Memory is strange. In one way, memory is, as James Barrie wrote, God’s gift to us that we might have roses in December. In another way, memory is like an unreliable friend: failing us when needed most. Sometimes a good memory can avert disaster. Sometimes a good memory can save us from harm. A good memory is often an aid to academic success or career advancement. Sometimes our memory is good enough to retain in intimate detail the anguish we suffered at the hands of parents, siblings, teachers, and friends and yet not quite good enough to recall the kindnesses those same people did for us. Sometimes you never know how much a person can’t remember until he is called as a witness.
Judaism is predicated on memory. All Jewish holidays are inaugurated with Kiddush, a prayer to remind us of the Exodus from Egypt: an event so remote in time that even archaeologists can only approximate its date and yet so familiar to each and every Jew as if it happened yesterday. The Passover Seder in particular is designed to revive the memory of our liberation from bondage. Shabbat reminds of the origin of the universe and God ceasing from creation. Four times annually we pay homage to our relatives whose memories we lovingly recall. Every weekday we wear Tallit and Tefillin to remind us to perform all of the commandments. To be a Jew means to remember.
Repeated with unceasing regularity in the book of Deuteronomy and especially in this week’s Torah reading is the charge to remember, and also to remember correctly: “Remember and do not forget,” “Should you forget…” and the like. It is our duty to remember. And a selective memory is a perversion of our duty. Accordingly, Moses admonishes the people Israel to “Remember the whole journey” (Deuteronomy 8:2) not just the selective, self-serving parts.
Aldous Huxley once remarked that: “every man’s memory is his private literature.” But private does not mean subjective. It is not the case that each person can manipulate memory so that what is recalled “fits” into a preconceived framework. What Huxley intended was that each person could reflect at will on all that made up that person’s prior experiences. Only through an honest and complete recollection can a person effectively evaluate the road taken on the journey of life and change direction if required.