The Day of Remembrance

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein


Rosh Ha-shana: The Day of Remembrance

By Harav Aharon Lichtenstein



            Rosh Ha-shana is the name by which common parlance has, quite literally, designated the onset of the new year.  The Rabbis, however – while they, too, frequently use this term – have chosen a more definitive and descriptive phrase to denominate the occasion in prayer: yom ha-zikkaron, “the day of remembrance.”  Hence, in order to grasp the significance of the day as they conceived it, we need to understand the substance of zikkaron.


            I presume that if any of us were asked to define remembrance and its associations, we would most likely focus upon storage of the past.  To remember, so we are inclined to think, is primarily to preserve in our consciousness – generally, in an intellectual mode – a fact or an experience which we have previously appropriated through the mind or our senses.  A “good memory” is one which succeeds in retaining, precisely and vividly, that which has been seen, heard or learned.  The best memory, in this sense, therefore belongs to a sophisticated computer which can absorb a massive stream of information and emit it, instantly and exactly, upon a moment’s notice.  In short, we tend to regard memory as simply one comprehensive archive.


            Even in this sense, memory may vary in character and purpose.  It may, for instance, be either passive or active.  A phenomenon may be stored in the recesses of the mind, available should the need arise; or it may be recalled at this very moment, as one component of current existential consciousness.  And memory may of course be variously motivated.  The historian reconstructs the past in order to interpret it.  Whether consciously selective or striving to delineate his subject in its entirety – “exactly as it was,” in Ranke’s celebrated phrase – he is less interested in disjunct details than in the overall picture; and he is primarily animated by the desire to create a framework which should enable him better to understand the past as well as, hopefully, the present.  His aim is the imposition of mastery and order upon the welter of data, persons, and events, to grasp the dynamics and the climate which brought them forth; and memory is the medium through which Clio’s history, the story of the past, confronts history proper.


            On the other hand, one may conceivably remember the past with no interest in either analyzing or ordering it but rather out of a desire to arrest it.  The attempt to recall the evanescent may spring from nostalgia longing for some familiar period to be imaginatively reconstructed.  Feeling swept along by the maelstrom of a changing present, one may seek anchor in a segment of the past which might initially have been no less turbulent but which retrospectively appears relatively stable.  Through the vehicle of memory, artistic sensibility can create a seemingly timeless haven from anguish and responsibility.  Proust is the best known modern exemplar of this tendency but he hardly stands alone.  Or again, the artist may recapture the past not in order to return to it but, on the contrary, so that he may, in part, transcend it.  “Poetry,” Wordsworth wrote, “is emotion recollected in tranquility.”


            Retention of the past has great significance per se.  The capacity, in Hamlet’s phrase, for “looking before and after” characterizes man and sets him off from the rest of nature.  Nevertheless, it hardly exhausts the full range of memory, of zikkaron.  There is memory which is not the recollection of an emotion but which is itself an emotion; and as such it may, strangely enough, relate to present and future no less than to the past.  When the Torah tells us (Bereishit 30:24), “And God remembered Rachel, and God hearkened to her, and opened her womb,” are we to understand that hitherto she had, as an objective datum, been forgotten?  Does the pasuk (Bereishit 8:1), “And God remembered Noah, and every living thing, and all the cattle that were with him in the ark,” describe, salve reverentia, some change in the range of His knowledge?  Clearly, vayizkor in these verses signifies attention rather than knowledge.  They tell us that God heeded Rachel and Noah, respectively; and they suggest that zikkaron may denote response and relationship.  That relationship may of course vary.  Generally, it is sympathetic.  However, it may be negative as well. The mishna (Rosh Ha-shana 4:6) speaks of retributive zikkaron, and in at least one instance, hostile remembrance is even normatively commanded.  As the Rambam in particular emphasized, the mitzvah to remember Amalek does not merely enjoin awareness of the historical facts but calls for enmity as well.  In either case, however, remembrance is more experiential than cognitive.  It is closer to revulsion or yearning than to knowledge.  Referring to several Rabbinic ordinances which were instituted as zekher le-mikdash, “a commemoration of the Temple,” the gemara (Sukka 41a) comments:


Whence do we [learn] that we commemorate the Temple?  R. Yochanan said: For the verse says (Jer. 30:17), “For I will restore health unto thee, and I will heal thee of thy wounds, saith the Lord; because they have called thee an outcast: ‘She is Zion, whom no one seeks’” – evidently, she ought to be sought.


