Monday, October 2, 2023 -
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The archaeology of our lives

Our memory plays tricks on us. We remember things one way, but they really weren’t that way. We rarely see this because the evidence is rarely before us. Rosh Hashanah reminds us that G-d reviews our lives and expects us to, too. All we have to go on are our own recollections, which can distort or diminish reality. Worse, we forget.

A strange occurrence brought all this home in Jerusalem. An old storage room provided a powerful metaphor for Rosh Hashanah; indeed, for G-d’s review of our entire lives after our 120 years. When we ultimately stand in judgement before G-d and present the totality of our lives before Him, will we even recognize them? Come to my old machsan. It’s scary.

A “machsan” in Israel is a storage area. A good apartment in Israel will have a sizable machsan. What was once our home has two machsanim, one of them small, hard to get to, underneath a stairwell. Part of it holds the hot water heater, with only little room left for storage.

Until 2000, my wife and I had not looked at this area for at least 15 years. We had even forgotten that we had stored any items there. They were once important to us and told the story of our lives back then, but we forgot. These items opened a door to the archaeology of our lives.

There was an old matzah box containing, not matzah, but some Passover preserves. 
 What was this saved for? Were we returning to Israel for the next Passover? Did we change our mind? Was this intended as a gift? Was it a souvenir of a previous Passover seder?

The box was very carefully packed. It certainly represented a commitment of some kind. Now it was shriveled, of no interest even to a stray cat, its original purpose long forgotten. Will the conflicts in our lives, in which we put so much passion and assertion of right, one day seem so shriveled that we will no longer even remember what they were?

When G-d replays the acts of our lives, will we get off claiming that we cannot even remember many of them?

Then there was an old tool, rusted, ruined. Were the uses to which it was put pure? selfish? neither? I did much of my own handiwork back then, but cannot recall what this tool was used for. Even with the actual artifact of my past in my hand, I came up ignorant.

There were two old desk lamps, now broken. What did they shed light on? The drafts of my first book, the culmination of years of absorption of the thought of one of the holy men of the generations, Rabbi Israel Salanter? Or were they used for frivolous reading?

One day, we will be called into account by such questions. Much more than two old lamps, found by accident, will be run before our eyes. Our whole lives will be run before our eyes; our whole existence requires justification.

I found a bent pot. Did it cook meals for the poor? Here, perhaps, was something that could justify our existence. Jerusalem is so compact that the poor intermingle with the rest of society in middle class neighborhoods. The poor entered our home back then in a way that is virtually impossible in any American middle class neighborhood.

What repeatedly impressed itself on my mind was the ease with which tools, devices and carefully packed items deteriorated. An old lulav shredded as if it were sand. Pure age, absent any degrading agent, faded many items almost beyond recognition.

Our minds work the same way. Even without any intention of putting things out of our minds, memories do not retain the freshness that we bring to our passions and positions today. It is no easy thing to recall a life, let alone to justify it. We filter out so much, the good as well as the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, that much of the past retains no more sheen than an old, faded, shriveled matzah box.

As if this rummaging in the mind, occasioned by rummaging through an old machsan, were not enough, I hired a locksmith to open two file cabinets; the keys had long disappeared. I had not seen the contents of these cabinets in at least 15 years.

Here, the items were well preserved — sometimes stunningly so — with the result, paradoxically, the same. The past exerted its pull.

Voila! Two envelopes marked “first haircut.” Two of our children, now adults, were blond, one a platinum blond. Who would believe it today? Yet, here was the evidence, actual snippings from the first haircut.

Then, in a standard manila envelope, I found my original ordination certificates. Five single sheets of paper brought back a flood of memories of toil, exalted toil, in the Torah.

Next: all of the syllabi and notes for the courses I had taught at The Hebrew University.

A previous life.

Yet, the same life. We are responsible for each of the stages of our lives. We might wish to throw away parts of our past. We cannot. The ultimate accounting before G-d will be comprehensive.

The same week I looked through the old machsan and file cabinet, I undertook another archaeological dig: at what was then called the Jewish National Library in Jerusalem. I went back for the first time since 1985 and was reminded of a small part of my life, which I did throw away.

I stumbled down the path to the library, so to speak. I did not even remember precisely where it was. Nor did I remember where the card catalogues were, or, for that matter, that the stacks were not open to the public. A visitor cannot browse the holdings; one sees a book only by filling out a slip, dropping it down a chute, then receiving it a couple of hours later.

I was told that if I wanted to see rare books, well, the Judaica reading room would hold them for my exclusive use for one week. Judaica reading room? I had forgotten that it even existed, what with its daily mix of secular and religious Jews, even though I wrote some of my doctoral dissertation on Rabbi Salanter there . . . including the part I threw away. “Just as I receive a reward for pursuing a Talmudic line of reasoning, so I receive a reward for throwing it away.”

So runs the saying for Talmudic investigations that do not pan out, do not hold water. The reward for the study of Talmud remains the same. It is the study, not the validity of the results, that counts. If sincere, the effort put into what turns out to be a fallacious line of reasoning is valued just as much as an intellectual effort that bears fruit — provided I’m honest enough to admit my failure. On this score, here is one recollection from a moment in the library, well over 30 years ago, that I believe to be accurate.

Again, the tricks of memory: I spent part of the late 1970s writing on the thought of Rabbi Salanter in the library room, yet, when I returned to it, I had to be reminded that it existed! Once reminded, however, I remembered this:

I was trying to unravel one of the elliptical texts of Rabbi Salanter. To do so I had to posit hypotheses, then test them. I was in the Judaica reading room (I even remembered the exact desk once I saw it) when I set forth a hypothesis. I wrote several pages.

They would be a major contribution.

I wrote and wrote. My thesis advisor would be impressed!

The more I wrote, an inchoate, disturbing feeling rumbled beneath consciousness.The more I reread what I had written, the less comfortable I became. Finally, I had to admit: I was no closer to understanding these words of Rabbi Salanter than when I had begun. No reader would even see these pages of mine. I threw them away. No matter that I had spent a few days on them. The line of reasoning was fallacious. “Just as I receive a reward for pursuing a line of reasoning, so I receive a reward for throwing it away.”

When G-d replays this particular chapter in my life, I can defend it, but as for some other chapters, I shudder. I pray that this coming Rosh Hashanah I can make a breakthrough.

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