A Sabbath Message: Elul Jewel #4 – Memory and Meaning

“A great horn sounds, calling you to remembrance, but all you can remember is how much you have forgotten. Every day for a month, you sit and try to remember who you are and where you are going. By the last week of this month…your prayers become urgent. Then the great horn sounds in earnest one hundred times. The time of transformation is upon you… The gate between heaven and earth creaks open.”

– Rabbi Alan Lew (1943-2009)

Today, as we approach the last Sabbath of the Jewish year, we look back and remember. Memory is powerful – it can bring sorrow or great joy – and especially meaning to our lives.  Arriving next week, Rosh Hashanah goes by many names, but perhaps the most important comes from the Talmud and liturgy: Yom Hazikaron – Day of Remembrance. But what are we truly remembering? The kind of “zikaron” we are talking about here is “higher memory,” unique only to humans – the ability we have to make our lives eternal through meaning. Thus, when we consider God’s judgment on Rosh Hashanah, it is far more than simple good and evil deeds, but instead there is a worse option than evil: meaningless acts. Our ultimate goal is that we live a conscious life, such that our deeds make it to God’s memory of lasting significance.

Our tradition focuses a great deal on memory – and I believe, that is part of the reason why we are still here. Based on what was discussed above, a person who exists only in the present is not a fully functioning individual. Similarly, I believe a tradition which exists only in the present is the same – we need our past and what has transpired for our people to inform us. Only then, can we live fully conscious lives as individuals and as a Jewish people. Speaking personally, both my professional and religious life revolves around memory. The Jewish part is fairly obvious, but as both a therapist and a Holocaust educator for over 30 years, memory plays a key role in the success of the work. I often bristle when I hear the age-old criticism: Jews live too much in the past. I don’t think so. There is balance needed, of course, but it is what makes us who we are. Similarly, our tradition and High Holiday liturgy is filled with references to memory and remembering – and never forgetting is important work for us all.

Of course, memory leads us to other thoughts which must be acknowledged, so a word about grief and loss. We have all faced this to one extent or another – and our grief and loss seems particularly acute during these holidays. Whether it’s during the Yizkor service for loved ones departed from us, or during the Eleh Ezk’rah (“These I Recall”), the service to remember our people’s martyrs on Yom Kippur, we are surrounded by sadness and grief. But as we face our losses, we also find joy in the memories of loved ones and of times past, which strengthen us.

Speaking of grief, today we share our grief as a society, as we remember a terrible tragedy 19 years ago on this very morning. On September 11, 2001, our lives were changed forever by unspeakable evil. We all remember where we were that horrible day. Our family had just moved to Santa Barbara one month before. We took our very young daughters out of school and went to their favorite place for comfort – the Santa Barbara Zoo. There, as we sat on the phone with my cousin in New York (who is like a sister to me), she described in detail as she watched the 2nd tower come down from her roof. At the same moment, we stood at the lion habitat, mesmerized as one of the lions moaned for her sibling, who had recently died. That primal moan reflected what the whole world was feeling – a memory we will never forget.

And so, our challenge this year, is to make a new memory for these High Holidays. As you prepare for next week, think about the experience you wish to have – whether you are alone or with family. You might ask yourself: what do I need spiritually and emotionally right now and how might I design a holiday experience which meets me where I am? What are the traditions I want to keep from previous years – or what might I like to try which is new? What are the songs, smells, and tastes I associate with the holiday, which I don’t want to miss? Who are the people I want to share the holiday with and have I reached out to them? Are there other preparations I can make – can I make a holiday meal together with others, even across the miles? What are virtual worship options available? So much creativity is possible this year!  With a week to go, there is still plenty of time to create a Rosh Hashanah full of meaning.

With blessings for a Shabbat Shalom – and a new year of new meaningful memories,

Ruth Steinberg, LCSW
Director, Jewish Family Service