Three elderly men are sharing with one another the trials of aging. One says: “Sometimes I catch myself standing in front of the refrigerator with a jar of mayonnaise in my hand and I can’t remember if I need to put it away or start making a sandwich.” The second man chimes in: “I sometimes find myself on the landing of my stairs and I can’t remember if I am on my way up or on my way down.” The third one speaks up: “Well I am sure glad that I don’t have those problems, knock on wood.” … “That must be the door; I’ll get it.”
It is not only older people who are at risk of memory loss. New studies reveal that our habit of storing and retrieving information from our laptops, Smartphones, or the cloud is seriously compromising our ability to memorize things. I believe it. One of my Talmud professors at Rabbinical School, Dr. Wacholder, may his memory be a blessing, was legally blind. Yet, he taught the most rigorous Talmud class. Without a book in front of him, he recited large sections of texts and corrected our reading and translations of the text from memory. He could do what is known in Talmudic circles as the pin test. If you were to put a pin through a word on a page of Talmud, he could tell you what word the pin was going through on the other side of the page. Compare that to the following: I knew the story I wanted to tell about this professor, but I drew a complete blank on his name when writing this sermon. It took me two days to remember it.
What fascinates me about memory is how powerfully it shapes our identity. It shapes how we behave. It shapes who we are and who we want to be. It shapes how we want to grow and change. I’d like to explore this idea with you in three dimensions: group identity; family identity and personal identity. For each, I will suggest some action items that will be your take-home assignment for the coming year. Think of memory like a muscle that needs to be exercised to remain fit and toned.
Each of us identifies with multiple groups—political, cultural, gender and many more. Today, for obvious reasons, I want to focus on how we identify as members of the Jewish people.
The Rabbis of the Talmud understood how important it was to have Jews of each generation identify with the historical story of the Jewish people. This is why they taught that every Jew should see themselves as having stood at Mt. Sinai, having received the Torah from God. Although it might be heretical to say, I don't actually believe that we all stood at foot of Mt. Sinai. Even though I do not believe that Exodus chapter 19 is an accurate historical rendition of the event. I do identify with its teachings. I find the story meaningful because it tells me that at the core of being a Jew is to feel commanded by the sacred text that we call Torah. To be a Jew means that we must continually re-interpret parts of that Torah to make sure that they are consistent with the highest standards of ethical and moral behavior of our time, while not ignoring that founding document of our heritage.
Similarly, there is a teaching from the Haggadah of Passover. Each of us is commanded to see ourselves as if we experienced the exodus from Egyptian slavery. Now historically, we know this is not what happened, but psychologically, it is brilliant. To be a Jew is to identify with a history that moves from slavery to freedom, m’avdut l’cherut, from oppression to redemption. It is a sacred story that, not only informed our identity in the past, but continues to inform our identity now and in the future. It is an arc that, in the words of Martin Luther King, “bends towards justice.” The fact that so many Jews have been in the forefront of efforts to advance social justice in the world is because Jews took a memory that was intended to be descriptive and sought to make it proscriptive of how we need to behave in the world.
We should take pride in the fact that the imperative to advance peace and justice in the world has become part of Jewish DNA. I am convinced that this is one of the reasons why in a recent study of American religion, Jews emerged as the most highly admired religious community in the United States. We do our best to walk the walk, when we can.
It also explains why we become so acutely uncomfortable when Jews act in ways that violate our collective memory of being a people committed to justice. I can still remember the feeling of communal shame when the actions of Bernie Madoff came to light; or when a Jewish organization honors someone who achieved wealth through questionable financial transactions; or when Israel acts in a way that violates our sense of justice and fairness.
Let me suggest some action items that will strengthen this memory muscle: We can actually “create memories” that will add to our identification with the Jewish people.
Get involved in something that makes the world a better place. Many of us do this already, but there is always more to do and more help needed than is provided. As I said on Erev Rosh HaShanah, the best way to help ourselves is by helping others.
