The Day of Memory and Remembrance

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein



If we were to define the word "zikkaron" (remembrance) and its connotations, I believe that almost every one of us would arrive at a concept somehow connoting the sphere of the past. To remember, or so we are accustomed to believing, means to guard in our consciousness - especially in the intellectual sense - some fact or experience which we have acquired through our intellect or our senses. A person with a good memory is someone who succeeds in storing in his mind a fresh impression of what he has heard, seen and learned in the past. We attribute the most sophisticated memory to the computer, which is able to ingest the vast quantity of information which it is fed and then regurgitate it on demand in a second, in all its detail. In short, according to this view, we view memory as one giant archive.
This memory varies in its character and its behavior; it can be passive or active. Some events are kept in the store-house of our thoughts, ready and waiting to be drawn out when needed; others are remembered in the present and they occupy space in our current consciousness. Memories are also prompted by different causes. The aspiration to remember the past in general, as opposed to remembering discrete details, is the lot of the historian, and it plays its part in the desire to somehow control the passage of time. The effort to grasp the past and describe it springs from the wish to create some type of framework which will facilitate an understanding of the past and the present simultaneously. By means of his selective memory, an observer of history tries to impose some measure of order on the chaos of information - personalities, events - which once was and is no more. He is not interested in recalling every detail. He wishes to recall those points which serve as an outline, the framework which will allow him to understand the atmosphere of the past and its dynamics. Memory is the instrument of historical research - the recounting of the story - used in approaching the historical reality - the facts and events themselves.
On the other hand, it may be that the person remembering does not wish to analyze and organize the past, but rather to maintain it in its frozen state. The attempt to remember what was may stem from a nostalgic wish to return to a familiar period and to replay it in one's mind. A person who feels disorientated and carried away by life's tide of events and changes seeks anchorage in the past which, even if unspectacular at the time, at least represents in his mind a clear and steady moment. In the face of the passage of the years, the creative consciousness is able to build a refuge from responsibility and concerns. And sometimes the creative imagination makes no effort to remember the past as it actually was, but rather attempts to remember a touched-up, purified version of it. In this regard we may note William Wordsworth's famous definition of poetry: "emotion recalled in tranquillity."
The treasures of the past are tremendously significant in their own right. The ability to look backwards and forwards characterizes the human being and represents part of the great divide between him and the world of nature.
But this does not constitute the full meaning of memory and remembrance. There is also a type of memory which is aimed at the present, and even at the future. When the Torah tells us that "The Lord remembered Rachel and the Lord heard her, and He opened her womb," are we to understand that until this point Rachel had, in the intellectual sense, been forgotten? Does the verse, "And the Lord remembered Noah and all the animals and all the beasts which were with him in the ark" mean to indicate, Heaven forbid, that God was for any period of time unaware of the situation? In these cases memory refers to a spiritual connection; not a purely mental knowledge but rather an emotional reaction, as it were. Such a connection may be very different. In general, as in the case of the above verses, or in Nehemia's request: "Remember it for my good, O Lord, all that I have done for this nation" (Nehemia 5:19), the memory in question is positive and supportive. But sometimes it can be negative. The mishna in Rosh Ha-shana (32a) speaks about remembrance of punishment. There is even an obligation of hostile remembrance in halakha. The commandment to remember Amalek, according to the Rambam, requires not only the acquisition or repetition of the historical facts, but also an awakening as a result of them: "This [commandment] means that we are commanded to remember what Amalek did to us, in rushing out to harm us, and that we should recite this at frequent intervals and [thereby] arouse the souls by this recitation to fight against him, and encourage the nation to hate him, such that the commandment will not be forgotten and the hatred will not weaken amongst the people over time. And therefore it says, 'Remember what Amalek did to you'" (Sefer Ha-mitzvot, positive commandment no. 189). But what should be particularly emphasized is the spiritual and emotional character of remembrance in this sense, differentiating between it and knowledge and connecting it - or even identifying it - with either loathing or longing. "From whence do we know that we make a remembrance of the Temple?" asks the gemara in Sukka (41a), and answers, "Rabbi Yochanan says: As it is written (Yirmiyahu 30:17), 'For I shall restore your health to you and I shall heal you of your wounds, says the Lord, for they called you an outcast, saying, This is Zion, for whom no one seeks.' 'For whom no one seeks' - from here we see that it should be sought after."
From this comparison between remembrance and caring we see the other aspect of memory in its full force.
