Memory is a fickle thing. For better or worse, it allows us to rewrite history, whether personal or affecting a large audience. Interestingly, many of the arguments amongst the rabbis of old were based on individuals’ memories of what they had been taught, and of the original source material. Eventually, the decision was made to commit all of that present-day rabbinical discussions to the written page. Although such transfer of the spoken word to print involved a significant amount of editing, and thus a loss of an unknown amount of material, we at least have, 2,000 years later, a hard reference that we can refer to.

What an amazing thing it would be, to be able to send a tape recorder back in time to record the lectures of the various great rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud. The similarities and differences between their teachings and our “divine” references that we have today, would be an astonishing find. Such a discovery would likely not change anything in modern Jewish law, for legal decisions are based on a long process that is transmitted from generation to generation. Finding a different original document would be a legal oddity, best left to the academics to study. But it is very unlikely that  such ancient records would change present-day laws about the Sabbath or Kashrut.

I have relatively little in the way of physical memories of my own brother. Although he passed away less than 30 years ago, technology was still not sufficiently ubiquitous such that thousands of moments would have been captured on digital film or movies. We do have a recording of his voice, but it’s not enough. By today’s standards, many people have multiple movies made of themselves over the course of their lifetimes, even if those lifetimes are cut so short. These movies often capture them at times of celebration, and it is a gift  to be able to watch the subjects smile and sing and to simply speak with hope, that tomorrow will come, and that they will still be amongst family and friends.

There is a constant back-and-forth argument about privacy versus access. For those who value privacy, they reject the approach of having so much of their lives being recorded and then shared on public websites such as Facebook. I stand on the opposite side of the argument, and prefer having as much recorded as possible. After the fact, I can choose what to share. But at least I would have these recordings in my personal library.

Imagine how constant recording of our lives would change so much. I will focus only on the medical side for now. Imagine leaving the doctor’s office and then once at home, being able to replay the entire interaction to catch certain parts that may have been missed. To be blunt, such recording could also be of value in the event that the doctor was not sufficiently clear or acted inappropriately. With such a recording in hand, the patient could turn to the physician’s superiors  and receive further explanation, as well as have the physician in question properly reprimanded if not even fired.

I was once at a meeting with the staff of a clinic, and one of the complaints of the nurses was that a particular doctor over-ordered specific tests. The nurses complained that this behavior slowed down their work and made the entire atmosphere at the clinic very uncomfortable. Fortunately, this was a clinic that used my electronic medical record software, and within moments, I was able to  generate a table showing how many tests each doctor at the clinic ordered. Lo and behold, the physician who was the target of the nurses’ complaints ordered the same rate of the tests as the other physicians in the clinic.

I presented this hard evidence to the nurses. Some claimed that the computer must be wrong. Others stated that not all of the ordering data was in the system, so that it skewed the results. While in theory this was possible, it was extremely unlikely, given that a computerized test ordering system was in place. The most likely explanation was, that for some inexplicable reason, the nurses had it out for this particular physician. I am the first to say that there are many physicians who legitimately draw the ire of those around them. But in this particular case, the nurses were “picking on” one of the best and nicest physicians not only in that clinic, but across the entire organization. What the nurses remembered as fact was totally different from the truth.

Memory is so unreliable as to be a dangerous thing to base decisions on. It is, for example, critical that there be a means of measuring performance of various staff members that is based on hard data and  recorded comments by staff and patients. When I can point to a list of complaints that have been formally recorded in the system, it is far harder for a physician to escape this reality. Contrarily, the moment the medical director refers to overheard conversations from months earlier, the groundwork has already been laid for arguing that the medical director “had it in” for the particular physician and went so far as even to manufacture a compatible history. In the States for sure, this can be grounds for a lawsuit claiming unlawful dismissal. And without any hard data, it becomes a game of “he says, she says”.

Mark Antony states in the Shakespearean play, “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him”. In fact, as the play describes, Mark Antony uses the death of Caesar to drive the public against his murderer, Brutus. In our present day, we will often hear people praise a person, especially after the passing of the given individual, when in fact, many of us know that the truth has been suppressed in order to paint an unrealistic positive picture of the departed. I have heard people say that it is best to remember the positive about the person, and to let the negative stay below in the grave.

I have never felt comfortable with this approach. I have felt that a funeral is the best time for people to give  a final testimony as to the nature of the person. At my own future funeral, I would hope that people  would speak honestly about me. For those who feel the need to praise me after my death, I wish them well. And for those who wish to express their anger and disappointment over my actions during my life,  I respect their rights to express the truth.

I find that any other approach on the part of those presenting a eulogy, is the worst form of lying. What a difference it would make if people truly were concerned about what would be said at their funerals. It might even drive people to be more careful in their actions and words during their lifetime. But if everyone knows that the truth will be set aside, and the memories will be falsified or at least altered to portray a positive  message, then why should anyone make the effort to live a life properly?

The time will soon come when wearable technology has us plugged into the Internet 24/7. We will even mostly forget  that we are constantly being recorded until that time when we, or others, need access  to the saved images, movie files and other data. I welcome such a time. I welcome the truth. And there is one thing I’m sure of — that human memory cannot be trusted when it matters most. In such situations, it will be silicon that I prefer over human neurons.

Thanks for listening.

About the Author
Dr. Nahum Kovalski received his bachelor's of science in computer science and his medical degree in Canada. He came to Israel in 1991 and married his wife of 22 years in 1992. He has 3 amazing children and has lived in Jerusalem since making Aliyah. Dr. Kovalski was with TEREM Emergency Medical Services for 21 years until June of 2014, and is now a private consultant on medicine and technology.