Eliyahu Safran
Eliyahu Safran

To Remember. To Forget

Before Moshe departs from this world he prophetically shares with the Children of Israel how they will stray from the Torah; how they will turn their backs on God Who nurtured them throughout… One of the most striking verses in Ha’azinu has God decrying their forgetfulness… “You ignored the Rock Who gave birth to you (Tzur yeladecha teshi), and forgot God Who brought you forth” (Devarim 32:18)

Rashi tells us that the simple meaning of teshi is to forget…and so the beginning of the verse is referring to the time that B’nai Yisrael will forget Hashem Who created them. But how can that be? How could they possibly ever forget Hashem?

Sadly, it could happen too easily. We often confuse our gifts. God granted us the gift of forgetfulness, without which we could not live a single day! Imagine the burdensome weight of carrying all of one’s memories – every moment, every slight, every pain, every scrape, every joy from every minute of every hour of every day of one’s life. The weight would be unbearable. Forgetfulness is release and relief.

Forgetting is a natural process, but it is also one we must learn to control. If we forget what we must remember…well, that is when we forget what we cannot live without and find ourselves forgetting God.

As the Dubno Maggid teaches through his parable about Reuven and Shimon in his Ohel Yaakov, God has given us the gift of teshi – forgetfulness so we can forget the pain and tribulation that hold you back. This is so you can live and enjoy a normal life. But then, “you forget God Who brought you forth”? That is using God’s gift against Him and that is wrong!

Forgetfulness not only allows us to be unburdened by our trials and tribulations, it also allows us to be appropriately modest. In one of the classic works of Mussar – Orchos Tzaddikim, we learn other benefits of forgetfulness, “forget”, he says, all the mitzvos you performed. Otherwise, he suggests, you will be filled with your own sense of righteousness and piety rather than the humility and spirituality such behavior should bring about.

Forget too the slights, insults, snubs imposed upon you by others. Free yourself of those negatives. Holding on to such pain only brings about greater pain.

We also learn a fascinating benefit to forgetting in Orchos Tzaddikim (Shaar HaTorah). God created us so that we do not remember all the Torah we learn; we cannot help but forget some of what we’ve learned. What possible benefit could there be in forgetting Torah? Torah is, after all, our lifeline. Quite simply because real Torah learning always demands chazarah – constant review. If we were gifted with the ability to remember all the Torah then what?

What would be next?

God’s gift of forgetfulness ensures that we never end the process of learning.

Limud Yomi (series three) cites a 1943 letter written by Rav Elyah Meir Bloch of Telz, that the reason Yosef named his firstborn son Menashe (“for God has caused me to forget all my hardship and all my father’s household” (Bereishit 41:51)) was so that he would be able to survive in Egypt without constantly holding on to the grandeur and superiority of his father’s house. So too Rav Bloch sought to forget after the atrocities that decimated Telz of pre-World War Europe. If he held on to all that Telz was, and all that was lost, he would never have been able to rebuild Telz on American shores. He learned from Yosef, that one cannot be stuck in yesterday’s glory. The future calls.

Still, I think there is another lesson to be derived from the naming of Menashe. While Rav Bloch focuses on the glories of the past, perhaps what Yosef really wanted to forget was yesterday’s troubles; the discord, the jealousy, the siblings’ inability to accept him and his gifts. By naming his oldest Menashe, God was helping Yosef let go of the misery, the anxiety, and the angst of his early years. What a blessing that is!

Indeed, for so many who are raised in angry, dysfunctional homes, who experience neglect (or worse!) daily, who know only the poverty of the soul as well as the poverty of the body, who experience precious little “shalom bayis” forgetfulness is the only option for finding a way to build a meaningful and fulfilling life.

When the day arrives when they, like Yosef, are cast out and made to fend for themselves, they will need Yosef’s strength to be able to let go, to forget (nashani). They need a clean slate to build their futures.

Does anyone think that Yosef was incapable of recalling the sad events of his young life? Of course, he could. Forgetting here does not mean to lose all those past experiences as if they never happened. Far from it. Nashani allows the cruelty of those experiences to lose its sting. Nashani allows the hurts to not weigh one down. Nashani is release, it is freedom from the chains of experience.

The past, of course, survives. We must remember Amalek. But we must also be able move beyond Amalek’s cruelty if we are to create a life and a world that is strong, safe, meaningful and blessed.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is an educator, lecturer and author. He has devoted many years in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and as vice president of marketing and communications at OU Kosher. He resides in New York, while enjoying his long stays in Jerusalem. His highly acclaimed "Something Old, Something New - Pearls from the Torah" has been published by KTAV, July 2018.
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