The Day of Remembrance (Rosh Hashanah Eve 5778 Sermon, 9/20/17)
Some people are better at remembering than others – birthdays or anniversaries, the name of that person you just met, facts and figures, dates and places. They are the superstars at Jeopardy and Trivial Pursuit, who have a knack for state capitals, world geography, random sports statistics, musical groups from the 80’s, or obscure scientific facts. They have memories where all of these little bits of trivia are neatly stored and easily retrieved from their brains, even in an age of Google, Alexa, and Siri.
Auditory people will remember the song that was playing at a particular moment. And tactile people remember a touch or embrace, or the fact that there wasn’t one. People with olifactory memory, like me, will remember things when they smell a perfume, or the air that reminds them of the first day of school, or bus fumes.
Certain bus fumes transport me back to the Egged bus station in Afula, near where I went to High School in Israel when I was 16. If I smell the fumes long enough, I can also taste the best chocolate horn pastry I have ever eaten, which I used to buy when I waited for a bus.
Our memory is wired to our senses, helping us relive sights and sounds, smells and touch, and taste.
For some Rosh Hashanah tastes sweet and for others the sound of the shofar is what brings back memories of High Holy Days past or creates a memory in the present.
Rosh Hashanah has three names: Yom Teruah, The day of the Blowing of the Shofar, Yom Harat Olam, the Birthday of the World, and Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembrance. The first two make logical sense. We hear the shofar and we know this day commemorates not just the first day of our year, but the first day of creation. Yet, we are never really told what we are remembering, or supposed to remember, on this Day of Remembrance. Is it the past year? Is it a lifetime? Is it our deeds? Our sins? Is it to stay home from work or school tomorrow, because we are to remember that we are part of a community? or is it to find our way into a synagogue, because Judaism matters to us?
We don’t wake up one day, or any day, planning to make a memory. Memories happen. They are moments that turn our present into a past remembered for the good or the bad. Memories are moments captured in our brains to be replayed over-and-over again in the future, whether we like them or not. Memories are more than the events, or places, or people, or emotions of our lives. Memories are how we explain who we are today, in light of who we were once upon a time. And like snowflakes, no two memories of the same moment in time are alike for any two people, because we all see life through a uniquely personal lens.
Until I read the bestselling book, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, by Joshua Foer, I didn’t realize that there are people who spend most of their lives learning how to remember – cards and number sequences, names and faces, poetry and lists. In his book, Foer explores the history and experience of human memory and then details his efforts to enter the world of “mental athletes,” which resulted in his winning the US Memory Championship.
Fascinated by our brains for a while now, I had decided to start reading about the subject of how our human brain creates, stores, and retrieves memories. So I began with Foer’s book last February. He writes, “We usually think about our memory as a single, monolithic thing. It’s not. Memory is more like a collection of independent modules and systems, each relying on its own network of neurons.” (p. 175)
Moonwalking with Einstein includes Foer’s research on how people trained their brains before living in an age of information overload. Prior to the invention of the printing press, books were few and those who had them were rare. In those days, people read their books over-and-over again, until they committed them to memory. They did this by placing the contents of whole books into architectural spaces in the mind’s imagination called “memory palaces.” This intensive way of reading meant that those individuals not only read the books they had, but they remembered them word for word. Those with highly developed memories could also remember rooms filled with people, and great oratory or theatre, verbatim, with dexterity.
We live in a world with a vast array of readable material, which we usually read only once. We read by skimming or reading for overall meaning, not always remembering exactly what we read or where. We sacrifice quality of memory for quantity of resources.
I read twelve books when we were in French Polynesia last winter. Foer’s book was just one of them. I read a fantastic book of fiction, which really enhanced my trip. I can tell you every detail about the plot and how the book made me feel, but I constantly forget the title and the author. (The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote Eat, Pray, Love) One of the dangers of wanting to remember is that we often forget.
Today, we externalize memory, meaning that we outsource it… because we can. We leave everything to digital recall. We put our lives in the Cloud. “[W]e forget our lives almost as fast as we live them.,” says Foer (p.157) The sad consequence of that is that fewer people actually remember what they did wrong. We all make mistakes. And remembering our failings, wanting to learn from our mistakes and do better, is why we are here on this Day of Remembrance.
