Editor’s Note: Rabbi Greenstein originally gave this sermon on Yom Kippur 5780 (Oct 2019).
Emet! The truth!
You are the One Who writes and seals and inscribes and counts,
And You remember all that has been forgotten
And You open the Book of Memories
And it reads of itself,
The signature of every single person within it (Unetaneh toqef)
I remember sitting before an old, rough wooden table in a small, dark room in back of the candy store that my grandfather ran. I remember banana-yellow candies, the shape of large peanuts, I think, and soft. I am not sure why I am there. It feels strange – and memorable, but I don’t know why.
These are some of my very earliest memories. What are your earliest memories? Where are you in those scenes? How far back can you go?
Our prayers for the Days of Awe tell us that our very lives are inscribed in a book, and this book is called Sefer Ha-Zikhronot – the Book of Memories. Book of Life – Book of Memories.
Is memory, then, essential to life? We tend to believe that it is, but the evidence, overall, points to a more complicated reality.
We begin life as a bundle of flesh and feeling. In the beginning we swing between moments of darkness and light, of comfort and discomfort, hunger and satisfaction, warm touch and desperate cries for solace. We move beyond the realm of instinct and begin to learn responses – our own and those of others. We begin to recognize those who care for us, who hold us or feed us or sing to us or dry us off from our wetness and clean us up from our mess. We develop expectations. We let the world in, more and more. We begin to move about and begin to crawl, then walk and run. Miraculously, we learn language. We start to play with others. We develop likes and dislikes.
Each one of us knows that this has happened to each one of us – as we, ourselves, began life more or less in this way – yet none of us remembers any of it.
We simply do not remember the first years of our own lives. And we don’t feel especially sad about it. We do not feel a sense of loss over this lack of memory. For those beginning years, memory is not at all essential to life. Perhaps the opposite is true. Perhaps it is essential that we start life without memories.
Yet, memories of that stage of our life, in the minds and hearts of those who loved us at that time, are precious and are often sources of delight or wonder or amusement. Those who remember may revel in these recollections; but how we feel – we, the objects of those memories that we lived but do not share, may vary. We may feel detached or bemused or embarrassed when we hear them. They are about us but they are not. For we do not remember them. Sometimes it feels awkward, as if to be remembered by others expresses a kind of control they exert over ourselves that we can never appropriate and own. When we are held in memory we are held just as an object is held – under the hand’s control, to be possessed, handled, squeezed, retained or discarded. When people remember our toddler years we are held – just as a baby is held – by their memories, at their mercy. Our entire childhood is a time when others control us. Later in life we assume some pale retrieval of control over our childhood by means of our memories. But we can never do that for our very first years. Those are the years of our oblivion.
To be sure, during that early time we remember many things that we are continuously learning, such as words and faces. But we do not remember ourselves. We are debarred from remembering how utterly helpless we were, how utterly at the mercy of others.
So it seems that memory is not essential to life, at least not at the start. Memory enters into our lives tentatively, but eventually.
In general, it is only at about the age of three that we begin to register some experiences and remember them for a time beyond the immediate present. A faculty that we never knew we had, and that we never felt we needed, sneaks up on us and becomes present in an unpredictable and elusive way. A new colony is established in our mental territory. Something becomes a “first memory,” or a bunch of episodes live together as first memories. We do not know why this experience and not another is chosen, if it is chosen at all. Some of those first memories will last – as they say – a lifetime. But others will fade away into some mysterious realm where we are not quite sure if they remain alive or not.
As we get older our memories build up and our capacity to remember matures. Sometimes what we remember surprises us. Sometimes we even force ourselves to create a memory, to turn some lived material into a memory – to memorize it – a poem, a telephone number, a Torah reading. But we can never be sure how long that memory will stick around. And, really – how much of our ongoing lives do we make the effort to memorize? How much control do we have over our memories and how much does memory live within us as a separate companion – a constant, if unreliable, companion?
Is memory essential to life? If we contemplate our later years rather than our first years, we struggle with a different response to the question. If memory is not essential to life from the beginning, by our later years it has certainly become essential. Our early lives without memory shine, untroubled and pure. But to ponder our later lives, without memory, is to tread murky and troubled waters.
It is essential for us to have memories and it is ghastly to address a life that is deprived of memories or of the ability to remember. To feel that one’s memory is “slipping” is to feel panic and terror. To care for a person whose memory has gone is to grapple with constant feelings of emptiness and sadness. We feel that something very essential has been cut out of their life and of their very self. And we feel diminished, as well.
We notice that, over time, memory has become essential to our sense of selfhood. How did this transformation occur? How did memory become essential for us and to us? And how is it that we are the same creature – before we have memory, when memory is not essential to who we are – as we are after we attain memory and it becomes so central to our sense of self?
I do not know. But I wonder whether the fact that we start life without the faculty or the need for memory may not be asking us to remind ourselves that we still remain ourselves in later years, even without the faculty of memory.
