The difference between remembering, forgetting

Elizabeth Hersh is Senior Rabbi at Temple Emanuel.


Ha’azinu is a lesson about remembering and forgetting. 

While this Torah portion includes a piece of poetry, one may suggest that the entire Torah is poetry. Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (1817-1893) wrote: “One of the distinguishing marks of poetry is that unlike prose, it always possesses more than a single meaning. In fact, the search for the discovery of new meanings is endless. So is Torah.”

Torah teaches us about our past and our future. It is about remembering. However, are there times we must forget? Moses admonishes the people for forgetting God. We must always remember what God has done for our ancestors and for us. 

Yet, as humans living in a society, we need to be blessed with the ability to forget. Rabbi Sidney Greenberg wrote: “If we had to live each day burdened with the weight of past griefs and bereavements, if we could not banish from our minds our accumulated failures, fears and frustrations, if the wounds we suffer on life’s battlefield were always raw and gaping – then life would be a heavy curse.”

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Think about the rabbinic legend that “after God finished creating the world [God] suddenly realized that [God] had omitted an indispensable ingredient with which life could not endure. God had forgotten to include the power to forget. And so [God] blessed the world with that special gift, and then [God] was content that it was now fit for human habitation.”

Forms of the verb zachar appear in various forms in the Tanach at least 169 times. How do we remember our loved ones while letting go of what stunts our growth and ability to love? Can we forget the stumbling blocks or hurtful words? Are we able to learn from our past, both the good and challenging memories? Do Jews have a collective memory as a people? 

The Baal Shem Tov taught that “remembrance is the secret to redemption.” In Ha’azinu, we hear that we should “remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past. Ask your father, he will inform you, your elders, they will tell you…” 

Is this the wisdom Moses wants the people to carry forth as they cross into the Promised Land, or is it the musings of a soul concerned that he and his teachings will soon be forgotten? 

Like many of us, we worry that our life’s work will be in vain. Are we not angry that Moses is not allowed to enter the Promised Land despite all his years of devotion? One misstep and he is punished. Isn’t that our concern? We don’t believe it is “fair.” Moses has been devoted to God and to the people, yet he will not taste the grapes pf the Promised Land. He broke faith with God, but never his people.

At this time of year, we are concerned with memory. We focus on forgetting that which hurt us and pray we are forgiven for our hurtful words or actions. And yet, as we move closer to Yizkor and all that it represents, we crave memories of our loved ones. We are at a time granting and receiving forgiveness or deciding what we hold close to our hearts and what can slip away with the waters of tashlich. And, I pray, we know the difference between the two.

From the book “Stories for Public Speakers” compiled and edited by Morris Mandel, please enjoy one of my favorite lessons about memories: 

In Maeterlinck’s beautiful play “The Blue Bird,” the children Tyltyl and Mytyl are about to begin to search for the fabled bluebird of happiness. The fairy tells them that on their journey,  they will come to the land of memory, whereupon revolving the magic diamond in Tyltyl’s hat, they will see all their departed loved ones – their grandparents, brothers and sisters. 

“But how can we see them when they are dead?” asks Tyltyl in amazement. 

The fairy looks intently, and kindly, at the youngster and replies softly: “How can they be dead, when they live in your memory?”

Elizabeth Hersh is senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association, which provides the weekly d’var Torah.