YESTERDAY AND TOMORROW
Rabbi Lee Jay Lowenstein
Memory. It is the glue which binds together the jumbled events of our lives and allows us to arrive at an understanding of the nature of things. Without memory there can be no future.
Memory. It is the glue which binds together the jumbled events of our lives and allows us to arrive at an understanding of the nature of things. Without memory there can be no future. For the future to have meaning it must be viewed in the context of past events. Be it conscious or out of the realm of one's awareness, our every action is, in a large part, determined by the experiences we have had and how we interpreted them. In a certain cosmic sense, the true identity of an individual is wrapped up in his memory. As time marches on, one day ebbing into the next, it is the ability to remember which makes me, today, the same person who I was yesterday.
It should, therefore, come as no immediate surprise that the Torah chooses to identify the Day of Judgment as Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Remembrance. Besides the obvious connotation - that upon this day all events of Mankind are brought before the heavenly tribunal for scrutiny - this concept of remembering has significance with regard to the individual "standing trial" as well. On this day, the individual is to be judged not for the events of the past - the specific bad or good deeds committed - but for the memory of the past, for the interpretations which have bound themselves to the experiences and compose the identity of this individual. Let us see how this idea is expressed through the prayers and concepts of the Day of Judgment.
The whole idea of a day of remembrance, Yom HaZikaron, seems a bit pretentious. Are we really to believe that Hashem has "forgotten" the events of our past, and on this day He opens His voluminous tomes on each individual's personal history and reviews the details of their lives? Furthermore, there is an oft repeated refrain in the dramatic Avinu Malkeinu (Our Father Our King) prayer which begs interpretation. We beseech Hashem, "Our Father Our King, remember us with a good recollection before You." This smacks of bribery in the worst degree. Can we honestly think that Hashem is going to "selectively" recall only those positive actions and "sweep" away the blemishes of our character? Where is the fairness? Where is the justice of the King of all kings?!
We are gravely mistaken if we believe that the judgment of humanity is decided merely upon the numerical balance of good deeds vs. bad ones - that there exists a heavenly scale upon which is placed the sum total of one's actions, and that this alone accounts for the verdict. When Hashem "sits" in judgment He looks not only at the deed, but at a multitude of factors which help explain and interpret this action. To fathom the "whys" of any action, He must begin with the first breaths of life and follow the course of cause and effect until their composite justifies the subtleties of every motive and nuance in any given deed. The memories aid in coming to terms with just who this person is and what he is about. Therefore, the judgment is not a matter of answering the what, rather it is understanding the why.
When we beseech Hashem to "remember us for the good", we are in no way attempting to hide from the truth. Rather, we are asking Hashem to see the good in our motives, to see the positives that have propelled us, and to connect those kernels of goodness to the here and now by declaring that it is precisely those good instincts which we wish to identify with and hope to be viewed in the light of. In other words, we proclaim that we know that it is the goodness which ultimately identifies us, and we want You to see that any other motives are not expressions of our true selves, but are the frantic gropings of a soul desperately searching for the truth, albeit in the wrong direction.
Of course Hashem knows what we have done; this was never in question and is, in fact, quite irrelevant as far as Rosh Hashanah is concerned. What He wants to know is how we think about our past experiences, which motives describe us better. All this depends totally upon why we have come to synagogue on this day and what our expectations and hopes for ourselves are. If we trudge to the services with the thought that, "Here goes another afternoon gazing at ceiling tiles," totally inattentive to what is going on around us, then we are choosing to identify with the negative motives of our past. We are updating or defining the past based upon our present action and will be judged accordingly. If, however, we solemnly enter the sanctuary with a sense of awe and reverence, with aspirations for a better year than the past, then Hashem will choose to see us for the good that we are and will highlight those motives, thereby positively linking past and future.
The vehicle which most expresses this desire to be seen as "good at the core" is the shofar. Through its mysterious wails and groans, we hear the essence of the human soul, the divine breath of life, surging back towards its Creator, yearning to be reconnected once again. The Talmud teaches us that the shofar may not be made from the horn of a cow, for this would serve as a painful reminder to the sin of the golden calf. Asks the Talmud: "This restriction (of being sensitive to concepts which hearken back to that sin) only applies to actions performed within the Holy of Holies in the Temple (and the shofar is not sounded there)!" The sages reply, "The sounds of the shofar ascend (to heaven) through the arms of the cherubim perched atop the Ark inside the Holy of Holies." Hashem "speaks" to Man through those very same arms and we, in turn, call back to Him. The sound of the shofar is the Holy of Holies because these are the sounds of Man communicating with G-d.
May we all call out and be answered, and may we all be inscribed in the book of happy, healthy life.
Rabbi Lee Jay Lowenstein, who grew up in Atlanta and is a graduate of Yeshiva Atlanta, is an educator in Miami Beach.
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