Memory and Judgment

The Holy One Blessed is He said, “on Rosh Hashanah speak of kingship, remembrance, and shofar blasts – Kingship in order to make Me your King, remembrance in order that you shall be recalled before me for good, and with what the shofar.”

One of the highlight prayers of Rosh Hashanah comes during the Chazzan’s repetition of the Amidah prayer at Mussaf, when we all declare, “On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the Earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die…” who will be hurried and who will prosper. Encompassed in these words is the idea that the judgment of Rosh Hashanah is not focused on past, but on the future. The judgment we receive defines not the past, but our potential for the future.

In seeming contradiction to this idea, one of the three central themes of Rosh Hashanah is Remembrance – God’s memory (the other two being Kingship and Shofar). Throughout the Rosh Hashanah service we talk about God remembering us and the fact that God remembers not only everything we have done but our past thoughts as well. If that wasn’t scary enough, we speak of God’s memory being perfect. This focus on memory seems to put the emphasis of the day on our past actions and not the future.

Gaining an insight in the nature of memory will help us understand how these ideas fit together.

Each of us comes to this moment with a life full of memories, and our self-identity is a product of those memories. Each of us has a picture in our mind of the person we are based on those memories and our understanding of them. That self-empowering, or as is all-too-often the case that self-limiting picture, is formed of the events of our lives and the interpretation we place them, which we keep in our mind’s eye. In sum, we are a composite of the memories that we carry with us. Our memories make up who we are. They define us.

So too with God’s memory. Who we truly are, who God sees us to be, is a product of all the events of our lives remembered instantaneously by God. God’s memory, however, is perfect. God remembers not only all events, but the context of those events as well.

Though perfect in every respect, no sets of facts – or in this case memories – has any meaning absent an appreciation of the greater story in which those facts are told. And, at this moment, the story of our lives has not yet been fully written. As a result, who we are cannot be defined by the past, but only by the future. If, for example, a person has a drug addiction and successfully goes through recovery, that change redefines them. If such a person moves ahead tomorrow with a life devoted to helping others to recover, then that person transforms a past life of transgression into one of great success. Such a person demonstrates the human spirit of resilience and the ability to overcome. As it says in proverbs, “a righteous person falls seven times and rises up again.” Such a person reinterprets their past, their memories, and the meaning of those memories. This is what our rabbis meant in teaching that when a person truly repents of a sin, the sin transforms into a mitzvah. So, when God looks at our lives and remembers us with perfect memory, God sees not just our past but our potential for change in the future as well.

The open question is what potential for our future do we see?

For us, our avodah (our job) on Rosh Hashanah must be to focus on the future. We come to this moment as who are. We cannot change the past. What is done is done. However, we can change the meaning of that past by what we do in the future and, in doing so, transform it. On Rosh Hashanah, we can change our judgment by changing who we are today and committing to a different future. We accomplish this by opening our hearts to teshuva – regretting our past transgressions and committing to become better people. In so doing, we can come to hold a new vision of a transformed self in our mind’s eyes.

The promise of Rosh Hashanah’s power in this regard is represented by the Shofar. The sound of the Shofar is meant to pierce the heart. When it does this our emotions are stirred. At that moment, we are reminded of God’s love for us, and God’s belief in us based on His perfect memory. The sound of the Shofar is thus meant to help us break through our limiting memories and limiting beliefs in ourselves. By piercing our hearts, the sound opens our heart and mind to the possibility of change. This is the idea that our sages meant to convey when they adjured us to speak on Rosh Hashanah of “remembrance in order that you shall be recalled before me for good, and with what the shofar.”

In these days leading up to Rosh Hashanah, to gain an appreciation of the power of memory to expand or limit your own life, for one month, consider journalizing five memories of your day. Think about what your greatest successes and failures were during your day. Consider whether you were truly the person you wanted to be throughout the day. Ask yourself, where was God in my life today. This is the process of Cheshbon Hanefesh, which our sages have taught us is the foundation of spiritual growth.

Your awareness of each of your moments counts. Each one presents a new opportunity for personal and spiritual growth. Our lives are nothing more than these fleeting moments and what we choose to be and become in them. Take hold of them to unlock your potential future and build a greater you. When you do this, you will be inscribed in the Book of Life on Rosh Hashanah.

This entry was posted on Thursday, September 15th, 2011 at 10:35 am and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Leave a Reply