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Selective memory

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“Is there any person who would want everything he ever did or said in private to be remembered?” — Rabbi Ron Y. Eisenman

THE additional (“musaf”) prayer of Rosh Hashanah contains three sections not found in any other Jewish prayer during the entire year: “Kingship,” “Remembrance” and “Shofar.” This past Rosh Hashanah, I heard Rabbi Ron Y. Eisenman ask: Doesn’t the Remembrance section seem out of place?

The other two sections seem directly pertinent to Rosh Hashanah. The holiday is all about G-d’s “kingship,” His power and judgment of the entire universe. (Rosh Hashanah, parenthetically, is the true universal Jewish holiday, on which the lives of all of humanity, not just Jews, are judged.) And “Shofar”? Obviously pertinent, for the sounding of the shofar — that elemental, mysterious ritual — is the essence of Rosh Hashanah, the mitzvah unique to the day.

But look at “Remembrance.” Its verses make it perfectly clear that no action of any human being is ever forgotten.

“Every secret is revealed to You . . . from the time of creation.”

“You [G-d] see until the end of all the generations.”

“You remember every deed.”

Why would Jews want to include a prayer like this on Rosh Hashanah, when the Divine judgement, culminating in Yom Kippur, begins?

“Is there any person who would want everything he ever did or said in private to be remembered?” asked Rabbi Eisenman.

Who can possibly be uplifted under G-d’s total recall?

THE key to the inclusion of “Remembrance,” the rabbi suggested, is the one person focused on in its many verses: Noah. Yes, G-d’s remembrance of Noah is positive.

“And G-d remembered Noah and every animal and every beast with him in the ark; G-d made a wind blow over the earth and the waters abated” (Gen. 8:1).

But there is a more to the story of Noah than the ark — a lot of very uncomplimentary deeds in Noah’s life. After the flood, he became a drunkard. In his inebriated state he committed incest with his daughters. He sired bastards. (A bastard in Jewish tradition is an child born of a relationship forbidden to a married person, not the offspring of two unmarried people.)

Note well: The story of Noah is not recorded in full in the Remembrance prayer. The story is truncated. The unseemly parts of Noah’s story are omitted. The Remembrance prayer, in short, is incomplete.

It is an exercise in selective memory.

SELECTIVE memory, suggests Rabbi Eisenman, is critical in human relations. The Remembrance prayer, in its selective memory of Noah’s life, is stating: During the High Holiday season, beginning on Rosh Hashanah, do not remember everything. To do so is to risk destroying marriages, friendships and other relationships.

People may be friends or business associates for years or even decades. Then, unexpectedly, something is said, something is done. An unkind cut. A crude remark. A betrayal. A most unpleasant surprise. All to often, the relationship unravels. All the years of closeness are thrown away, due to one incident.

What is called for, suggests Rabbi Eisenman, is selective memory.

Yes, G-d remembers everything, but in citing the one, specific human example of G-d’s omniscience, the Remembrance prayer engages in revisionist history. It edits out those parts of Noah’s life that broke the trust G-d had placed in him. Dastardly details are deleted. The message is clear: Remember selectively. Forget judiciously. Play deaf. Be blind. Move on.

Would one want all of one’s own warts and mistakes to pop up on someone else’s computer screen as ubiquitously as those annoying, unwelcome pop-ups that flood our computer screens?

Why can’t the computer just delete them?

Indeed, why can’t we just delete certain memories from our friendship history and business relations?

Not to mention, from our marriages?

Excepting some monumental transgression such as infidelity, why do we allow the normal if rare slip in good sense, the foolish remark or deed that we all sometimes fall prey to, to damage our marriages or other relationships, and in some cases end them?

Sometimes, it’s not even a slip in good sense that arches our backs. It’s a social slight: not invited to this occasion or not seated with the right people at that event.

We certainly wish G-d’s memory of our own failings and betrayals to be selective. We want Him to remember our best selves; or, at a minimum, to remember us for our potential for good.

We want G-d to remember us as the Remembrance prayer remembers Noah: selectively. In our human relations, therefore, the watchwords should be: Remember selectively. Forget judiciously. Overlook. Let it pass. Remember, yes, the good years, the closeness. Hold your tongue.

Silence can redeem and rescue.

Heard in Passaic, New Jersey, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, 5774.

 

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