Kol Nidrei Sermon 5780

One of my favorite memories as a child was going to see the Nutcracker with my family.  We lived in a college town, and the performance brought together the university community and the townsfolk.  As I remember it, we went every year.  

So, when I became a mom, of course I wanted to create that tradition with my children.  Adar and I have been now twice to see the Nutcracker, just us, a mother-daughter date.  Last winter around Chanukah time, my parents came to visit, and it so happened that their visit coincided with my planned Nutcracker date with Adar.  So I told them, “We are continuing the tradition you started with me!”  And they said, “What tradition?”  My mother had absolutely no memory of ever seeing it with me.  My dad was a little better… “Maybe we went once…” he said.  I was crushed!

Isn’t it amazing how things stick in your mind though?  What was a cherished memory for me, a formative memory in terms of how I viewed parenting, traditions, and creating memories, was something that I largely created in my mind.  We probably went once, maybe twice, to the Nutcracker, but for me, the feeling of going someplace special with my family stuck.  We did not often go to see shows often, and so the significance of the event outweighed the actual history of what actually took place.

And this begs the question: What is memory? What do our memories tell us about ourselves? And, how does it shape us – both in constructive and positive ways, and how does hinder it us or harm us?

These holy days put central importance on the value of memory.  One of the names for Rosh Hashanah is Yom haZikaron – the Day of Memory. And tomorrow on Yom Kippur we will recite not only Yizkor, the Memorial Service, but also Eleh Ezkerah, the service in memory of those who were killed because they were guardians of our faith.  Zikaron, Yizkor, Ezkerah – all evoke the root zachar, to remember.  But, what are we supposed to remember?  Is it the past year?  Our whole lifetimes?  Our deeds? Our sins?  Our connection to our people to our faith?  

Perhaps it is because the role of memory is critical to the process of introspection. Indeed, memories are how we explain who we are today, in light of who we were once upon a time. Memories are more than the sum of their parts – the events, places, people, or emotions of our lives.  No two people will remember the same event the same way – we all see life through a uniquely personal lens.

We are a people who revere memory.  No word in the Jewish language is revered more than the word “zakhor” – remember. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, in his now classic book, “Zakhor,” notes that “only in Israel and nowhere else is the injunction to remember felt as a religious imperative to an entire people.”  We hold Yizkor services four times a year, including on Yom Kippur, which are devoted solely to remembering our loved ones who have passed on.   We are bidden in the Ten Commandments to “remember” the Sabbath day and sanctify it (Exodus 20:8).  In multiple places in Torah we are told to “remember” that we were slaves in Egypt lest we forget ourselves…. Indeed, the word zakhor appears in the Torah 169 times.

In fact, one could argue that the Torah is our collective memory – it is more than history, it is not simply a collection of stories, or laws.  Biblical scholars and sages have long noticed the Torah is full of gaps in the narrative and apparent contradictions.  For example, we have different Creation stories – the six days of Creation, and then also the account of the Garden of Eden.  How can we understand this other than to suggest that our Torah is a collection of our people’s dearest memories?  

While history is objective, memory is subjective – it is personal.  Rabbi Lisa Rubin writes, “Where history is about facts and timelines, memory is about transmitting stories and culture.  Where history seeks certainty, memory is flawed and fragile.  History is thorough; memory is selective.  History is cerebral; memory is sensory.”

So, if we can’t say that every word of the Torah is provable fact; surely we can state that it is true according to our people’s lived experience and memory.  And everyone remembers things differently.  

Truly, Jews are less interested in dry facts than living, breathing experiences. It is for this reason that much of Jewish tradition and ritual draws on reenactment. We don’t just commemorate, we remember. The entire Passover seder can in some sense be seen as a symbolic reenactment of a historical moment.  One of the central themes of the seder is that “in each and every generation let each person regard themselves as though they had emerged from Egypt,” thus enforcing the fusion of past and present. 

Memory, however, is often elusive and selective, as my personal example of my family’s Nutcracker tradition illustrates.  But that doesn’t mean it lacks integrity. Our memory informs who we are and how we see the world.  Everything about us, essentially, is a function of our memory.  

Rabbi Amy Perlin writes of the dangers of living in a fast-paced world where we place so many of our cherished memories in a virtual Cloud.  She warns, “We live in a world with a vast array of readable material, which we usually read only once.  We read by skimming or reading for overall meaning, not always remembering exactly what we read or where.  We sacrifice quality of memory for quantity of resources… we externalize memory, meaning that we outsource, because we can.  We leave everything to digital recall.”  That is to say, why remember something when you can google it? Why remember phone numbers when there is speed dial?

