Memory is Not About the Past — Memory is About the Future

Memory is Not About the Past — Memory is About the Future

This is the Rosh Hashanah sermon that I gave on Wednesday, September 28 at Temple Beth El. Wishing you all a shanah tovah u’metukah — a good and sweet new year!

Joshua Foer, who happens to be the brother of the best-selling novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, spent most of 2006 trying to memorize all sorts of things: the exact order of a deck of shuffled playing cards, hundreds of random numbers, and as many names as he could to put with unfamiliar faces. He was doing this because he was in training for the 2006 USA Memory Championship, and he chronicles his journey in the book Moonwalking with Einstein – The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. He tells us that he started off his training with an average memory, at best. As he says:

Among the things I regularly forgot: where I put my car keys (where I put my car, for that matter); my girlfriend’s birthday, our anniversary and Valentine’s Day; why I just opened the fridge; the year the Redskins last won the Superbowl; and to plug in my cell phone. (adapted from Foer, 6)

Foer’s lament is certainly one that many of us share, this wish that we had a better memory. And we often tend to think about memory in terms of how: how we can get a better memory, through learning some tricks or systems that may help. But in fact, the more important question – and one we don’t really think about – is why. Why do we want to have a better memory? What really is the purpose of memory?

That’s an appropriate question for Rosh Hashanah, because our liturgy for today is filled with language about remembering. Part of tomorrow morning’s Shofar service, for example, is called Zichronot, “Remembrances,” and in fact, another name for Rosh Hashanah itself is Yom HaZikaron, “The Day of Remembrance.” As Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman explains, “Rosh Hashanah posits a connection between past and present. What we did once has repercussions later, just as what we do now will unfold in all its fullness only in years to come. On Rosh Hashanah, the past catches up to the present.” (Hoffman, Gates of Understanding, 94).So certainly, part of the message of Rosh Hashanah is for us to reflect on the past.

But in fact, reflecting on the past is not the real purpose of memory. Instead, as Professor Steve Joordens says, memory is “any time when a past experience has an effect on current or future behavior.” (“Memory and the Human Lifespan,” The Teaching Company Coursebook, 6) In other words, memory is not about the past – memory is really about the present and the future.

In truth, that idea is actually not all that surprising. When we, like Foer did so frequently, forget things like where we put our car keys, it’s not that the past disappeared. It’s that we couldn’t access that information when we needed it at that moment. Indeed, that’s the reason why Foer spent so much time trying to enhance his memory. He knew there would be no practical reason for him to try to memorize the order of a deck of shuffled playing cards – that in and of itself would not a useful skill. But, he says, “To the extent that experience is the sum of our memories and wisdom the sum of experience, having a better memory would mean knowing not only more about the world, but also more about myself.” (Foer, 7) So in its way, the question of Rosh Hashanah is, “how do we improve our memory?” Not to be able to store more information, but to strengthen that link between past, present and future.

After all, we know that, quite often, that link is rather weak. When we forget someone’s name, or an important appointment, or why we opened the refrigerator, we realize that what’s important to remember isn’t necessarily what we actually remember. But why is that? Why do we remember some things and not others? While there are several factors involved, there is one that is particularly crucial. Quite simply, we tend to remember the things we think about most frequently. As cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham explains:

Your memory lays its bets this way: if you think about something carefully, you’ll probably have to think about it again, so it should be stored. Thus your memory is not a product of what you want to remember or what you try to remember; it’s a product of what you think about. (Willingham, 53)

Or, to put it another way: “Memory is the residue of thought.” (ibid, 54)

And that’s why we Jews are commanded to remember things. We can’t just rely on our memory, because we know how faulty it can be. Instead, in order to remember the things that are most important, we need to be reminded to think about them. That’s why we constantly talk about “never forgetting” the Holocaust, why the Torah continually tells us to “remember the Exodus from Egypt,” and why we say Kaddish for our loved ones each year. As Steve Joordens says, “Every time we remember an event or a person, it is like we are breathing a little life into them.” We keep the past alive when we think about what has happened, and the more frequently we think about something, the more likely we are to remember it.