Memory experts will tell you that “[W]e tend to remember what we pay attention to.” (p.159) Foer relates in his book that the key to memory training (p. 173) is learning from your mistakes. He writes that you learn best when your mistake is in front of you, not when you revisit it weeks later — which is why, he says that surgeons improve more than some other physicians and clinicians, because they see their mistakes in real time and get immediate feedback to learn from.
“If something is going to be made memorable, it has to be dwelled upon, repeated.”(Foer, p. 147) One article I read (BHG, 9/2016, p. 134), which supported this theory, described the making of a memory in three phases: encoding, storage, and retrieval. Encoding is making a memory by strengthening its impression on your brain, usually by writing, conversing, repeating, or using a memory technique that can be learned, like creating a “memory palace.”
Step 2 in creating a memory is Storage, because not everything you encode sticks around in your brain forever. Not unlike your computer, your brain stabilizes the memory and stores it in pieces, and moves it to long-term storage. Your memory is enhanced by sleep, and no surprise it is diminished by alcohol, weed, other drugs and the phenomenon of multitasking.
Step 3 in your brain’s memory making is Retrieval. What good is a memory if you can’t access it? But, since your brain files the memory in fragments, like your computer, your brain retrieves the encoded and stored memory fragments and then it fills in any gaps if there are pieces missing. This is helpful, but also dangerous, as some of the gap-filling may not always be accurate. An eye witness is only as good as his or her retrieval.
In the February 8, 2017 issue of the The Princeton Alumni Weekly it was reported that 2016-17 studies on collective memory show that the more we talk about an experience together, the more the discussion helps to create a consistent shared memory.
We know that as Jews! All I need to say is Sinai -and you remember receiving the Torah. You were there! The Red Sea -and you remember dancing with Miriam or the Exodus from Egypt you relive at your seder, every single year. I say Judah Maccabee – and you you swell with the pride of Jewish victory or taste the most delicious latke. The Torah is our collective memory and the diary of our earliest encounters with God. We read and reread Torah and hear the stories of our people for our entire lives, which make those memories and stories real and true in our collective memory as a people, and our personal memory as Jews, or as someone who lives with Jews.
What would Isaac say he remembered about his father? Playing in the tent or being tied up on Mount Moriah? Would Miriam remember saving her brother’s life, her bout of leprosy, or dancing with her tambourine as her defining moment? What did Moses remember in the end? The burning bush of his youth? His moment one-on-one with God at Sinai? His disappointment in the Israelites over the Golden Calf? or, striking the rock which prevented him from going into the Promised Land?
As Jews, we know that our Jewish memory doesn’t even require us to have been present to remember. In the book, Putting God on the Guest List, we are reminded:,
“So precious is the mitzvah of memory that the Torah commands us no less than 169 times to remember. Perhaps there is a mystical significance in 13 being the square root of 169. At age thirteen, Jewish children have a fairly extensive memory, one that is both tribal and individual. They often remember Shabbat and especially remember that Jews were slaves in Egypt. Jewish parents must remember to teach their children to remember.” (Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin , p.49)
There is a quote from the great Chasidic rebbe, the Baal Shem Tov (1700-1766) on the entrance to Israel’s Yad Vashem: “Redemption lies in remembering.” As Jews, our memories have saved us, and our collective memory of exile and persecution has demanded that we save others.
I’ve written over 2000 sermons here at TBS, and I hope at least one was memorable for you. I find it fascinating that as hard as I have worked to be scholarly and timely with the adult sermons over the years, what people easily remember these days are the children’s sermons and the costumes: The colander on my head, the ladybug or the bumble bee, Bat Rabbi, the Rosh Hashanah baby, the Grinch who stole something Jewish a few times over the years, Dory and Minnie Mouse and a host of Disney and Sesame Street characters, Rabbi Rogers, or the Rav in the Hat, who will be back tomorrow afternoon.
I’ve been reading through old sermons and papers in the past few months. I have 31 years of TBS remembering. It amazes me that I remember some sermons as if I wrote them yesterday and I marvel at others thinking some wiser rabbi must have written them.