Add some Jewish ritual to your daily or weekly schedule—it doesn't have to be big—say the Sh'ma at night before you go to bed or light the Shabbat candles whether you are alone or surrounded by family, or, as you would expect the rabbi to say, come to services a little more frequently.
If you travel to a foreign country make a point to visit the local synagogue and connect with the local Jewish community. Despite any language barrier, you can have an amazing experience.
Visit Israel, and, if that is beyond your budget, find ways to stay abreast of Israeli news and culture.
If you prefer structure, or even if you don't, join me in an exciting, new program that RCOS is participating in called: Chai Mitzvah. It is a nationwide program that brings people together for Jewish study and challenges them to become better informed, practicing, and thinking Jewish adults. We will study texts and each member of the group will be encouraged to take on a topic of their own choosing for research and individual learning.
Families are complicated. In every family there are layers of emotional baggage.
I remember in my early years at Oheb Sholom I gave a sermon about surviving family relationships and the work we all need to do to help let some of our baggage go. The message was essentially how important it is that we seek to heal the breaches that happen in our families. After the service a guest pulled me close with a firm handshake and said in my ear, “If you knew what my mother did to me you would not have given that sermon!”
That is the point. We are shaped by things said and done by our parents and family and how we remember those words and events. Sometimes a memory scars us for life; other times a memory can give us the inspiration to do great things. Sometimes we seek to follow in the footsteps of our parents. Sometimes we consciously try to move in other directions. When many of us started to have kids we became aware that parenting is one tough job. It is challenging to know how to give our children sufficient direction but to allow them enough space to become who they are destined to be.
I know of a rabbi who grew up attending shul with her grandmother. Her grandmother’s piety inspired her decision to pursue the rabbinate, a choice unavailable to her Bubbe. When her grandmother died the rabbi, who did not serve a congregation, decided to buy an extra seat on the High Holidays for her grandmother. The seat stayed empty of course but it was the rabbi’s way of honoring the powerful role model that her Bubbe was for her. The empty seat became a memory trigger for something very special. I suspect that for many of you there is an empty seat next to you right now, maybe not actually, but in your heart. In that seat is a loved one who is no longer alive but whose memory offers you comfort, direction, and love.
Jewish tradition has understood this for thousands of years. This afternoon, we will hold the Yizkor service to remember loved ones who have died. We do so to recall what they meant to us when they were alive but, also, to make them more present at a time when our hearts are open to self-reflection, gratitude, forgiveness, and a desire to become more righteous people. Indeed memory is what keeps our loved ones alive and present, even years after they died. Sometimes it takes the form of an empty seat.
Let me suggest three action items that can strengthen this memory muscle: We can “create memories” that will make our families stronger forces in our lives, helping us to pass down legacies and enjoy deeper roots in an all-too transient world.
Encourage parents and grandparents to make video or audio recordings about their lives. Consider using the NPR StoryCorps format;
Create a routine of a family dinner, attendance mandatory, with no technology allowed. Do it at least once a week. Friday night is a good place to start. Candles, wine and fancy bread encouraged. If you want, you can call it “Shabbat”; and
Instead of a typical vacation, consider a service mission where you do hands-on work to help people in need. This is one of the fastest growing portions of the travel industry: service tourism. It can be life-changing for your family and a memory that will last a lifetime.
There is a section of the service for the sounding of the Shofar that is called Zichronot, “remembrances”. It starts out as follows: “You remember the work of creation. You are mindful of all that You have made. You unravel every mystery; all secret things are known to You. For there is no forgetfulness in Your presence, nothing hidden from Your sight.”
This is classic rabbinic theology that most of us have a hard time accepting—a belief in an all-knowing, omnipotent God who knows our every thought and action. Non-Orthodox Judaism has often been too quick to dismiss a traditional Jewish idea just because it does not accord with our modern sensibilities. However, if we remember that Torah, in its broadest sense, does have a place in teaching us about the world, then we must ask the question: What is behind this teaching that may have value for us? The answer is accountability. Judaism teaches that nothing escapes God’s attention and the Rabbis believed that that realization made Jews more ethical and more moral people.
