We put questions under people’s plates at our Rosh Hashanah table to keep things interesting. One of the questions we asked guests this year was to share their favorite Rosh Hashanah memory. The answers were astounding. But that’s not surprising: after all, the High Holidays are practically built out of memories. One of the sections of our mussaf service this past week was zichronot, “memories,” and we try to spend much of our prayer during these days reflecting on what we have said or done in the past months that makes us either proud or ashamed.
Some of our memories are personal: I had the good mazal to pray in a tent service where my entire family was literally within four feet of where I stood, so I didn’t need to look far for reminders of whom I hold dear. (This was especially meaningful after many of us spent so many weeks apart from one another.) And our memories are communal too: this Shabbat marks 20 years since the horrors of 9/11, a day that changed seemingly everything in our lived experience as New Yorkers and as Americans. 2001 seems both forever and only a brief moment ago in our memories.
Sometimes our memories can get in our way, too. My current teshuva reading is Harvard psychologists Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey’s Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization. Kegan and Lahey explain that while we all have aspects of our personalities that we are sincerely committed to improving, we also have “competing commitments,” other parts of who are, that block the improvement we desire. We may want to be more open with our work colleagues, for example, but other parts of us see such behaviors as signs of weakness. We end up “pushing on the gas and the brakes at the same time,” write the authors, and we get nowhere.
Our memories also cannot cloud our appreciation of the present. Right before the COVID lockdown, my family and I had the opportunity to attend a talk by actor Winston Duke, who spoke of his complicated career path and advised his small but enthusiastic audience at the Riverdale Y that “Everything is a gift!” Duke told us that we were all wealthy, and that “everything you need to do whatever you want you already have.” Sometimes we allow our visions of what could or should be (or our nostalgic view of what was) get in our way. We shouldn’t.
(Sometimes even our families themselves — yes, those among whom we are so grateful to find ourselves — might seem to hold us back. This week’s Torah reading of Vayelech reminds us of the mitzvah of hakhel, an event which occurred every seven years: every man, woman and child is commanded to come to the mikdash in order “to hear and to learn and to fear God.” The Talmud, after a lengthy discussion of at what age to begin bringing one’s child to Jerusalem, teaches that children are to be brought “in order to bring reward to those who bring them.” Even the Rabbis understood that bringing the kids to shul can be a challenge, which is why doing so gets us bonus points. Our families are thus not holding us back; they are propelling us forward.)
This Shabbat Shuvah and Yom Kippur, as we spend time surrounded by those we love, we can trust that not only will the time we spend with them garner us extra mitzvah points, but the memories that they inspire in us — if we don’t allow them to get in our way — can also lead us to better lives and better selves.
Shabbat Shalom and Gemar Chatimah Tova.