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Remembering All The Forgotten Things

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5770 Talk by Rabbi Norman Janis

Tonight we begin celebrating the holiday that mostly we call Rosh Hashanah – which literally means “head of the year.” That is the aspect of the holiday most evident to us: the Jewish New Year, a time for wishing each other well in the year to come. “Happy New Year!” we say. “Shanah tovah!”

This holiday has other aspects, too, with other names that represent those aspects. One of these names is Yom Teru’ah – “the day of the shofar blast.” As matzah is the concrete symbol of Passover, so is the blast of the shofar the great defining and characterizing symbol of Rosh Hashanah. In Torah, Passover is sometimes called Hag Hamatzot – the holiday of matzah. Just so, Rosh Hashanah is called Yom Teru’ah – “the day of the shofar blast.” I will return later to this aspect of Rosh Hashanah.

Yet another name for Rosh Hashanah is Yom HaZikaron – the Day of Remembrance, as it usually translated. But I like the word “remembering” better: it seems more active, not so poetically remote as “remembrance.” Rosh Hashanah understood as Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Remembering – that is what I want to talk about this evening.

There is a section in tomorrow’s Rosh Hashanah Musaf service called Zikhronot, Rememberings. It contains a phrase that moved me when I was just beginning to learn Jewish liturgy and that continues to do so now, a phrase addressed to the One who remembers all the forgotten things: ki zokher kol hanishkahot.

Why do I find these words moving? Well, I feel compelled by the current state of American politics to say, prefatorily at least, that the word “remembering,” as most of us like to use it, implies attempting to re-collect reality or things we regard as true. So when one is confronted daily, as one is at present, with reports of prominent people issuing blatant lies and flagrantly disregarding facts, one can be readily moved by the very idea of coming together to try to remember what’s true.

But, more specifically and more positively, let me start answering my own question about being moved by excerpting briefly from a recent article in The Forward about Father Patrick Desbois. He is the “founder of the Paris-based interfaith foundation Yahad-In Unum – the name means ‘together’ in Hebrew and Latin – [and] he’s made those words his life’s work.” He has been collecting “wrenching video testimony from witnesses of mass shootings of Eastern European Jews by mobile Nazi killing units.” Says the director of New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage: “The value of what he’s done goes beyond illuminating history...he’s brought us these voices [that] would have been silenced without him.” When asked whether his work ever made him question his faith, Father Desbois replies: “ ‘I’m sure God is not only the God of the winners...That I cannot acept. When I pray, I present myself with all of these people to God. I pray to establish a memory before God and say, remember.' "

Probably most readers of The Forward are Jews; and, as Jews, we may be particularly touched by a story about a Roman Catholic priest who has been making sure that Jewish lives are not forgotten. But, also as Jews, we are probably proud to feel that our concern for the forgotten is not limited to fellow-Jews. I recently came across a report entitled “We Are Like Forgotten People,” published earlier this year by Human Rights Watch, about the Chin people of Burma. I checked and was not surprised to learn that the founder of Human Rights Watch was a Jew. So, by the way, was the founder of Amnesty International, by birth at any rate, though he converted to Catholicism at age 37.

Jews were surely among the many in America who were heartened by FDR’s expression of concern for “the forgotten man” in 1932. And the next year, in 1933, a song called “Remember My Forgotten Man,” with lyrics by Al Dubin, was a big feature of a musical about the Depression produced and directed by Jews under the auspices of the very socially conscious Jewish Warner Brothers. I don’t know if these show-biz facts seem frivolous to you, but, for me, movies and songs are deeply telling parts of American and Jewish American social history.

I venture to say that, no matter how secular we may become or how far removed from our religious traditions, most Jews have somehow absorbed the idea that to be a Jew is to have once been a stranger in the land of Egypt. And most of us have inferred from this that Jews are not at all inevitably “winners,” to use Father Desbois’ word; rather they are the descendants of slaves who could easily have perished and been forgotten. And, for most Jews, that sort of self-definition entails a feeling of obligation to be mindful of others who have have been forgotten or are being forgotten right now.

But, of course, I don’t at all mean that Jews have a monopoly on that sort of feeling of obligation. Nor do I mean to say that such a feeling is universal among Jews, though I wish it were. If I needed a jolt to remind me that this is not the case, a shocking picture that appeared in the Times last Monday could serve very well. It shows a lean and handsome young Jewish settler striding vigorously through a narrow impoverished street in Hebron, with his head covered and with his long sidelocks and tzitzit swinging with his gait. What is this young man doing as he walks? He is throwing wine from a plastic cup at the back of an older Palestinian woman covered in clothing from head to toe, who has fearfully and self-protectively turned away from her assailant! Surely this young man has heard and chanted words about God as the One who remembers, but we can’t help inferring from the picture that he thinks those words apply only to Jews.

