OP-ED: A Time to Remember and a Time to Forget
By RABBI DONNIEL HARTMAN
Memory is a primary motivator for teshuvah (repentance), but all too often unfortunately it is the memory of God which plays the dominant role. God as the being with an infinite and infallible memory, remembers and recounts all of our actions. God is the Judge in front of whom nothing is hidden or forgotten. Such a God instills fear that on the Day of Judgment, the Judge of the whole Earth will find us guilty. Rosh Hashanah, our annual day of judgment on which we are brought one-by-one in front of God to give an account for our actions, instills in us the fear which in turn motivates us to repent.
In an interesting twist on the theme of memory, the Rosh Hashana liturgy plays out the idea of God’s infinite memory and reminds God to not only remember every one of our failings but also the fact that God owes us as the descendants of Abraham, at the very least a little compassion, as a repayment for Abraham’s willingness to offer God his son, Isaac, at God’s request. Here, memory is central, not in order to catalyze human beings to repent but to catalyze God to grant us atonement. In both scenarios, Rosh Hashana lives up to its traditional nomenclature as Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembrance and is the foundation for Yom Kippur which follows it as either the culmination of the process of teshuvah or the culmination of the process of judgment which hopefully ends in atonement.
The teshuvah depicted above is a teshuvah out of fear and in a deep sense unworthy of us and our High Holiday season. Teshuvah ought to transcend the motivation of fear and instead be motivated by an inner vision of oneself and who one believes one ought to be. This is the idea of teshuvah out of love. In this teshuvah, memory still plays an essential role but it is no longer the memory of God but rather the memory of a human being. Rosh Hashana as Yom Hazikaron is not the day in which God remembers but the day in which we are challenged to remember.
One cannot embark upon a process of change without a full and honest recounting of one’s actions and of one’s life. This is the core meaning of the idea of vidui (confession), which as Maimonides states in Hilchot Teshuvah, is the essential commandment associated with the act of teshuvah. Personal transformation begins at the moment that an individual is willing to stand up and declare, “I have sinned. I have done such-and-such. I am ashamed of my actions and promise never to repeat them again.”
It is not merely that he who fails to learn from the past is doomed to repeat it, but that one who does not remember is paradoxically enslaved by the past. Who one is, remains frozen and determined by who one was. Memory can facilitate and allow for an honest recounting of what one has created in one’s life, a recounting which can marshal the will, energy and experience necessary to chart a different path, to see who one was and to decide to move in a different direction.
The problem is, however, that memory can also enslave one in the past. The ability to change is often conditional on a leap of faith, a faith in oneself, that one can begin anew, that who one was need not determine who one will be. In a deep sense, one also needs to free oneself from one’s past, to delete it, so that a new story, a new journey and a new person can emerge. To learn from the past often entails getting stuck there. A healthy revolution needs to be gradual but it also needs a moment of radical departure, a break, and teshuvah is nothing less than a personal revolution.
Rosh Hashana as the day of memory can be both a catalyst for teshuvah and a catalyst for making it impossible. To forget, we don’t need Rosh Hashana as the Day of Remembrance, but rather Rosh Hashana as the first day of the new year, a year whose story has yet to be written and who invites us to begin anew, unencumbered by the failures of the prior year.
In a trivial sense it is obvious that we need both, both a time to remember and a time to forget, and that a worthy life is one that finds the appropriate balance. I worry, however, that the idea of an “appropriate balance” itself often serves as a foundation for mediocrity, as in the balance, each undermines the other. It is true, we need both, but it is not a balance between the two we need but rather the ability to decide which we need and when, which we allow to dominate at any given moment.
There is indeed a time to remember, a time to give a deep and significant accounting for one’s actions, to come to terms with what one has done and become. To look oneself honestly in the mirror and to confront all of one’s flaws – not others’ flaws but one’s own flaws – in order to distance oneself from who one no longer wants to be.
But within this process there must be a moment when one lets go, when one knows that one has failed and stops berating oneself for that. When one looks to the future and is motivated by the unlimited potential which it promises. In order to live in this future as a new self we must also allow ourselves to forget.
And so we go, back-and-forth, back-and-forth, not in search of balance, but making sure that we never get stuck in one modality. A time to remember and a time to forget.
(Rabbi Donniel Hartman is the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute and director of the Engaging Israel project.)