But, God, God remembers us, even when we forget ourselves.  God sees us and knows all of us.  While we just remember fragments, God remembers us with great compassion. Today, we ask God to remember us for life – zochrenu le’chayim

Isn’t it curious though, this request – how can God, who created us and remembers us completely also forget us?  With this liturgy, aren’t we really asking ourselves to remember that life matters, that we are unique and finite and precious and irreplaceable? Today we pray that just as God remembers us, we can remember ourselves and come back to who we truly are meant to be.

But there is a danger of being so attached to memory – memories of the past, memories of who we once were, memories of regret and shame, and memories of trauma.  Jews could also be accused of living too much in the past, of living only to keep memory and past traditions alive.  We cry, “Never forget!” the six million murdered, the atrocities our people suffered in the Holocaust.  We can never forget, and we must always honor the millions dead and survivors, but nor can we stay in the past.  We must remember in order to live, in order to focus our direction forward.  Avraham Burg, a prominent Israeli politician wrote a provocative book entitled “The Holocaust is Over; We Must Rise from its Ashes.”  In it he writes that by living in the shadow of the Holocaust, Jewish society fails to define itself by its positive attributes, which inhibits its ability to move forward.  As a child of Holocaust survivors, he urges Jews not to isolate themselves by constantly mourning the past and fearing the future, but rather by reconnecting to and remembering our unique humanistic perspective and our core values.

But to do this, any therapist will tell you that you have to deal with your trauma and face the past.  This is also key to our inner work during the High Holidays.

It is critical that we strive for this balance between not drowning in memories of the past, and also not being so forward-thinking that we forget who we are.  I would argue that this was the main concern of Moses as he prepared the Israelite people to enter the land of Israel.  He wants to ensure that they will be successful in quest to take the land and dwell in it but his worry is two-fold:  1) that they will be stuck in the traumatic past of slavery and won’t have faith in themselves or God, and 2) that they might become too successful and forget that God is the reason for their success.   

Leading up to the High Holidays and through this season, we read the book of Deuteronomy.  This is a book where Moses goes on and on to the children of Israel about what need to do and remember once they enter the land of Israel.  He also reviews with them many of the things they experienced together during their wanderings through the desert.  In a sense, Deuteronomy is a book of Moses’ memories of what they have been through.  

But why the need for such an extensive review?   Rabbi Francine Roston, a rabbi out in Montana, encourages us to understand Deuteronomy from a trauma informed perspective.  She points out that, even after all that God had done for them, the Israelites were stuck in their trauma of having living through slavery and all kinds of oppression.  Thus, they still were fearful of every threat, imagined or real, and unable to accurately understand the situation before them. 

And that is why Moses needs to walk the Israelites through each of their experiences together, so that they could reflect on them and reframe their narrative. And, so that as they encounter new experiences and challenges in their new land, they could see the promise therein, and not only danger and threat.  

But the other side of the coin is that they then could actually succeed in conquering the land, and then what?  What if, in their success, in their comfort, they forget what God has done for them?  Deuteronomy 8 warns, “Be careful that you do not forget Adonai your God, failing to observe God’s command, law, and degrees…. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget Adonai your God, who brought you out of Egypt… You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” But remember Adonai your God, for it is God who gives you the ability to produce wealth.”  In the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Moses is warning the Israelites, perhaps counterintuitively, that the real test “is not poverty, but affluence, not slavery but freedom, not homelessness but home.” 

Prophetically, Moses sees that the biggest danger facing the Israelite nation (who is us today) is that as they (we) became more wealthy and comfortable, they (we) would forget our past, forget God, forget our humility, forget our values and our sense of social solidarity, our responsibility to one another.

And so this is the balancing we must do during these Days of Awe: to reexamine our lives, taking the memory of what we have experienced in order to move forward with intention, clarity, and purpose.  We need to heal, to learn from our mistakes, to figure out how to repair, and finally, to forgive.

On this sacred day, we come back to memory – of our most authentic selves, of God and God’s central place in our world, and of our responsibility to one another and generations yet to come.  As we begin a new year, let us commit to create loving memories, memories of Shabbat with family and community, memories of holiday traditions, memories of Nutcracker outings, with our community and our children that shape our present and serve to guide us joyfully and meaningfully into the future. 

Shana tova and Tzom Kal – May you have an easy fast and reflective holiday.