Nevertheless, the story that we have always told ourselves – that we were slaves in Egypt and were remembered when our groaning was heard – that story has affected us powerfully through cultural and familial transmission even in the absence of religious instruction. And a great part of the effect of this story has been to make us sensitive to the plight of the powerless and forgotten. Ki zokher kol hanishkahot...

As quoted in The Forward, Father Desbois sounds a note of confidence about the nature of the divine: “I’m sure God is not only the God of the winners...” If we take this view seriously, we can then, looking through the priest’s eyes, regard his efforts on behalf of the forgotten as imitatio dei – imitation of God. God remembers the forgotten; and I, desiring to walk in the ways of God, should also remember the forgotten. This idea of imitatio dei is well known in Church tradition, but it is just as clearly and strongly present in Jewish tradition, too, both in Biblical and Rabbinic writings. The Torah says, for example: “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy!” [Lev.19:2] And the rabbis of the Talmud characteristically say things like: “As God is merciful, so should you be merciful.” [Shab.133b]

The idea of imitatio dei assumes it is possible for a human being to aspire to the virtues of God. But truly following through on such an aspiration surely requires a great deal of passion and energy! From where in our psychological and physical make-up can we human beings derive such passion and energy? Perhaps, for one who is certain about God’s existence and nature, the energy and passion needed for imitatio dei spring from and are continuously renewed through love: love of God and the awareness of God’s presence in one’s life. We might make a comparison in non-religious terms to the energy and devotion that the presence of children or partners can inspire. We do not think it extraordinary that love can inspire us and provide the energy for us to work very hard to give our loved ones what they need and what they ask for. Though it’s true that parents and partners, too, may have their doubts about devotion to family and can feel exhausted by their efforts. And one has heard and read that even saintly people can sometimes feel doubtful and depleted. Perhaps it is they who are especially susceptible to such feelings.


  • if we are not saintly; or
  • if we find it philosophically important to be remembering the powerless and the forgotten, as the God of the prayerbook is described as doing, but we ourselves don’t feel God’s presence in our lives in such a way as to actively inspire us to efforts of imitatio dei; or
  • if we endorse and admire the ethical commandments of Torah but are uncertain that there is a transcendent God from whom they issue, even indirectly through human mediation, and we therefore do not feel commanded in such a way that would inspire us to action; or
  • if we are willing to consider that there is a transcendent God, but, with good Jewish philosophical precedent, we also feel we must regard such a God as unknowable and must consider the received account of God’s attributes to be simply a human projection onto the universe of the virtues that we value most in human beings, so that we are therefore thrown back on ourselves as the source of inspiration for good works
  • if any of these “ifs” is true for us, then where within ourselves shall we turn for the energy we need to keep remembering the forgotten and the powerless and to make efforts on their behalf?

In this age of psychological explanations, we have no problem understanding where we derive the energy to take care of ourselves and to get what we want in life. The rabbis of old had no problem understanding that either. They had recourse to the proto-psychological term yetzer hara – often translated as “the evil inclination” but also well understood as something like “source of selfish energy.” There is a famous rabbinic teaching that says: “if it were not for yetzer hara, a man would not build a house, take a wife, beget children or engage in commerce.” [Eccles.R.3:11, #3] We don’t really have to remember to do these things – we want to do them, and this wanting of ours provides us with constant reminders. But remembering all the forgotten things, as God is said to do and as Father Desbois tries to do in a spirit of imitatio dei – now that can be a problem! Where can we find the passion and the energy for being what we praise God and Father Desbois for being: zokher kol hanishkahot, the One who remembers all the forgotten things?

In trying to answer the question I have just posed about finding the passion and the energy to remember, I need to re-open the question I posed near the beginning of this talk, when I wondered why I felt so moved by a prayer addressed to the One who remembers all the forgotten things. Following that earlier question, I plunged straight into a discussion of social conscience based on imitatio dei or on the example of the powerless slaves of the Exodus story, remembered and liberated rather than forgotten.

But the question of why I am moved by ki zokher kol hanishkahot is not just a matter of a stirring of social conscience, significant though that may be in itself, but something broader and deeper. For it is not only the powerless, the wretched of the earth, who are in danger of being forgotten. Our own selves are in this danger, and our loved ones, and objects we care about, and moments and events that mattered to us and have passed. We want all these to be remembered, and we fear they will be forgotten. We are moved when the prayerbook bids us articulate through prayer the hope that what is precious and meaningful for us will endure, in memory at least, and not be forgotten.