One of the things I have treasured is revisiting my own children’s childhoods through the sermons I wrote about them, and seeing how those memories have impacted our Perlin lives, and the lives of everyone at TBS, over the past 31 years.
For Yom Kippur 1997, I gave a sermon entitled, “Walking in Shabbat Shoes.” In it I wrote the following: “My story begins at Nordstrom’s of all places. Last June, I took my son, Jacob, to Tyson’s Corner. We were looking for an elevator, so we walked through Nordstrom’s. There was a shoe sale going on in the men’s department. I didn’t intend to take Jacob to the men’s department; he’s only eleven. Before we knew it, he was trying on shoes. I couldn’t believe it! When did his foot grow? He was so grown up and I kept saying to his embarrassment, “My baby, my baby’s in men’s shoes.” The salesman was a nice young man, very helpful, one of five children from an Irish Catholic family. (You know me. I get to know everyone very quickly.) He fit Jacob in these really nice shoes and said, “These shoes are going to be great. What are they for?” Jacob proudly responded, “These are going to be my Shabbat shoes.” I cringed for a moment, not as comfortable with my Judaism as I should have been. My discomfort lasted only a fraction of a second. As I looked at Jacob and this salesman, it was obvious that they had bonded. (He is my son, after all.) The salesman patted the side of Jacob’s shoe, gave him a big smile, and said, “I understand.”
I still talk about my children having Shabbat shoes, but until I found the sermon, I had completely forgotten about the Nordstrom event recounted in the story. What is most memorable to me is the fact that wearing Shabbat shoes every single week created Shabbat Jews, and that those Shabbat Jews now have little Shabbat Jews of their own.
Our little Miriam has had challah every single week of her 27 months of life, except the weeks she had to have matzah. She has not missed a week. And her wonderful mother gets up early with her most Fridays, even recently nine months pregnant, so that Miriam will have memories of baking challah with her Mommy. The memories of Shabbat past have birthed the creation of the memories of Shabbat present.
Miriam’s father, my son Jonah, wrote a midterm paper entitled, “Shabbat Happens” in March of 2007, when he was a senior in college. The title was based on the bumper stickers David Zweigel had made many years ago here at TBS. In the paper, Jonah wrote about his memories of Shabbat:
“Until I left home, my family never missed having Shabbat dinner together unless my dad happened to be traveling (though he always tried to be home for Shabbat.) If we were traveling as a family whether in America or abroad we would always say the prayers and light candles and often try and find a synagogue to attend. When at home our Sabbath table often had visitors and after partaking in the traditional rituals of lighting the candles, drinking wine and eating challah we would always go around and say what in the past week we were “thankful for.” Even on the night of my senior Prom, which was a Friday, we had a family Shabbat dinner before I left and made sure to light candles and say the prayers together. Shabbat was not just a part of the week for us, but was in many ways the week’s focal point.”
He continued a bit later on:
“But, it was more than simply my immediate family who connected me with Sabbath observance; it was my synagogue community as well.” (Jonah Perlin, Midterm for Prof Jenna Weissman-Joselit, 3/27, 2007 at Princeton Universtity)
Jonah’s recollection filled my heart with joy when I read his paper the first time, and again when I found it last month going through piles in preparation for retirement. I do remember that it took great effort for us to make Shabbat each week. I may remember how hard it was, but as I look back and remember those days through my “Mommy, Wife, and Rabbi” brain, I know that all the effort was TOTALLY worth it.
I will forever remember and be grateful that this community helped me raise my children to become Shabbat Jews, who have turned into Shabbat observing parents. Those memories transformed our family, our faith, and our lives for the good, l’dor vador.
Since announcing my retirement, letters and emails from members keep coming in with memories: memories of Bar or Bat Mitzvahs, weddings, namings, graduations, trips to Israel, and moments shared in my office, or in hospital rooms, or on cemeteries. Most of all — memories of treasured relationships. Some of the notes have moved me to tears.