The implicit equation of remembrance and quest presents the second dimension of zikkaron with full force.


            The implications for Rosh Ha-shana are clear.  The day and its sanctity are grounded in memory in both senses.  The first aspect – recollection of the past, retention of information, recall of events (all this, of course, salve reverentia) – is unquestionably present.  It finds its foremost expression in the opening lines of zikhronot, “memories,” the middle blessing of the mussaf prayer in which the character of Rosh Ha-shana as a day of judgment is emphasized: “You remember what was wrought from eternity and heed all that has been formed from of old; before You all secrets are revealed and the multitude of hidden things from the beginning.  For there is no forgetfulness before the throne of Your glory, nor is anything hidden from Your eyes.  You remember every deed and no creature is concealed from You….” 


However, it is equally clear that the second dimension is present as well.  It, too, is reflected in zikhronot.  Moreover, since we can generally assume that the coda of a blessing defines its essence, I believe that it is the dominant motif.  Several sentences after the beginning, we perceive a subtle but decided shift.  Shortly after the declaration, “For the remembrance of every creature comes before You, a man’s deeds and destiny, his works and ways, the thoughts and designs of a man and the motives of human action” – with its implicit threat to scheming, wayward, vulnerable man, caught, naked to the universe, in the web of omnipotence and omniscience – a fresh note is struck: “For the remembrance of all works comes before You, and You search into the doings of them all.  Noah, too, did You remember with love and did visit him with a promise of salvation and mercy….” 


Henceforward, this note becomes dominant.  It of course pervades the Biblical verses cited, inasmuch as the Halakha has decreed that “we do not cite calamitous remembrances.”  However, it is also central to the petition contained in the concluding section of the blessing.  There, the theme of omniscience is, to be sure, repeated: “For You are He who remembers from eternity all forgotten things and before Your throne of glory there is no forgetfulness.”  But it is applied quite differently.  What is remembered is primarily God’s covenant with Israel and the self-sacrifice of the patriarchs and their children as its basis. 


That being the case, the nature of the remembrance is of course not disinterested cognition but existential relation.  In this sense, being remembered per se is an inordinate benefit.  Nothing is worse than being cast off from Him, exposed to the vagaries of an indifferent cosmos.  Even punishment at His hands is better than oblivion: “Even such wrath may the Almighty pour upon us,” said Rav Nachman, “and may He save us” (Rosh Ha-shana 32b).  Obviously, however, the remembrance for which we plead is a favorable one: “Remember us for good and visit us with a visitation of salvation and memory from the primordial heavens.”  With that plea, the movement from one sense of zikkaron to another becomes fully explicit.


            “Rosh Ha-shana,” wrote the Ramban, “is a day of judgment with mercy.”  In light of that description, it may be said that in reciting zikhronot, we open with praise of “the Lord of judgment” and hence celebrate that zikkaron which stores and recalls – and therefore accuses and reproaches.  We conclude, however, with a plea to “the Lord of our fathers,” and hence relate to that zikkaron which empathizes and redeems, to the source of “a visitation of salvation of mercy.”  This range reflects the dual character of Rosh Ha-shana as yom ha-zikkaron.


            We have dealt heretofore with yom ha-zikkaron as it appears in our prayers, as the occasion of divine remembrances.  However, as the opening day of the period of repentance it obligates man to remember as well.  And that memory, too, is dual.  On the one hand, repentance requires search and recall of the past.  It demands that we do not content ourselves with attending to what we happen to be mindful of at the moment but rather that we mine our consciousness, that we examine our innermost recesses, that we remember by main force.  There can be no teshuva without knowledge of the past.  One begins with the cognition and recognition of sin.  “For I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me” (Tehillim 51:5).  To this end, we of course activate the memory of retention, the storehouse of the mind.  However, repentance enjoins a second zikkaron as well.  “Remember then your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come, and the years draw nigh when you shall say: ‘I have no pleasures in them’” (Kohelet 12:1).  This remembrance, of our Creator rather than of our sins, is more existential and experiential than cognitive.  It parallels God’s remembrance of His covenant with Israel, and its essence is yearning, longing, a deeply felt need to cling and to cleave.  Through it we round out the dual character of our zikkaron; and in so doing we lay the basis for the encounter of man and God at the plane of relational remembrance.  “My soul remembers and is bowed down within me.  This I recall to my mind; therefore have I hope.  Surely, the Lord’s mercies are not consumed; surely, His compassions fail not.  They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness” (Eikha 3:20-23).