: What does it mean that God remembers? Is there a thought that He might forget the amazing actions of our forefathers? Does He too rewatch the same old movies?
Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein approached this question with great insight, explaining that memory has two basic modalities.
The first is that our memory acts as what Rabbi Lichtenstein calls a “reservoir of the past.” We remember things that happened in the past, recalling the good times and the bad. We reminisce.
However, there is a second aspect to our memory, and that is how our prior experiences shape our current actions. The events that occurred to us previously help dictate the choices we make and inform our decisions. They condition us.
For example, my son Yair has started opening the garbage and throwing things in it. Now, when I see him walking around the house with one shoe, I have to double-check the garbage to make sure he didn’t throw it out. I have subsequently learned to start locking the cover of the garbage. My experiences with him have shaped my actions. My memory dictates my behavior
To sum up the two modalities: one element of our memory is like a photo album where we can reflect on the past, but the other is how our memories affect our future.
Understanding The Prayer
Rabbi Lichtenstein used this insight to explain the strange transition in the Zichronot prayer from an ominous warning of sneaking nothing past Hashem to recalling the greatness of our ancestors.
We begin by highlighting the fact that Hashem has complete awareness of all that has happened, so we should be careful not to sin. Then, we appeal to His mercy by asking him to allow the good things we have done in the past to influence His decisions about our future. Obviously, God doesn’t need reminders of what happened; we are simply asking Him to act kindly in light of the positive actions we have done in the past, and promise to act similarly in the future.
Our Approach to Rosh Hashana Memories
This duality in the function of memory is not only relevant to how Hashem approaches the day, but it is as well incredibly important for the way that we as humans approach Rosh Hashana. Sure, we can look back at the past year and recall all the good and difficult times sprinkled throughout, but we must also take a closer look at our past and think about how it plays a role in our decision making for the future.
We can also take a look at our current actions and try to understand how they have been influenced by our past experiences. When we do this, we become more aware of why we do what we do, which gives us the power to change.
A Powerful Example From an Encounter with a Client
This client’s parents were upset that he was constantly watching Netflix or YouTube. I asked the child to think about why he watches so much TV. He couldn’t explain his actions, so I asked if he did so for entertainment or as an escape. At first, he was puzzled by the question, but then, slowly, he answered that he uses media as an escape from all the tension in his house. It distracts him from the intense fighting his parents have nightly. However, he couldn’t understand why I thought it matters that he does it for an escape as opposed to any other reason.
We spoke about how if the issue is that he is watching TV for entertainment, he might curtail it by just being more mindful of how long he spends on watching shows or by thinking about how much work he needs to get done each night for school. However, if the issue is that he is trying to escape his feelings, then a completely different strategy needs to be used. The real work would be to help him deal with whatever he is escaping from. He would need to completely rethink how he processes his feelings and why he needs to avoid them. Ideally, we would have a conversation with his parents about how their feuds affect him and what they can do to have a healthier family.
I tried to show him how having awareness of our motivations and what factors are pushing or pulling us can give us choices of how we react and, ultimately, that allows us to be back in control.
Take Control of Your Reality
The key to Rosh Hashana is to become more aware of how we are influenced by our past experiences and how they inform our actions today. Once we can do that, we are given the choice of how to respond. It is this choice that empowers us to grow.
Let’s make the effort this year to think about our actions and why we do them. Let’s not just have good memories by happenstance, but instead make great memories by allowing our actions to be inspired by our positive memories. In every sense of the word, let’s make this a year truly worth remembering.
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