Remembering and Forgetting – Rosh Hashanah 5781

Featured | Writings

Aside from Rosh Hashanah (literally, the head or start of the year), the Jewish New Year is also called Yom Ha-din (Judgment Day), Yom Teruah (the day of the sounding of the shofar), and Yom Ha-zikaron (Remembrance Day). The latter name, according to some, refers to God remembering Abraham’s devotion and thus blessing Abraham’s descendants or, according to others, Jews remembering their sins as a prelude to repentance. Memory, however, is a particularly slippery phenomenon.


Experience tells us that as we age memory fails. Research has discovered that memory lapses begin early in life and for good reason. Ronald Davis, a Florida-based neurologist told the New York Times that “we are inundated with so much information every day, and much of that information is turned into memories in the brain. We simply cannot deal with all of it.” Forgetting, therefore, is an act of de-cluttering. It is the brain’s way of clearing space for new information or for creative thinking. A team from Nagoya University in Japan led by Akihiro Yamanaka associated this very function with melanin-concentrating hormone neurons that are active in R.E.M. sleep and seem to be clearing up memory space for the next day by deleting memories of the day past. For young children, filtering memories is important developmentally. Patricia Bauer, a cognitive psychologist at Emory University, notes that children form memories at a very early age but then lose them very quickly. Apparently, some memories can hold children back from taking risks, experimenting, and growing emotionally.


Despite the usefulness of forgetting, loss of memory is frightening. A rare but scary condition called transient global amnesia results in a temporary lapse wherein the brain simply stops recording. Unlike dementia or senility when people can no longer identify familiar objects or faces or recall facts previously learned, transient global amnesia prevents storing the facts in the first place.


All of this impinges on the understanding of Rosh Hashanah as Yom Ha-zikaron. As much as Rosh Hashanah is a day about remembering, it is also a day about forgetting and being able to see the virtue in both. As one anonymous observer put it: “Never forget what is worth remembering or remember what is best forgotten.” On Rosh Hashanah Jews need to remember our proud history, our special relationship with God, our abiding connection with the State of Israel, our obligations to each other and even our lapses so that we might learn never to repeat them. But there are also things best forgotten like the minor insults of friends, or the slights of family members. (They are called slights for a good reason.) A former president of the Rabbinical Assembly and a master preacher, Rabbi Saul Teplitz, once taught me that as valuable it is to have a good memory, it is even more important to be blessed with a good “forgettery.” Clear out those bad memories and make space for better ones.


That, perhaps, is the worthiest prayer for this coming year: May we all be blessed with a good forgettery.




Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Rabbi Allen on Twitter