Leshanah Tovah, may this be a good and worthwhile year.
The relationship between Rosh Hashanah and memory goes to the heart of the festival. Following the Torah, the rabbis called New Year ‘Yom Hazikaron’. The words are hard to translate; Rosh Hashanah is not a memorial date like Armistice Day or the day preceding Yom Ha’Atzmaut. Rather it is a day about the nature and purpose of memory itself.
Memory is fragile and often contested. We feel sure that events happened in this way; everyone else insists that they transpired in a different order. We adorn memories, rewrite them unconsciously to suit our conscience, and imbue on the fabric of memory experiences which occurred far later. Our very identity is profoundly connected to memory; (and we know that illness can erase it entirely and that the meaning of our life is transient and frail).
Therefore, what we do with our memory is of profound importance to the quality of our lives. Even the most charmed life is full or irritations. Is it these that we allow our memories to feed on, so that our mind is full of vexation and the desire for revenge, rehearsing old quarrels and recalling entrenched enmities? Bad days can be like that. Or is there some inner enzyme, some sweetness of the brain, which allows negative experience to fade into relative oblivion, while we remember the holidays and happy days, the love and blessings life has given us?
On a transpersonal scale, how do we use memory as nations and faiths? The question is hardly academic. There’s little more dangerous for humanity than the propagation of national and religious identities of resentment and exclusion. It’s easy to find reasons to perpetuate ancient prejudices and hatreds. It is hard to overcome them through acts of human solidarity and compassion. Yet, if humanity is to survive, we must.
Deeper and more enduring than even the oldest national memories is God’s memory. Before God, we are told, ‘there is no forgetting’; ‘the mark and memory of every deed comes before God’. I cannot believe in God as reading an eternal ledger. Rather, I do connect the sense that God is presence in all life with the truth that everything matters. There is nothing which has no repercussions; no word or deed which does not bring pain or healing in its wake. Nothing goes utterly unnoticed by the people, even the animals and trees, which surround us. There is accountability in the very nature of things.
Yet the most central blessing of the Rosh Hashanah service does not refer to a God of justice. Instead, it speaks of God as Zocher Habrit, ‘‘remembering the covenant’.
What covenant? I think of this as simultaneously the covenant with the Jewish People, the covenant with all humankind, and the most ancient covenant of all, with life itself. It is as if God, that sacred vitality which resides within all living things, was calling out to us: ‘I want you to survive. I want memory itself to be a force not for punishment, or vengeance, or hate, but for life, goodness and generous compassion.