Your lives are still a part of my daily working memory. You come into my office and I can recall a conversation we had 30 years ago, as if it were yesterday. They say our memories of the past in old age are the last to go. My memories of you will be with me for the rest of my life. As Rabbi Debra Orenstein is quoted as saying, “Memory both transcends time and endows it with meaning.” (Elkins, RH READINGS, p. 281)
I carry much of TBS’s historical memory in my brain. I have facts about the history of each Torah and Torah ornament, and every decision we have ever made that has made TBS special and unique and values-driven. My brain has encoded and stored every single detail in each tapestry, the history of every mezuzah on every door, the names that go with most of the faces in the pictures in the hallway, and the pronunciation of all those names on the Kaddish list. I have been the keeper of the memories and now it is time for me to pass those TBS memories on.
In working with people on their relationships in my office over the years, I quickly realized that those who remember mostly the negatives aren’t usually still in love, or in like, anymore, or intent on a future together. The key to healthy long term relationships is the ability to focus on the positive memories.
I hope you will remember me, as you recall a conversation we shared that helped you through a time when you were in need of a rabbi, or a listening ear, or caring heart. I hope you will remember a sermon, or a class, or words of Torah, or that hug, that made a difference in your life or your relationship with Judaism. I hope you will remember that I really cared and tried so hard to do my very best every day, and to give you my time generously. I hope you remember the positives.
So Foer writes, “How we perceive the world and how we act in it are products of how and what we remember. We’re all just a bundle of habits shaped by our memories.” (Foer, p. 269)
Every year, we look back on the memories of events that affected us as part of the world in which we live: Harvey, Irma, … Charlottesville. We recall and recount memories as a society: Kennedy’s “Ask not” speech, the first man on the Moon, Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, VA Tech, 9/11. Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins writes, “We remember the good and the bad of what happened before us, so that we can make tomorrow better than today and yesterday.”(RH Readings, p. 280)
We make memories. We cherish memories. We collect memories in albums and digital files. And during these holiest days we honor memories of loved ones and friends, and those we might not even know personally. For when our time with others is over, all that is left are the memories we leave behind.
How ironic, then, that we ask God to remember us for life (Zochreinu l’chayim) on these holiest days. Does the God who created us and breathed life into us forget us? In a very real spiritual and psychological sense, we are asking ourselves to remember that life matters, when too often, we fill our lives with things that so often don’t matter in the long run.
We get to decide what we do with our memories. You decide. Are you challenged or paralyzed by your memories? Have you used them to learn and grow? Do your memories give you comfort, make you feel safe, or do they cause you pain or make you feel vulnerable? How we respond to our memories and what we choose to remember and share, determines so much of our lives.
There is an ancient Greek myth of a woman who enters into the waters of the River Styx at the end of her life. There Charon (C-H-A-R-O-N), the guide for the dead, was to take her to the region of the departed spirits. Charon then reminds her that she could drink of the waters of Lethe, on the way and thereby forget all the anguish she had experienced in life once she entered the world-to-come.
She said, “I will forget how I have suffered?” Charon replied, “You will forget how you rejoiced.” The woman challenged, “I shall forget my failures?” Charon reminded her, “And also your victories.” Again she asked, “I shall forget all of the painful memories of life?” Charon countered, “You will also forget all of the loving and joyful memories of life.”
In silence the woman meditated, and ultimately elected not to drink the waters of Lethe. She chose to retain her memories of sadness, of loss and tribulation, rather than surrender the loving memories of her life as well. (Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben tells a story in Elkins RH READINGS p. 284)
We choose what we remember, even if that means remembering the bad with the good, the mistakes with the successes. And as the Barbra Streisand lyric from the song Memories goes: “What’s too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget.”
Foer writes at the very end of his book (p. 269-270):
“Now more than ever, as the role of memory in our culture erodes at a faster pace than ever before, we need to cultivate our ability to remember. Our memories make us who we are. They are the seat of our values and sources of our character.”
This is the Day of Remembrance. The shofar will be blown tomorrow and prayers will be recited. And we will ask God to “Remember us unto life.” None of us know what the future holds. We have our memories of yesterday, encoded, stored away, and awaiting retrieval. And we pray that we will be given more time to make new memories in the days to come.