Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Walk Article-Rosh Hashanah

Rosh Hashanah-5776
Rabbi David Walk

Like many of my titles, I, sort of, stole or borrowed.  My name for this week's article is based on the mistranslation of the title of Marcel Proust's great work, À la recherche du temps perdu , which should be translated as In Search of Lost Time, but was called Remembrance of Things Past by C. K. Scott Moncrieff, Terence Kilmartin, and Andreas Mayor in their famous translation of 1981.  A major theme of the book is involuntary memory.  This phenomenon occurs when cues encountered in everyday life evoke recollections of the past without conscious effort.  An example of this might be a bird singing which transports the listener to a moment in their youth which included an aviary aria.  This can be enlightening or scary.  Usually when this happens to me it's just embarrassing.    So, if you ever see me blushing for no apparent reason (as opposed to those many times, when it's obvious why I'm blushing), there's a good chance that I'm experiencing involuntary memory or just ate Tabasco sauce.  Anyway as I age memory looms ever larger in my life.  I find myself unable to recall information like names that I want or remembering events which I wanted to forget.  It's just an aging fact.  Well, as we get ready for Rosh Hashanah, memory is a critical issue, as we'll discuss presently.
The upcoming holiday has many names in Jewish tradition.  We, of course, almost exclusively refer to this celebration as Rosh Hashanah or New Year.   Most of our greetings and customs revolve around this theme of newness.  But the day is also threateningly known as Yom Hadin or Day of Judgment.   These two names really work together, because in Judaism we view the passage of time as a call to contemplate what we've done in the past and resolve to do better in the future. We should judge our behavior whenever we stop to notice the march of events around us.  However, neither of these names appears in the Torah.  In all the Biblical texts relating to this festival two other names are employed, yom terua and yom hazikaron.  Yom terua is the simplest epithet to deal with, because it means the day of the shofar blast.  We're all aware of the fact that the major Biblical observance of the day is, of course, the blowing of the ram's horn.  But the most common name for the day in our Biblical texts is yom zikaron, Day of Remembrance.  This brings us to ask, 'What are we remembering?  And to what purpose?'
Thankfully our Sages were ready for the questions and built into the musaf (additional) service information about remembering.  This longest prayer of the Jewish liturgy has three major themes: malchiot (God's kingship), zichronot (remembrances), and shofrot (shofar blasts).  We're most interested in the memories sections.  Whose memories are central to this theme?  God's.  We talk almost exclusively about God remembering.  God remembered Sarah, Noach, the covenant, the land of Israel, Ephraim, and the Patriarchs.  What's the point?  God's not like us; there is no forgetfulness before the Divine Throne.  We're forgetting all the time.  What was I writing about?  Oh, yeah, remembering.  You could say that this perfect Divine memory log is to scare us into proper behavior, because the Lord will remember and punish all transgressions.  I think that to a certain extent there is truth in that approach, but I think that there is a much larger issue looming.  
In our tradition there are six items which we are required to remember at all times.  They are:  Remembering the Exodus from Egypt (Deut. 16:3), Remembering receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai (Deut. 4:9-10), Remembering Amalek and Amalek's attack on the innocent (Deut. 25:17-19), Remembering the Golden Calf incident (Deut. 9:7), Remembering Miriam's sin and punishment  (Deut. 24:9), and Remembering Shabbat (Exodus 20:8).  Some traditional Jews have the custom of reading the pertinent verses every day after morning services.  But, again, what's the point?  I think the answer to all the problems can be discerned from the most prominent of the six remembrances, which is to remember the exodus.  I say that this is the most prominent even though others may argue that it's Shabbat (after all we keep it every week), because remembering the departure from Egypt is mentioned in the Torah fifty times.  But, here's the point:  thirty-six of those times the Torah demands that we are kind to strangers, because we were strangers in Egypt (and Babylonia, and Persia, and Rome, and Spain, and…).  In other words all of these remembrances are to induce a certain kind of moral behavior.  
This brings us to God.  Of course, God never forgets.  So, it seems pointless to discuss that God remembers.  But 'God remembers' is a literary device which tells us that at certain critical points in history God does something (gives Sarah a child, lets Noach out of the ark, liberates the Jews from Egypt), because of a previously given promise.  For God memory is a stimulus to required behavior.  So, it should be for us.  Look, I was a history major.  I love studying the past.  I think that it's interesting and edifying, but if it doesn't affect how I act now, it's pretty worthless.  Yes, we Jews study the past and have a Pesach Seder to feel connected to our difficult but glorious history, but that's not the real point.  Memory for us is a string tied around our finger to remind us to do something (or in the case of the memory about Miriam, not do something, namely gossip).  History is a trivial pursuit if it doesn't affect who we are and what we do.
So on Rosh Hashanah we try to remember all our behavior patterns from the previous year and before.  Some will be gratifying, others embarrassing.  But the objective is not just to keep this material on file forever.  And it's not even only to induce ourselves to repent.  It's to make us behave better in the future.  May your Rosh Hashanah be sweet, and this coming year even sweeter!