I would like to do some personal remembering and then see if I can find my way back to the general questions about remembering that I have posed. I begin by telling a little about the summer when I had just turned 16 – not a story exactly, just something that happened. That summer I had my first experience of living apart from my family for an extended time, working for two months at a rather modest Catskill Mountain hotel outside of Liberty, N.Y. It was my last night there – the next day I would take the bus and return to my parents’ house and begin my senior year of high school – and I took a quiet walk through the hotel grounds, on paths lined with trees. The air was fresh and pleasing, and, as I looked up through the trees at the sky, I felt this was a special moment that I wanted to remember, though I probably could not have explained why. How, I wondered, can I be sure to remember this moment when I am older,when I am 40, say? So what “happened” on that late-summer evening long ago is simply that I articulated to myself the wish that my future older self would remember how my present 16-year-old self was feeling at that moment.

Some years later, at age 30 or so, I began to attend weekly Worship & Study services, when this congregation was in its very early stages. Jewish texts were quite new to me, including certainly the prayerbook. One of the things that puzzled me in the prayerbook was the centrality accorded to the paragraph that followed the words shema yisra’el, “Hear, O Israel...!” Those first words of the Shema I did recognize from my very rudimentary Jewish education as a child, but the following paragraph was all about putting words – I wasn’t even sure which words – on one’s arm and between one’s eyes, talking about them night and day, putting them on doorposts and gates. It was all about transmission, but what was being transmitted? Why was this paragraph so centrally important?

And then, as in the comics, a light-bulb lit up over my head. Aha, I said to myself: it’s like me when I was 16! Somebody three thousand years ago thinks he has understood something very meaningful, and he wants to make sure that everyone after him, including me, will understand what he has understood. What’s more, he seems to be succeeding in his aim! He says “Hear, Israel” and – what do you know? – I’m hearing! So maybe I’d better actually listen and learn what Moses had in mind? Maybe I’d better try to understand the content of the message he urgently wanted to transmit? And that’s how I began to study Judaism and Jewish texts.

After the light-bulb lit up, that long-ago evening in the Catskills became a reference point for me. It became a kind of story to tell myself, and to others sometimes too, about how I had wanted to preserve a memory of my feelings at 16 in the form of a message to my older self, and how I actually succeeded in doing so, through the medium of a kind of mental amber perhaps, a fossilized resin. For lack of a better theory, I attributed my mnemonic success simply to the fact of having fervently articulated my desire to remember. As for the content of the memory – what was inside the amber – I mostly regarded it as unfathomable youthful emotion and did not probe further.

More recently, however, I have been trying to penetrate the mystery of that Catskills evening. I have been imagining that, as I looked up through the trees, I was seeing, “like some watcher of the skies, when a new planet swims into his ken.” [Keats, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”] the more grown-up life that was about to begin for me. I have been imagining also that I was saying a poignant goodbye to my boyhood. I have been recalling that the words of Thomas Wolfe were very much in the air in those days – Thomas Wolfe, the author of Look Homeward, Angel and You Can’t Go Home Again, whose repeated refrain was “O, Lost!” The laurel, the lizard, and the stone will come no more. The women weeping at the gate have gone and will not come again. And pain and pride and death will pass, and will not come again. And light and dawn will pass, and the star and the cry of a lark will pass, and will not come again. And we shall pass, and shall not come again... O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again!

And so, I come back to the questions I posed earlier, for I think the elegiac mode in literature and other arts has something to teach us about ki zokher kol hanishkahot. A glimpse of eternity can sometimes be found within the sadness of loss, even in the passing of a moment of joy that will never come again. Of the stream of our lifetime, the Psalmist says [Ps.90:5-6]: baboker kehatzir yahalof – it is like grass that grows in the morning. baboker yatzitz vehalaf, la’erev yemolel veyavesh In the morning it blossoms and grows afresh; towards evening it is cut down and withers. And elsewhere the Psalmist says [Ps.144:4]: Adam lahevel damah; yamav ketzel over. Man is like a breath; his days like a passing shadow. We use these verses in our memorial services, one of which will take place during Yom Kippur.