But the flip side is true, as well. We tend to forget the things that we don’t think about. So perhaps that’s why these High Holy Days tend to remind us all the ways we missed the mark this past year. After all, it is human nature to “conveniently forget” all the ways we hurt others, or stretched the truth or acted unjustly. In the book Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), authors Carol Tavris and Elliott Aronson note that our intense desire to protect our self-image often keeps us from remembering all the actions we took that we now regret:

Confabulation, distortion and plain forgetting are the foot soldiers of memory, and they are summoned to the front lines when the totalitarian ego wants to protect us from the pain and embarrassment of actions we took that are dissonant with our core self-image. “I did that?” That is why memory researchers love to quote Nietzsche: “‘I have done that,’ says my memory. ‘I cannot have done that,’ says my pride, and remains inexorable. Eventually – memory yields.” (Tavris and Aronson, 71)

It is painful – and at times, even difficult to impossible – for us to truly remember the ways we have sinned this past year. And so that is why it is essential to keep in mind that the reason we reflect on our mistakes is not to dwell on them. Remember – the purpose of memory is not simply to recall the past. It’s to use the past to create an effect on our present and on our future.

And what’s fascinating is that the mental faculties we use to recall the past are the exact same ones we use to imagine our future. Try a little experiment here with me. And I want you to think about what’s going on in your head during this time. Ready?

First I want you to remember a Yom Kippur break fast from when you were a kid, or maybe even just last year’s. What food was served? Where was it? Who was there?

Now, I want you to imagine yourself ten days from now, at your break fast this year. What food will be served? Where will it be? Who will be there?

You might have noticed a similarity between those two experiences. On some level, they “felt” the same – both times, it probably felt like there was a little movie going on in your head. And the reason those experiences felt the same was because on a mental level, they were the same. Researchers talk about how we construct our autobiography from a series of “episodic memories” – all those snapshots and vignettes that have occurred in our lives. And yet episodic memory has not only a “rewind” button to give us a window into our past, but a “fast forward” one, as well, that gives us a glimpse into our possible future.

But the key word there is “possible.” There is one significant difference between the past and the future – the past is gone, but the future is ours to shape. And unlike memory – which we don’t always have control over – imagination is a conscious act. We get to decide how we want to imagine ourselves. So what kind of parent do we want to be in 5772? What kind of child? What kind of spouse? What kind of friend? What kind of person? Since the future has not yet been written, as important as it is to reflect on 5771, it is that much more important for us to envision our best selves in 5772.

Now, if we think rationally, we’ll realize we probably won’t live up to our best selves in 5772. But imagining ourselves at our best gives us something to work towards. It gives us hope. And when it comes to hope, a little irrationality is a good thing. Author Tali Sharot tells us that

[h]ope, whether internally generated or coming from an outside source, enables people to embrace their goals and stay committed to moving towards them. This behavior will eventually make the goal more likely to become a reality…[And w]hen our hopeful predictions turn out to be wrong, well, then we…simply learn from our errors and try again. As the old saying goes, all’s well that ends well; if it is not yet well, then it is not quite the end. (Sharot, The Optimism Bias, 58)

So what is our goal for this year? How do we want to imagine ourselves? If we keep that vision in mind, then when we miss the mark, “we simply learn from our errors and try again.” And if we can remember to orient ourselves towards the future, and not the past, then our memories can become the raw materials that we use to create the life and the world we want. As Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf once said, “Uniquely Jewish is the idea of memory as will. Memory is not seen as something that befalls a passive consciousness. It is something purposefully appropriated in awe and love.” (Unfinished Rabbi, 33) The question isn’t what has happened in the past – the question is how we decide to use the past to shape our future.

Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins tells us that “[t]he Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism…[made] a remarkable and profound statement about remembering that captures the essence of Judaism’s emphasis on memory…: ‘Redemption lies in remembering.’ We remember the good and the bad of what happened before us, so that we can make tomorrow better than today and yesterday.” (Elkins, Rosh Hashanah Readings, 280). So while it’s true that Judaism is a religion that honors tradition and the past, on a deeper level, Judaism is really a religion that focuses on the future, emphasizing the hope that, despite our setbacks and missteps, we can move towards the person we want to be and the world that we wish to build.

Adonai Eloheinu v’Elohei avoteinu v’imoteinu, Adonai our God and God of our ancestors – on this Yom HaZikaron, this Day of Remembrance, help us to improve our memory. Not to help us put more information in our heads, but to help us see the connection between past, present and future. Help us to look back in order to look forward. Help us to imagine our best selves and a world redeemed. And most of all, help us to find the strength and the will to transform that vision into reality.

Amen and Shanah Tovah.


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