These thoughts are directly related to Rosh Ha-shana. In the Rosh Ha-shana prayers, the Anshei Knesset Ha-gedola (Men of the Great Assembly) defined it as Yom Ha-Zikkaron (the Day of Remembrance), and we are obligated to understand what it is that we are to remember, and how. I believe that the holiness of the day is bound up with remembrance in two senses. Undoubtedly, the first aspect is the reservoir of the past. There is amassing of facts, reviewing of information, as it were. It finds expression principally in the opening of the section of Zikhronot (the middle section of the three special additions to the Mussaf service on Rosh Ha-shana), where the character of Rosh Ha-shana as a day of judgment is spelled out. "You remember the deeds of yore, and account for the primal creations. Before you all the wonders are revealed and many hidden things from since creation, for there is no forgetfulness before the seat of Your glory, and nothing is hidden from before You. You remember all that is done, and nothing in creation is concealed from You...."
At the same time, there is clearly a second aspect. This, too, is reflected in the section of Zikhronot. And I believe that if we assume that the closing berakha summarizes the contents of the section, then the second aspect is the central one. Within a few sentences after the beginning of the berakha, we encounter a turning-point. Initially, we say in our prayer, "For the remembrance of all of creation comes before You: man's every action, thought, plan, and desire...." In the wake of this fact a terrible threat seems to face man, who is exposed in his nakedness and his guile. Suddenly a new sound reaches his ears: "For the remembrance of all deeds comes before You, and You investigate the deeds of all; Noah, too, You remembered in love and You recalled him with regard to salvation and mercy...;" and from then onwards this theme becomes increasingly stronger. It is, of course, dominant in the verses quoted in this section of prayer, and therefore halakha determines that "We do not mention [in the Mussaf Amida of Rosh Ha-shana] memories of punishment" (Rosh Hshana 32a). But it also stands at the center of the request at the end of the berakha. The fact that "For You remember all the forgotten things forever, and there is no forgetfulness before the seat of Your glory" is repeated, but for a completely different purpose. That which is remembered is principally the covenant between God and Knesset Yisrael, and the selflessness of our forefathers - and their descendants - as its source and for its sake. If so, then the character of the remembering here is not one of bare factual knowledge, but rather of spiritual connection. On this level, the very fact of a connection with God is a positive phenomenon. Nothing can be worse for us than to be distanced from Him, exposed to a cold, an uncaring cosmos, cut off from the source of life and "forgotten" by Him. "Let God be angry at us, but then save us" (Rosh Ha-shana 32b). However, it is clear that the remembrance for which we strive is completely positive - "a good remembrance (zikkaron tov)," a remembrance of compassion and love, a remembrance of happiness and comforting. In light of the Ramban's statement that "Rosh Ha-shana is a day of judgment-in-mercy" (Commentary on the Torah, Vayikra 23:24), we may say that we open with praise of the King of Judgment, and in the midst thereof we describe the memory which gathers and knows, and also accuses. But we close with a request to our God and the God of our fathers - and thereby appeal to the supportive and redemptive memory, to the source of "the remembrance of salvation and mercy from the highest Heavens." Hence both aspects of Yom Ha-zikkaron find expression.
Until now we have dealt with Yom Ha-zikkaron as it appears in the prayer service and in the thinking of Chazal as a day of remembering on the part of God. But this day, which opens the ten-day period of repentance (asseret yemei teshuva), also calls for remembrance on the part of man. This remembering, too, is a double-sided one. The commandment of teshuva requires, on the one hand, remembering and reviewing the past. It requires that we do not rely merely on what we happen to remember at the moment, but rather that we delve deep into our memory, examine our conscience, and actively recall. There is no possibility of teshuva without knowledge of the past. Firstly, we have to remember the actual sins: "For my sins I know, and my iniquities are before me always." Here, obviously, the gathering aspect of memory comes into play, the archive of our thoughts.
But we are also required to remember in a different sense completely. "And remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before those days of sorrow come and those years arrive of which you will say, 'I have no desire of them'" (Kohelet 12:1). Here we are discussing remembrance of God, not remembrance of the sins of the past. This remembering is parallel to God's remembrance of the covenant - full of longing, yearning, and an overpowering sense of the need to grasp Him and cleave unto Him. But this remembrance, deeply rooted as it may be in the human spirit and representing an inseparable part of him, still requires activating. Man, like God, must create a day of dual remembrance.
(Translated by Kaeren Fish.
This speech was originally delivered on Rosh Ha-shana 5735, and appeared in Alon Shevut 5:27 and Daf Kesher 146.)