Rabbi Segelman on Memory and Meaning


We take our memory for granted. Despite all we hear about Alzheimer’s and the loss of memory associated with aging, we still always assume that when we wake up in the morning, we will remember who we are, where we came from, and what it is that we are supposed to do on the new day.

Interestingly, Judaism takes a different view. The underlying assumption of Judaism is that we will forget. At first glance, that may seem unusual, and even a bit depressing. And yet, when we stop to think about it, Judaism is right. It is not so much a statement about the weakness of people as it is about the process of life.

Consider this (and this has certainly happened to me): When one of my children did something that was just wonderful (and they were always doing wonderful things), I would say, “I’ll never forget this.” But today, when they ask me about moments from their childhood, truthfully, I do not remember as much as I thought I would. Surely it is not because I do not love them, and neither is it because the event or the experience was not important. It is just that as life unfolds, memory fades. The really dangerous thing is that there is no warning sign; we do not realize that the memory is gone until we are asked to recall it and we cannot – and then it is too late.

This may be why the word “zachor” – remember – is always a call to action in Jewish tradition. To remember the Sabbath is not simply a matter of mental recall. It is a mitzvah to take a cup of wine and, through Kiddush, announce that it is Shabbes. On a deeper level, the mitzvah of remembering that we were slaves in Egypt calls upon us to “remember” what we ourselves never actually experienced. Surely that cannot be an act of mental recall. Rather, it is a call to sit down at a seder and not only tell the story, but to tell it in the first person – as if we were actually there. And only then, once we “remember” that we were slaves, can we follow the Torah’s command to treat the most vulnerable in society with kindness and compassion because we “remember” what it was like to be oppressed.

At the end of this month, we will remember our experience in Egypt; A few days later, we will observe Yom HaShoah – the call to remember the events of the Holocaust. Some of us are old enough to remember. Most, however, like me, are not. It is therefore, a call to action. We have to do something – see something, say something – read and discuss something. Only then do we “remember” and only then does that memory play a role in our identity. It is important for us to heed the challenge of our own Holocaust Learning Center to read ONE book about the Holocaust each year, and then to participate in the “remembrance” which takes place at the shul. (See page 12 for the Holocaust Reading Challenge.)

One last thought – and perhaps it is a thought that I am having now because I lost my own parents recently. Just as I know that I have forgotten moments of my children’s lives – moments that I thought at the time that I would never forget – I am sure this will happen to memories of my parents. It is not about my love and respect for them. It is just about how life unfolds.

Judaism presents us with a beautiful gift called “yahrzeit.” On the anniversary of the death, we are called upon to interrupt our regular routine and “remember” our loved one – not in thought, but in action. Of course, this means different things to different people, but the most traditional of these actions is to come to the shul to say Kaddish. The Kaddish allows us to remember them on a spiritual level – a soul level – as they are now soul-beings. Many people have told me that while they are saying Kaddish, memories of their parents flow through their minds – some which they may not have thought of in decades. It is as if the words of Kaddish unlocked storerooms of memories.

Yes, Judaism does presume that we will forget. But perhaps it is better to presume forgetfulness and call ourselves to active remembrance rather than assume we will remember, only to find ourselves in the darkness of lost memory.

Connect with Us

Give Online

Westchester Jewish Center welcomes your contribution to any of our listed funds.

Donate Now