One of the great moral failings of American society is that we have allowed personal autonomy to trump personal accountability. The people who make a difference in the world take accountability very seriously. Some feel accountable to God but others feel accountable to causes that seem Godly. You make certain life decisions if you feel accountable to making the world more ecologically sustainable; you make certain life decisions if you feel accountable to people in our community who don’t have a roof over their heads; you make certain life decisions if you feel accountable to people in our community who don’t have enough food to give their children three meals a day. This is the kind of accountability that matters!
In our High Holiday prayerbook there is a list of sins that we recite several times over the day of Yom Kippur. It is called the viddui, the confessional. For each line we beat our breast upon reciting the first words: “For the sin we have committed against You by…” The list may not cite every sin but it is a pretty good start. It helps us remember what our psyche would prefer to forget. In the same way that an alcoholic can only start on the path to recovery if he or she admits that they are an alcoholic, we can only become better people if we are reminded of our sins and acknowledge our weaknesses and flaws. The viddui is the speed camera for our souls.
What does this have to do with personal identity? We engage in a ritual focused on sin, confession and repentance, but not to suggest that we are bad people. We do so, because we understand that the human condition is such that we all screw up, we all make mistakes, and we all say things that offend, hurt and wound others. Ironically, we tend to do it most to those whom we love the most. Our tradition challenges us by saying you have to remember the action, own it, and then seek the forgiveness of the person you hurt.
Sometimes, we are on the apology side of the equation and sometimes on the forgiveness side of the equation. To get the apology piece right, you need to remember what you did. To get the forgiveness piece right, you need to forgive and then let go what was done to you. Put it behind you. I won't tell you to forget, because that is not human nature, be we must be, at least, willing to let go. To hold onto the hurt and offense will inevitably poison your own soul and undermine our ability to maintain good relationships.
For this personal identity dimension, I offer only one action item to strengthen your memory muscle. Start journaling. It can be in a notebook, diary, or even on your memory robbing Smartphone. Create a weekly, if not a daily routine of writing down things for which you are a grateful. Someone does something nice for you, express your gratitude verbally and then record it to remember all the kindnesses that are extended in your direction. You will be amazed at how much goodness there is in the world. In a world that seems filled with so much darkness and pain, we sure can use a healthy reminder that good does still exist.
In the same journal also write down the things for which you may need to make amends. You make a joke at someone else’s expense; you cause hurt by excluding someone from a social get-together; you are short-tempered or impatient with a loved one. In each of these situations and others like them, find the time to say you are sorry and then pray that they passed the “forgive and let go” test.
The practice I am suggesting is not new. Long before Dale Carnegie wrote the book How to Win Friends and Influence People, our rabbis taught that a daily regimen in which people routinely express gratitude to others and ask forgiveness of others was the secret to winning friends, influencing people, and maintaining healthy interpersonal relations. On Friday night, I suggested that sometimes the reason we need to forgive is not for the sake of other people, but for ourselves. We need to let go of some of the baggage that we all carry around. It will make us happier people.
I know. This is a lot to remember. On the tables in the rotunda, after you put your name tags back, you will find a one page summary of all the action items I mentioned today. It is your homework for the New Year. Pick one up along with a small gift from me: a magnetic clip with the Temple's name and logo. I hope both items will find a prominent place in your home. Somewhere where you look at them often, like the refrigerator.
Life seems to be coming at us faster and faster every year. As we react to world events, changes in the workplace, developments in our family, in our community, and in our circle of friends, it is very easy to lose perspective on who we want to be. Like a car that needs an occasional tune up, may these High Holy days provide an opportunity to remember the lessons of our people, the legacy of our respective families and a vision of our best selves. With that may we make the year ahead one that is more meaningful, more joyful, and more fulfilling.