Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, September 23, 2017
Rabbi Michael Friedland
Every time I teach a class or organize a program or a discussion I keep all the copies of the materials and notes that I used. I file them away somewhere because I am afraid that I will forget the lessons and insights that I had and I might just need them another day. I then forget where I filed the materials. And five, ten years go by, I have files and files all over the office, in cabinets behind the bima. And I locate the files and say to myself, “What was this for? Why did I keep this?” So my fears of forgetting beget more forgetting.
There is an important mitzvah in the Torah about forgetting. It is the mitzvah of שכחה. It is such an important mitzvah, those in the introduction to Judaism class were informed that in the classic section in the Talmud on the conversion process, the mitzvah of שכחה is one of the handful of mitzvot named specifically as a mitzvah that a potential convert must be taught before becoming a Jew. So what is this mitzvah?
If a farmer is collecting sheaves in the field and he forgets to pick up one of the sheaves, he walks away forgetting about it, he is forbidden to go back and get it. It is for the poor. What is fascinating about the mitzvah is that you cannot observe it intentionally! You can only observe it by being slightly absent-minded. So forgetting can be valuable.
On the other hand, forgetfulness is a trait that Israel indicted for in the song we read in this morning’s Torah portion. “Jeshurun grew fat and kicked — You grew fat and gross and coarse — He forsook the God who made him And spurned the Rock of his support….You neglected the Rock that begot you, Forgot the God who brought you forth.” Forgetting God is a severe transgression. Forgetting may allow you to observe the mitzvah of שכחה but in general forgetting something is a transgression and not an excuse in Jewish law. We list among our many sins on Yom Kippur those sins committed unwittingly, the deeds we forgot to do; we are responsible for those too.
Rabbi Moshe Cordovero in Tomer Devorah stresses that just as God overlooks our faults, forgets about them as it were, we too need to deal with our fellows in the same way. Overlook, forget about their indiscretions and petty insults towards us.
On the one hand, forgetfulness allows one to observe a mitzvah and emulate the Divine in being charitable to our fellow human beings; on the other hand, forgetfulness is a serious problem on the theological, psychological and halachic level. Which is it?
Ingrid Bergman once said that she was fortunate to possess the two assets on which happiness depends- good health and a poor memory. The famous actress gave us a much needed reminder that the ability to forget is actually an essential skill.
Many of us could use that gift. So many families remain splintered and fragmented because of some slight, real or imagined, suffered long years ago which the offended party cannot or will not forget.
Rabbi Sidney Greenberg wrote how he was once discussing funeral services for a father who was survived by two sons. When he asked the son who was making the arrangements where the family would sit Shivah, he was requested to make no public announcement because the sons would not sit together in one house.
Their wives stopped talking to each other years ago over some invitation which was not reciprocated. At least, that’s what he thought it was. By now, he was not quite sure what has caused the split in the family. He could not remember the source of the conflict, but whatever it was, neither brother could forget it.
Many a marriage could stand a healthy dose of forgetting. One man complained to his friend that whenever his wife gets angry she becomes historical.
“You mean hysterical,” the friend corrected him.
“No,” said the husband, “I mean historical. She starts listing everything I did wrong in the last 27 years.”
We are in the midst of the 10 days of Teshuvah. As important as remembering is during this time, reviewing our year and noting every indiscretion we are in need of repairing; forgetting is just as important. Perhaps in some ways more important. If we don’t remember a wrong, maybe it’s not so terrible. The more we think about it the more attractive it may become. But if we cannot forget, how do we let go of the hurt and residual resentment that keeps us from reestablishing relationships that should be healed.
On the other hand, there are values, beliefs, friendships, dangers – that should not be forgotten and we must be vigilant in refraining from forgetfulness. Moses warns Israel repeatedly in the book of Deuteronomy about the danger of forgetting. Do not forget the Lord your God, do not forget your history (4:9), do not forget Amalek (25:19), do not forget Torah (31:21 the shirah); do not forget how you ticked God off (9:7). What is it that we should not forget? God, our values, our history and existential dangers. But everything else, might be worthy of forgetting.
The Seer of Lublin once expressed a great concern of his to one of his greatest students Rebbe Simha Bunim. The Seer’s dilemma was this: we are commanded to continuously remember God, but I don’t understand how that is possible, even the greatest tzadik in the world, even Moshe Rabbeinu could not do this every moment of his life. Reb Bunim consoled him by reminding him of the mitzvah in the Torah of שכחה, if a person forgets some of the harvest in the field he has to leave it for poor people to collect. But, there is a halakha that says that if what was forgotten was significant, it is not considered שכחה, and it remains in the field owner’s possession. If you forget something that is very important in your eyes, you really have not forgotten it, even if you think you did. Said Rebbe Simha Bunim, the same is true with your awareness of God. If the most important thing for a tzadik is God and his connection with God, then even if he forgot God for a moment, it’s not considered really forgetting.
In a very real sense, this is the challenge for us during these days. What do we need to forget, what do we need to let go of, to release and let it dissipate; and what do we need to remember that we might have forgotten, what values and beliefs have we let slide in pursuing vanity, what of our people’s history and store of knowledge have we ignored, what dangers have we overlooked because dealing with them is too inconvenient.
In forgetting what should be forgotten but remembering what should not be forgotten, we will go a long way to achieving the hoped for redemption of the season.