Remember. It’s one of our first Jewish lessons. It’s in the Ten Commandments, it’s in the poem L’cha Dodi with which we greet Shabbat each week, and it’s repeated throughout the liturgy of these High Holy Days. In our worship on Rosh HaShanah, the sound of the shofar awakens us specifically to remember our covenant with God. We return now to memory in our Yizkor service which allows us to honor those whom we have lost, to remember them.
But what if memories hold us hostage? What if our memories are the stumbling blocks that obstruct our future? As the Israeli novelist Amos Oz wrote, “Apart from the obligation to remember, is there also a right to forget?” (The Slopes of Lebanon)
Each of us stores countless memories. We remember. It’s the reason most of us say we wouldn’t return to junior high school if you paid us. It’s the reason we can rank the most important and impactful single days of our lives. It’s the reason our parents are protective of us and we are protective of our children.
We also forget. It’s the reason that our siblings remember childhood arguments that we can’t recall. It’s the reason the story of a battle from two different sides can sound like entirely different events. It’s the reason an eye-witness can be unreliable.
Our lives are a series of accumulated moments, some remembered vividly and accurately, some remembered in part and in fuzzy detail, and some mis-remembered intentionally. Our memories allow us to revisit great joy and exaggerate our pride or our heroism. Our memories cause us to revisit the sting of pain and make enemies more villainous and wrongs more intense. But are our memories still true when they change in the retelling? And must we search for truth before calling something a memory?
It has struck me, in my reading of literature and journalism this past year, how entranced we are with the properties of memory, how little we understand it, how willing we are to manipulate it, and how necessary that manipulation is to our futures.
In Javier Marias’ novel The Infatuations, a young woman, Maria, attempts to make sense of the murder of an acquaintance, to piece together the larger truth of what happened, and to understand how everyone involved will move forward, tied to the memory that changes their lives. Maria discovers, as Marias writes, “The truth is never clear, it’s always a tangled mess. Even when you get to the bottom of it.”(p. 302) But even if one abandons the search for absolute truth in the past, what do you do when you can’t release the memory and still hear what Javier Marias calls “an almost imperceptible breathing”?(p. 289) A memory, Marias writes, can be a “devouring thing”(p. 214) and moving forward requires letting go of the burden. It requires forgetting.
Tony, the protagonist of Julian Barnes’ novel The Sense of an Ending, finds himself in middle age learning more about the suicide of a friend from his childhood. Tony must confront how little he actually knew of the truth of his friend’s life, and how he had created lasting memories based only on limited facts. With time, we hear ourselves telling the story our memories create. How accurate is it? Barnes write, “How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but—mainly—to ourselves.”(p. 69) Our memories change with time and with separation from the events of our lives. We willfully forget and create new memories.
Why do we sometimes mis-remember? How might that benefit us? Scientists study this issue and offer new insights all the time.
In July, The New York Times reported (July 25, 2013) on experiments with mice that trace the fabrication of false memories. Scientists know where memory forms, in mice and in humans, in an area of the hippocampus. A team at MIT, led by Dr. Susumu Tonegawa, created a three-day experiment that stimulated memories in the hippocampus of a mouse, and then manipulated that area of the brain to create new memories. On day one, the mouse enjoyed some time in a certain environment, without any shock, to form a memory of the place and for the scientists to track the formation of that memory. On day two, the mouse was introduced to a new environment, and while the scientists stimulated in the brain the memories they had tracked the previous day, the mouse was shocked. On day three, when the mouse was put back in the first environment, the mouse showed fear, thinking it would receive a shock, remembering a shock from this place, when in fact the mouse had never been shocked in this place. The mouse had created a false memory. The truth of what happened, in the mouse’s mind, became messy.
We have all experienced how memory is unreliable, how we can remember things that never happened. But why? What purpose would it serve us evolutionarily? The scientists aren’t sure. But, Dr. Tonegawa wonders, perhaps it has to do with our creativity, our ability to imagine, to project, to envision, to fuel our innovative spirits. Perhaps we must accept the unreliability of our memory in order to mold our futures.
How do our new memories, our unreliable ones, help us to forget? Where do we see such phenomena, so present in the discussions of our contemporary world, in Judaism?
