Standing before the crowded theatre in Stockholm in the Winter of 1986, Elie Wiesel surveyed the room as he delivered his Nobel Prize lecture on the critical importance of memory. “Without memory, our existence would be barren and opaque, like a prison cell into which no light penetrates; like a tomb which rejects the living.” Wiesel believed that any leap into the future without a deep awareness of the past would ultimately prove futile. In Wiesel’s words, without dreams there can be no hope, no future without memory.
Memory, of course, plays a central role throughout Jewish thought and practise. Yosef Haim Yerushalmi, in his pivotal study on Jewish history and memory, Zakhor, wrote of the unique emphasis Judaism places on memory: “Only in Israel, and nowhere else is the injunction to remember felt as a religious imperative to an entire people.” No commandment figures as frequently and indeed as powerfully as the resounding call to remember. A casual perusal of the Torah reveals a plethora of such instructions: “Remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past” (Dev. 32), “Remember the day you left Egypt” (Dev. 17), “Remember that which Amalek did to you” (Dev. 25) and “Guard yourself lest you forget what your eyes saw…. the day you stood at Chorev” (Dev. 4). By preserving the memory of these pivotal moments of history, we perpetuate the values those events contain into the future.
Whilst memory presents a ubiquitous feature throughout the Jewish year, it receives particularly poignant attention on Rosh Hashanah. One of the names adopted by the Jewish tradition to mark this transition between one year and the next is Yom Hazikharon, ‘the Day of Remembrance’. Rosh Hashanah is thus to be a day dedicated to memories, to recall and reflect upon the past. As the previous year fades into the distance, the Jewish calendar provides a brief period of careful remembrance before the onset of the new annual cycle and the fresh year gathers apace.
Memory also takes centre stage at the very heart of the Mussaf service on Rosh Hashanah. The central blessing devoted to Zichronot summons God’s all-knowing memory: “You remember what was wrought from eternity and heed all that has been formed from of old; before You all secrets are revealed and the multitude of hidden things from the beginning. For there is no forgetfulness before the throne of Your glory, nor is anything hidden from Your eyes. You remember every deed and no creature is concealed from You .” Evoking God’s memory on Rosh Hashanah prompts us to reflect honestly and frankly upon our selves and our actions. Rosh Hashnah presents a day to gaze earnestly and sometimes painfully at the moments in our past we might otherwise wish erased from the records.
In many ways, Yom Kippur marks a tectonic shift away from this marked emphasis on memory. The very first prayers we utter on Yom Kippur are the words of Kol Nidrei. This harrowing piece is dedicated to annulling the promises, oaths and vows we have taken over the previous year. Yom Kippur thus begins with an act of wilful and concerted forgetfulness. The process of forgiveness and atonement of Yom Kippur can only begin once we have undergone a moment of such forgetfulness. This purposeful act of abandonment, discarding the unrealistic commitments made over the past year, enables us to enter the new year fresh and with clear vision.
In order to move forward and develop, we cannot simply perpetuate the aged and dusty goals of erstwhile years. The very act of self-creation, perhaps the ultimate act of freedom, necessitates a degree of forgetfulness. As Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) proclaimed in the realm of economics, often one needs to destroy in order to create. It is perhaps for this very reason that Yom Kippur itself is ushered in by the tones of forgetting. On Yom Kippur we erase our old vows and thereby unhinge our inner selves to mould a new vision and pave a novel path for the year ahead. Judaism certainly encourages memory, yet a degree of forgetfulness carves out a space for change and, ultimately, hope. Hold on to the past too tightly and we run the risk of replaying and re-enacting a past we wish to avoid.
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This complex combination of memory and forgetfulness appears, perhaps surprisingly, in the realm of Torah learning too. Here too we see that creativity is spawned through the act of forgetting. The rabbinic caution against the dangerous pitfalls of forgetfulness suggests a distinctively negative vision of forgetfulness. In Pirkei Avot (Chapter 3:8) Rabbi Meir warns that “one who forgets even a single matter of his study, it is as if he is liable for his soul…” Forgetfulness is thus closely associated with moments of sin. The Talmud (Temurah 16a) describes how hundreds of laws were suddenly forgotten due to a momentary exhibition of arrogance on Joshuah’s part. A similar tale (Pesachim 66a) is told of Hillel the Elder who forgot a particularly pertinent teaching after sharply and unjustly reprimanding his questioners.
Despite these condemnations, numerous positive descriptions of forgetfulness abound. The Talmud (Bava Metziah, 85a) writes: “R. Zeira, when he journeyed to the land of Israel, observed a hundred fasts to forget the teachings of Babylonia.” R. Zeira underwent a period of forgetfulness to create a space for the creative regeneration necessary to attain higher spiritual heights.
Another Talmudic piece (Eruvin, 54a) describing Moses’ shattering of the tablets illustrates that forgetfulness does indeed play a vital role within our lives. The Talmud writes: “If not for the breaking of the First Tablets, the Torah would never have been forgotten.” And yet, when Moses does indeed shatter the tablets, God, according to the Talmud, offers His ultimate seal of approval: “Yashar Kochaha.” Forgetfulness thus appears to receive the ultimate sanction.
In a rather remarkable commentary, Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner (Pachad Yitzchak, Chanukah 3) seeks to explain this positive endorsement of forgetfulness:
“We learn from here a great novel idea, that Torah can grow through forgetfulness, to the point where it is possible to receive Divine congratulations for forgetting the Torah… Not only this, but the whole basis for arguments within halakhah stems from forgetting…. we seen from here that divergence of opinion and the exchange of ideas contributes to the growth and splendour of the Torah which is born specifically through forgetting the Torah.”
According to R. Hutner, forgetfulness and spiritual creativity are intimately intertwined — forgetfulness provides the fertile ground for novel Torah ideas to sprout and flourish. Memory is paramount in any conception of Torah, yet a degree of forgetfulness allows each generation to breathe renewed life into the revered Jewish tradition. It is this oscillation between remembrance and relinquishment that lies at the very heart of the transition from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, from memory to forgetfulness.