Ah, but the analogy is not equivalent. Despite ancient myths and Talmudic legends to the contrary, our infant years are not years of lost prenatal memory; they are just years of the absence of memory. But once memory arrives and takes up essential residency in our lives, its later loss is too profound to be brushed away.
Unless we want to brush it away. We may be horrified by the prospect of total loss of memory, but we most surely wish to have some control over what we remember and what we forget. We sort our memories and curate them, highlighting some, conserving and improving some, and placing some in deep storage. And there are some that we discard and de-accession. There are some memories we are happy to lose.
Recently I got a call from someone who had just moved into the area. While unpacking his belongings he came across a small Torah scroll that he had received as a Bar Mitzvah gift, some 40 years before. The gentleman wondered whether he could drop the Torah scroll off at the synagogue, since he no longer had any use for it. I tried to keep the tone of my voice light and casual as I asked whether he might not wish to put it on a bookshelf in his home, as a remembrance of his youth and his Bar Mitzvah. He replied that this would not be necessary. He had embraced a philosophy that saw everyone as equally connected, valuable and blessed. There would be no point in holding on to this very specific symbol.
He brought the Torah in as a gift and that Torah scroll sits in my office now. The man chose to lose a memory because it was no longer essential to his sense of who he was, to what he had become. But, at that moment, that Torah scroll lost something essential to what it was, to what it had become. It stopped being an object tied to a memory, tied to someone’s memory; it lost something of who it was. I think that gentleman also felt a bit of this, for his parting words were: “Perhaps it can be given to some child who will like to have it.”
For now it is as if that Torah scroll still clings desperately to a memory. It holds on tight to my memory of how its owner chose to forget it.
Earlier I claimed that our starting years show us that memory is not essential to life. But perhaps this is not quite adequate. Perhaps what those early years show is that memory is very much essential to our lives, but, when we are incapable of remembering our own lives, what is essential is to be remembered by others. We know that babies will shrivel and even die if no one is there to remember to pick them up and hold them. When we are embarrassed by the hold and the control exerted by those who remember our infancy, we need to remind ourselves that what we feel is an echo of the youthful embarrassment of being loved, of accepting that we are beloved.
In the course of time those carriers of memories of our earliest years will pass away and take those memories with them. We become the adults, the ones with memory. And we carry memories of ourselves and of them. We need to be remembered by others as others need to be remembered by us. Memory is, thus, always essential to life. It is just that sometimes our memories are entrusted to others on our behalf.
While we were in Israel this summer I was surprised to receive an email (7/19) with the curious subject line – “Website Form Submission”. I opened it with hesitation. It read:
Hi David Greenstein,
I wonder if you are the David Greenstein who knew my father Yisrael Kantor [ – names used with family’s permission] from Haifa, Israel, in the 80’s.
I found an envelope with your name in my parents’ house.
Best … Ruti Kantor
I responded –
What a surprise to get your note asking if I knew your father Yisrael Kantor!
He was my painting student in Haifa in the late 70’s and early 80’s until I left Israel and returned to the USA.
He went on to have a good career as a wonderful artist. He was a beautiful person with a big heart. We saw each other a few times when we came to visit Israel.
My wife, Zelda, and I are in Israel.
And she wrote back –
I remember my father mentioning your name. I knew it was related to painting, but I did not know exactly the context.
Were you his teacher in the Rothschild House in Haifa?
My mother passed away last December. In my attempts to organize the apartment and all that is left there, including 300 drawings of my father, I found a letter you wrote to my father, which he kept.
Maybe we can meet for a coffee.
And we did. The father had died many years ago, some time after we lost touch with each other. I had no idea that he had continued to hold on to a memory of our relationship. His memory in my own mental archive had moved into a dusty corner. His daughter’s inquiry, her desire to preserve a memory that was not fully her own, but had been a dear recollection for her father, re-awoke for me the memories of that long ago life, my life.
The man was about 60 years old when he was enrolled, in 1979, in my painting class, by his daughter, who wanted to give him a gift of a new hobby. He had a successful printing business and a family, but he was beset with a yearning for something more. He had always loved looking at art. Now he was given the chance to try his hand at it. He fell in love with painting. I recall the light in his eyes and the saliva overfilling his mouth as he spoke of the delicious qualities he was discovering in every color, in every brush stroke. He was overwhelmed. He sold his business and was an active and respected painter for the next 25 years of his life. It was my great privilege to guide him along on his passionate journey. And he loved me for being his first teacher.
I had forgotten all of that. But he held on to the memory. And his daughter somehow sensed that this was a memory not to be discarded with so much else that had built up in her parents’ home. So, thanks to them, I received part of my life back.
Memories, by definition, concern that which has already happened. So how is it possible that memories can surprise us? It seems that, just as memory is essential to life, so is forgetting. Perhaps the future would not be possible without the faculty of forgetting. Perhaps we start our lives without the gift of memory in order to enable us to rush forward and grow. But, if we only forget, our forward movement can have no meaning. Memory restores our lives to wholeness. Memory is a form of teshuvah – return.
May all our memories be a source of blessing.
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