If our days are like a passing shadow, then we are always living with change and the loss of what has been. A sense of loss may be like the flip side of yetzer hara, strange as that idea may sound. Yetzer hara wants to take for the self; the sense of loss grieves for what has been taken from the self or destroyed – loved ones, possessions, freedom... The existence of yetzer hara implies at least a primitive form of self-love, and so does the sense of loss – “it was mine, and now it has been taken from me.” It is not far-fetched to imagine that human beings may hold within themselves reservoirs of passionate energy that are fed by a sense of loss, energy that is sometimes transformed into the work of remembering and helping others. Perhaps this transformation is part of what is implied by the statement that has been called the great principle of Torah – ve’ahavta lere’akha kamokha Love your neighbor as yourself – for love of one’s self must surely include compassion for one’s self, compassion for the losses and the hardships that one has endured.

This kind of transformation has recently been in our minds as we contemplated the life and death of Ted Kennedy, a man whose hardships and grave losses seemed to strengthen his sensitivity to the sufferings of others and his determinination to do all he could to mitigate those sufferings. The possibility of achieving this kind of transformation, this kind of turn-around, is fundamental to Jewish ethical tradition. A little while ago, I ventured to say that, as Jews, no matter how secular we may have become or how far removed from religious study and observance, we have somehow absorbed the idea that to be a Jew is to have once been a stranger and a slave in the land of Egypt. One way or another we have been taught: “Do not oppress a stranger; you know the feelings of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” [Ex.23:9] We might wish that some combination of, on the one hand, the Torah teaching about the transformation of sense of loss into compassion and, on the other, the idea of imitatio dei that Father Desbois seems to exemplify – we might wish that some combination of these would suffice to keep us always mindful of the powerless and the forgotten. These two ways may be helpful, but we know they don’t fully suffice. The Bible employs threats and curses, too, to encourage people to behave well toward each other, but that method does not seem effective in the long run or maybe even the short run. In any case, most of us don’t like that method and don’t approve of it.

No matter how hard we try, we human beings cannot remember all the forgotten things; we can only project the wish for such an achievement onto the Infinite. One thing we can and must remember, however, is that there is no easy formula for achieving mindfulness; we just have to keep trying. Our prayerbook says God is the One who remembers all the forgotten things, but it also says that God is the One who daily renews the work of Creation – in other words, the One who keeps trying. Trying to do what? Repair and heal an imperfect, ailing world, I assume – a complex task, not a simple one. That kind of persistence is another goal for imitatio dei. Jewish tradition teaches that, though it is not up to us to complete the work, we are also not free to desist from it. [Pirke Avot 2:21]

I fear the profound discomfort that many people feel with the idea that one has to keep on trying. I fear the insistence on simple solutions that mean the destruction of the world. I am terrified of those who think it is up to them to “complete the work.” There is a lot of talk of Armageddon these days, and of other final solutions, including the one that that young man striding in Hebron seems to have in mind. But this talk is not really new. The dangerous desire for simplicity and finality has been with us human beings for a long time, maybe since forever. It may even be the dark underside of the great monotheistic idea.

Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Remembering, and it also the Day of the Shofar-Blast, though this year we won’t hear the shofar until the second day, because the first day falls on Shabbat.

Some of the meanings that Jewish tradition accords to the blast of the shofar:

  • It heralds the anniversary of the Creation of the world. When we hear blasts of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, we say hayom harat olam, “Today the world was created.” We cherish this complex and difficult world and do not want anyone’s religious ideas to simplify it into destruction.
  • It proclaims the God who created the world as melekh al kol ha’aretz, “King over all the world” – not just of the Jews!
  • It calls us together for celebration and also inaugurates the Ten Days of Repentance that lead up to Yom Kippur, the Day of Judgment.
  • It re-calls God’s remembering us when we were slaves in Egypt.
  • It calls upon God and upon us to remember the covenant at Sinai.

At Sinai, the Torah story tells us, the voice of the shofar was very strong – vekol shofar hazak me’od – and kept growing stonger as Moses would speak and God would answer with a voice, a voice that, for the people watching and listening from the foot of the mountain, could not perhaps be distinguished from the ever-stengthening voice of the shofar. At Sinai, we entered into a covenant of laws that defined us Jews as a people.

Rosh Hashanah, New Year’s Day, is also Yom Teru’ah, the Day of the Shofar-Blast; and it is also Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Remembering. When we hear the voice of the shofar, we are called upon to remember. Important elements of what we are called upon to remember are the experience of being strangers in Egypt and the covenant of laws we entered at Sinai and our obligation as Jews not to forget those who are powerless and in danger of being forgotten.

Shanah tovah umetukah! May you have a good and a sweet new year!