Tomorrow, countless Jews around the world will gather in synagogues in their Saturday finest. We will recite ancient, solemn words and join our voices in festive tunes. We will listen to the deep call of the Shofar.
And we will beg God to be senile.
Technically, of course, we will do no such thing. We will beg God to remember, not to forget. But we will ask Him to remember us favorably, which means selectively, which means forgetting an awful lot. All the things we want Him to forget will lurk under the surface of the words we’ll say, glaringly present in the words we won’t.
Remember Your covenant with our forefathers, we will pray (but let’s ignore all the ways we violated it).
Remember how we followed You in the desert, and the devotion of our nation’s youth (but let’s not mention all our failures and complaints during those years. Like the Golden Calf. Or the spies fiasco…yeah, let’s not discuss those.)
Remember Abraham’s devotion when he bound his son to the altar (as to all the petty things we refuse to sacrifice, like blood diamonds and cruelly raised animals and whatnot, well…let’s not talk about those, okay?).
In short, we will sing the praises of God’s divine memory, while begging Him to forget.
At least, this is what I used to think, back when I was a teenager, and burned with the holy fires of Right and Wrong and Let’s Fix the World.
Back in those nuance-less days, omissions tasted remarkably like lies. All the things we didn’t mention as we begged God to remember us glared at me, rubbing me wrong.
The least we can do, I thought then, is strive to deserve God’s forgetfulness fair and square. We can’t earn it by pretending that our failures don’t exist, because that’s hypocritical and cowardly. But maybe we can come to deserve it with some degree of honesty by practicing similar forgetfulness towards the shortcomings of our fellow men.
And so I embarked on a path of intentional forgetfulness, with all the determined optimism of the young.
I tried to forget other people’s rudeness.
I tried to forget other people’s ugly words and malicious deeds.
I tried to forget everything negative. But it was like trying not to think of pink elephants. All the things I wanted to forget stayed with me, and more so than they would have otherwise. Maybe, I surmised, rather deflated, selective forgetfulness is truly divine. Maybe it’s beyond our human reach.
I forgot all about my experiments in forgetfulness until the day my son asked, “Are you mad at me?” and I exclaimed, “But of course not!”
I don’t remember what warranted his question. Life is full of little mishaps and mistakes. But I vividly remember just how laughable the very idea of being mad at him seemed. How could I be mad, when I knew all the extenuating circumstances, when I knew he meant well, when I knew he was a child and acting within the limits of his age? How could I, when he is such a wonderful, well-meaning kid?
Maybe, I realized, this is what divine memory is all about.
Maybe God doesn’t remember us favorably by forgetting our shortcomings, but rather by remembering everything that puts them into context, the good and the neutral and the bad. Maybe, by remembering our intentions and potential, our circumstances and our challenges and our hopes, God can view our failures charitably, make allowances, and “not be mad.”
Maybe we want God to hear all the things we don’t mention as we pray on Rosh Hashanah, and remember us favorably because of — and not despite — them.
Maybe when we say, “Remember Your covenant with our forefathers,” we want God to hear also “and remember how hard it was to follow, and all the ways we violated it, but also all the times we didn’t and the times we didn’t mean to and the times we did our best. And deem us worthy of it, O God, all things considered.”
Maybe when we say, “Remember how we followed You in the desert,” we also imply, “remember how challenging that period was for us, and all the times we failed, but also the fact we ultimately rose above our difficulties and stayed the course, and isn’t that the definition of devotion anyway? And the best anyone can do?”
Maybe by “Remember Abraham’s devotion when he bound his son to the altar,” we really mean, “remember how our devotion to our ideals is tested daily, and how we try and fail, but sometimes rise to the challenge, and please give us credit for all of our intentions and attempts.”
Our omissions aren’t lies, or pathetic attempts to cover up the whole truth. The whole truth is too complex and detailed to put in words. In fact, any attempt to do so would be incomplete, so we shouldn’t even try. By omitting the details, we are telling God that we trust Him to remember it all instead, and judge us more charitably than any partial account could justify. “We trust You to choose to remember us fully,” we say, “and maybe then your charity will actually be deserved.”
This year I will try again to walk the path of imitatio Dei — imitating the Divine. I will try again to remember others in the way that I want God to remember me. But I won’t do so by forgetting people’s shortcomings, or trying to erase them from my mind.
Instead, I will try to remember everything about them. I will recall their failures — but also their redeeming qualities. I will remember their mishaps — but also their potential and circumstances and intentions, and everything that makes them human or well-meaning or just brave.
I will try to remember others like I think of my children, and hope to be remembered favorably in return.