High Holiday Sermons: Doing Memory Right

aolitzkyAnyone who has driven through the unincorporated town of Alpha, Wisconsin, knows about Burnett County Dairy. And you also likely know about their Orange Dreamsicle Malts. The first time I had one was on a drive back from visiting Herzl Camp and it was a near-death experience. I pulled out of the parking lot, and not even ten minutes into the drive I took a big slurp of the malt, and my eyes reflexively closed from the deliciousness. When I opened my eyes, I nearly slammed into the car in front of me and drove right off the road into a ditch. I can’t remember the car the man ahead of me was driving, what day of the week it was, what I was wearing, but I can picture the birthmark over the driver’s right eye as I caught his face for a split second before I spun the wheel.

Why do we remember and why do we remember what we remember? Why those details?

Tonight, we come together for Yom Kippur, the close of this ten days of repentance beginning with Rosh Hashanah. Oddly enough, Rosh Hashanah is not called Rosh Hashanah in the Torah. Its first reference is in the Book of Leviticus as Zikhron Teru’ah – a memorial with the blowing of horns. A day of blasting and a day of remembering. The language of the siddur and the machzor drive the point further referring to it as Yom HaZikaron. And that actually makes sense: we can’t have our Day of Atonement today unless we have our Day, or better, Days, of Remembrance as a prelude.

But again, why is it we remember what we remember? Dr. Gary Small, a professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, believes that emotion plays a fundamental role in memory formation. We remember because of the emotional impact an experience has on us—the euphoria and the excitement; the grief and the hurt.

We remember getting bit by the dog, but not necessarily the casual dog walk around the block. We remember our wedding, but not necessarily our second cousin’s. We remember our cancer diagnosis, but not our flu shot. We remember getting caught sneaking out at camp, but not what was served for lunch the second week.

But I want to refine this a bit: I’m of the school that believes our minds are like computers. We store everything. And more specifically, just like your recent documents section, or your autocorrected typing, or your search history, that which makes the biggest impact on us in life, whether we realize it or not, that is most readily accessible.

As the One Who created us, God is the Ultimate Engineer. God created our bodies to function as miraculous machines—but why did God create us to remember the past and not to see the future? Wouldn’t life be that much easier if we didn’t remember yesterday and instead could see what would happen tomorrow?

Think about it for a moment: none of the regrets, none of the pain, none of the sadness. And we would foresee the trials and hardships awaiting us and could in theory modify our behavior to brace for impact or even prevent them from happening in the first place. Wouldn’t that implicitly prolong our species, which one would think would be part of the goal of creation?

Then again, perhaps a vision of tomorrow could and would paralyze us. We would know about that impending tragedy and trouble and confrontation—and maybe we wouldn’t even leave the house. We’d be trapped in our own fears and anxieties. We’d be stuck.

But we’re not stuck tonight. We did leave the house and we are here this evening. We’re here this evening despite our looking out at the world around us and it is worrisome and it is horrific. Shootings, and beheadings, and war, and disease, and chaos. A time when my former USYers, now recently married, are opting not to have children because they’re afraid of bringing them into this world. They’re paralyzed because they believe the future will not look better than the past—such a bleak outlook.

But I am not afraid. The world has not spiraled completely out of control just yet.

No, I’m not a prophet. We are not prophets. But we are nostalgics, often longing for yesterday, reflecting on yesterday. And yesterday is powerful, but not in the way we normally realize.

Most of us already understand, perhaps, that God created us to remember so that we can better learn from yesterday how to ready ourselves for tomorrow. We don’t know where we’re going unless we know where we’ve been. And in a sense, this evening, we’re forced to live in and relive the past, sitting in this hallowed place, echoes of Kol Nidre from years gone by, trying to remember.

But the notion of remembering in order to ready ourselves for tomorrow is far too passive. It’s not strong enough; it’s not mission driven enough. Building a better tomorrow is much more the active energy we need to justify living today—the light in the darkness.

And the source of that light: the Torah shares with us that we are created Btzelem Elokim, in God’s image. We are divine Xeroxes of sorts. Does that mean that our memory—or at least the way it works—mirrors the way God’s memory works?

We find a clue in the Unetaneh Tokef we recited last week and will recite again tomorrow. We read: “You call to mind all things long forgotten and do open the Book of Memories so that it may be read of itself and every person’s signature is in it.”

It’s all too obvious, but God remembers too. And if God’s memory works like ours, everything is there, but that which is called up is what made a difference. Our life makes an impact on God. And God remembers those moments that cause pain and cause joy. God readily recalls when we’ve caused God pain and when we’ve caused God joy.

Now this isn’t a Santa Claus rendering of reality—checking lists, naughty or nice. This is about our relationship with God. The impression we’ve left on the world around us and the Divine above.

If last week was the Day of Remembering, then today is now that tomorrow we’ve anxiously anticipated: the Day of Atonement. But Atonement is a bogus English word that’s near impossible to translate. The word Kippur – kapparah – is a bit better. It’s similar to the word kofer – the tar-like pitch Noah used to cover the ark, and Yokheved used to cover Moses’ Nile River basket. Atonement: one action patches over another action. One memory redeems another.

Dr. Mordechai Rotenberg of Hebrew University proposes the idea of re-biographing, “rereading one’s biography so it becomes possible to live with the text.” Dr. Rotenberg teaches that “all of life is a text, and [that we need to make an effort toward] recomposition, rewriting the melody of life. You do not have to erase the past, but it can be re-composed.”

So remember with me for a moment…If you were to take a look at the span of your entire life now – take a minute – which memories rise fastest to the top? Those of Pain? Of Rage? Comfort? Calm? Acts of love? Misgivings and missteps? Fulfilled Promises? Broken Vows? Revenge? Forgiveness? Have you done wrong? Have you done right?

We can’t do Teshuvah without yesterday—which is what makes it so powerful. The act of doing Teshuvah, of literally turning in step, changing course and re-biographing—it changes God’s memory. It changes the record of the Universe. Teshuvah is putting yourself on a different path—for you, for your family and friends, and for God. Teshuvah, today, patches over yesterday for a new tomorrow.

Some of us came here this evening out of devotion; some of us came here out of guilt; some of us out of tradition; some of us out of commitment; some simply because of the person next to you or behind you. But all of us, each and every one of us, we’ve had cameos in each other’s memories—some extras, some supporting roles, and some leads. And for that, we are all forever intertwined. And we are recorded. And we are aware. And we remember. And our new path starts this evening.

Because the whole purpose of our life is to leave the world in a better place than how we found it. And I get it: some of us in this room struggle with a belief in God. But consider at least that the world has a memory and that memory is forged by the acts that we perform.

And so we are challenged and charged to act: Go out and do something memorable. Not just for someone around you. But for the One who can remember all time all at once. Stand out in God’s memory. In a positive way.

It was the Chasidic master Reb Zusya who cried on his deathbed. One of his students asked, “But Rebbe, what could you possibly be worried about? Surely, you will be ushered through the Gates of Heaven without hesitation.” The great Reb Zusya just sat and sobbed: “My son, I am not worried that God will ask me, ‘Zusya, why were you not more like Moses?’ I am worried that God will ask, ‘Zusya, why were you not more like Zusya?’”

And therefore this season is not really a time when only we remember. Yom Kippur becomes the moment when we stand up and we make a change in our lives so that God remembers us differently. So that next year, God looks at us and instead of saying, “Oh, it’s you,” God thinks, “Hey, it’s you!” And we say, “You bet, it’s me.” I done right and I done good.

May this year be a year when we figure out how to finally learn from our memories and make some new ones worth remembering.