The Gift of Selective Memory

Yizkor 5775, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim


 T h e   G i f t   o f   S e l e c t i v e   M e m o r y

When you stop to think about it, it’s unusual that we observe Yizkor on this afternoon of Yom Kippur. We hold memorial services three other times during the year, but those are each connected to joyous holidays – the end of Sukkot, the last day of Passover, and the festival of Shavuot – which seems fitting in Jewish tradition. We remember our beloved at times of happiness and celebration, the times when we most want them by our side. In fact, I think part of the reason Yizkor developed as part of the conclusion of each of these holidays was to allow us to more fully experience their joy. Knowing that we will have an opportunity to name our loss, to acknowledge their absence, hopefully enables us to enjoy the company of the loved ones who are still present more.

But this Yizkor observance is different – and, tellingly, it’s one of the only memorial services that’s still well-attended. Yom Kippur is already solemn, somber. Why do we recall our loved ones through the ritual of Yizkor today? My sense is this: Because, on this Day of Atonement, each of us who have lost loved ones near and dear to us needs to forgive.

Some of us need to forgive our loved ones … None of them were perfect. Perhaps they didn’t handle our imperfections well, either. It’s telling that we only traditionally say Kaddish and observe Yizkor for our most immediate family – a spouse, a parent, a sibling, a child. The result is that, most likely, we knew our loved ones firsthand. These aren’t distant relatives about whom the family legend and lore has already been tidied up. These were multi-dimensional people with strong presences in our lives. That there were good times and there were challenges is but a testament to how much we shared.

If for no other reason, we might struggle to forgive them – because they left us. Taken from us first, they were the ones to leave, they were the ones who caused these gaping holes we feel. I have had many people share such anger with me over the years. And it’s OK. It’s natural. To leave with such finality, and take with them the plans we had made, the dreams we had shared – what more hurtful thing could they do? But the fact that such feelings are natural, doesn’t mean they’re healthy or good. So today we strive to find a way to forgive them, cherish our good memories, and move past the hurt.

And we need to forgive ourselves, too. For the painful things we may have said or done; for the kind and generous things we neglected to say or do. For the ways in which we could have been less hurtful, more loving, but didn’t even realize until it was too late to ask or receive their forgiveness – we have to find a way to forgive ourselves.

This is one of the greatest sorrows of loss – that the conversation stops. Surely if our loved ones were here, if they could continue to change as we have changed, then we could talk, we could reason, we could understand one another and forgive. Those opportunities are lost to us when a loved one dies. Yet there is another path available. As the author Robert Brault has written: “If you can’t forgive and forget, pick one.” And forgetting is a perfectly acceptable option.

There is a condition called hyperthysemia, and it has occasionally been found in real-life people – it means a person is completely unable to forget. In the 1920s, a Russian psychologist examined a young journalist, named Solomon, who was able to perform incredible feats of memory. The psychologist would give him lists of numbers or words up to seventy figures long and Solomon could recite the list back perfectly – not just right away, but also weeks or months later. Fifteen years after their first meeting, the psychologist met with him again. Solomon sat down, closed his eyes, and accurately recalled not only the string of numbers but photographic details of the day they met years before. “You were sitting at the table and I in the rocking chair,” Solomon said. “You were wearing a gray suit.”

But Solomon’s gifts did not make him happy, nor even smarter. On the contrary, simple acts like reading became difficult because individual words would constantly trigger such vivid memories that his attention would be disrupted. Without the ability to forget, Solomon was oppressed by the weight of his memories.[1]

We can forget – and the ability to do so can be a gift. The author Dara Horn wrote:[2] “We can’t control the past. That’s true, but [it’s] also irrelevant … [because] we control the way we remember the past, and that’s what matters in the present. We choose what is worthy of our memory. We should probably be grateful that we can’t remember everything as God does, because if we did, we would find it impossible to forgive anyone. The limit of human memory encourages humility.”

Rabbi Harry Halpern asks:

What Is Memory?

Where does yesterday go? What happens to the days which have passed? Are they consumed as objects which are destroyed by fire, leaving us only ashes behind? Or is there perhaps some indestructible quality which can save the past from annihilation? The answer lies not in the days themselves, but rather in us. It rests within our power to save the yesterdays and the means for achieving this is memory.

What is memory? It is the God-given gift of being able to behold the golden days of the sunset which went before while standing in the ensuing gloom. It is the ability to hear the sweet melody after the instruments have ceased playing.

What is memory? It is the ability to feel the zeal and spirit of youth in the midst of the disillusionments of later life. It is the ability to dance in the heart when the legs can no longer keep up with the music.

What is memory? It is the gazing at the bride beneath the canopy and remembering the infant in the crib. It is playing with the grandchildren and seeing their parents. It is celebrating a boy’s Bar Mitzvah and simultaneously attending the Bris.

What is memory? It is experiencing today the heartache of yesterday. It is the sorrow in the present for an agony of the past. It is a conversation with someone who can no longer speak. And the sight of a smile on a face no longer here.

What is memory? It is all that is left to us from the burnt-out hopes and strivings, as well as the pain and sorrow, of the past.

What is memory? It is that in which, above all else, is to be found the source of our immortality.

On this day of Yom Kippur, through our observance of Yizkor, may we harness the gift and power of memory to find forgiveness, comfort and healing. And thus may the memories of our loved ones – zichronam livracha – ever be an abiding source of blessing. Amen.


[1] Clive Thompson, Smarter Than You Think.

[2] A Guide for the Perplexed.

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