Consider the Akeidah, and the impact of the memory of that traumatic event from the Torah on our patriarchs Isaac and his son Jacob. The Torah never tells us how Isaac recounted to his sons his experience being bound by his father Abraham on Mt. Moriah. Did Isaac frankly tell his sons Jacob and Esau the story as he remembered it, or did Jacob hear snippets told in whispers to his mother Rebecca in the dark of night? Did Isaac remember the moment accurately, or did his truth embellish and cut? How did the trauma hang over Isaac’s family? We know that after this event Isaac does not speak to his father Abraham or mother Sarah again in the Torah. How did the memory of the event impact Isaac’s future and his success as a father?
Jacob charts his own complicated course by stealing his inheritance from his older brother Esau, and fleeing his calculating mother, his defeated father, and his furious brother. He builds a new life for himself working for Laban, his uncle, marrying both Leah and Rachel, and seeing the birth of all of his children. Time passes. He is able to tell his own life story with few to corroborate or dispute the facts.
But then God tells Jacob to return home. “The Eternal One said to Jacob, ‘Return to the land of your ancestors, to your birthplace, and I will be with you.”(Genesis 31:3) And in facing his return, Jacob must face his memories. According to Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, a modern Torah commentator, in a psychological consideration of Isaac and Jacob in her work The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis, the memory of Isaac and Isaac’s story of his binding on Mt. Moriah by his own father has haunted Jacob throughout his life. The memory has devoured him. In order to move forward, he must change the memory.
When Jacob first leaves his father’s home after stealing the birthright, he dreams of a ladder upon which angels climbed up to and down from heaven. In this dream, God promises to return Jacob to his homeland. Jacob swears to follow God conditionally, if, God brings him back to the land of his father “b’shalom.”(Genesis 28:21) According to Zornberg, Jacob wants to return “b’shalom,” not in peace, but in wholeness. But when the time comes to return home, Jacob is fearful. He is fearful of Laban and whether he will let Jacob go with both his daughters and the wealth Jacob had accumulated. He is fearful to encounter his brother Esau again, unsure if Esau will put his anger at Jacob aside for a reunion. And he also acknowledges, in Zornberg’s telling, “Fachad Yitzchak haya li,” “I am fearful of Isaac.”(Genesis 31:53)
According to Maimonides, Jacob’s whole life is a journey for truth. What actually happened on Mt. Moriah? What does his brother Esau think of him now? How will he reconcile this search for truth with the distance of time from his memories?
According to the novelist Javier Marias, forgetting is a process of attenuation, of weakening in intensity. “The process is a slow one, of course,” Marias writes, “and it’s hard work and you have to apply willpower and effort and not be tempted by memory.”
According to the Torah scholar Zornberg, in order to return home Jacob must be willing to “misread” events, a term she borrows from literary critic Harold Bloom (p. 239). He must forego the search for truth in order to forget, to perhaps fabricate memories. He must figure out a way to understand his father, to understand his mother, to understand his brother with complexity, with pain and with love, with lasting resentment and growing compassion, with wholeness. Then he will be able to fulfill the condition under which he follows God’s commands and return home “b’shalom.”
A symbol of Jacob’s “misreading” of his story, according to Zornberg, is in his fabricated memory of God’s promise to him. Jacob insists that God promises to deal with Jacob in “great goodness,” to “make things go well” with him. Jacob recalls the promise of goodness twice (Genesis 32: 10-13), when in fact, God never promises goodness when making his pledge to Jacob, only that God will be with Jacob (Genesis 28:10-15). But Jacob needs to think that God holds goodness in store, he needs to misread, to make a false memory of God’s words in order to confront his fear.
In Zornberg’s interpretation, of the two patriarchs, it is Jacob who understands the messiness of truth, the devouring power of memory, and the importance of forgetting in order to create a future.
How often we too allow ourselves to be devoured by memory, confused by the complicated nature of truth, the difficulty of holding the good and the bad of one memory at once. What evolutionary purpose might false memories hold? They allow us to creatively confront the future, to chart a path that the past, that those in our memories, cannot comment upon or help to craft. When we can at once acknowledge the past and remember only what allows us to move forward, our memories will be less troublesome and our futures more secure.
Our tradition tells us to remember. But when confronting the memories that devour us, we must allow ourselves to abandon the search for ultimate truth in favor of a memory of our own making. In favor of liberation and in favor of the future, we must allow ourselves to forget.
Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis, Schocken Books, 1995.
Javier Marias, The Infatuations, Alfred A. Knopf, 2013
Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending, Alfred A. Knopf, 2011