Return to Memory

“We shall return to you…”




Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav praised the gift of human forgetting, believing that if we remembered everything, we would paralyze ourselves. We might be lifted by joys unforgotten but total recall would also mean revisiting slights and anguish, anxiety and punishments. It would mean that we could never emerge out of loss.


Rabbi Nahman implies that the kind of remembering one is forgetting involves the arena of emotions. Our emotional memory fields are deep and associative. We might be in the middle of difficult work and suddenly an emotion grabs us and does not let go. It may be anger or pervasive sadness; when we caught in that maelstrom, it becomes hard to find the exit. Rabbi Nahman’s retreat from memory may not be total, but even in a partial state, it is a blessing. I remember writing an AP English essay for my exam on the quote “Time heals all wounds.” I couldn’t argue with the sentiment generally, but the word “all” felt too smug for all the hurt we humans carry.


I personally need a lot more memory back-up in reading and learning. Rabbi Nahman’s blessing of forgetfulness does not work for me there. When I can’t remember the theme of a book I read a few months ago or maybe even the title, I skewer myself. How can I possibly forget something I just read? There have been a number of articles on the benefits of reading even without recall, but it doesn’t seem right to me. Nietzsche once wrote, “The advantage of a bad memory is that one enjoys several times the same good things for the first time.” The up-side of forgetting what I read is that I can buy fewer books since I need only read the ones I’ve forgotten again. But I don’t.


There is a Jewish ritual that speaks powerfully to this act of reading and remembering: the hadran. It is a custom to say this prayer upon finishing an entire tractate of Talmud or another major Jewish work to its completion to acknowledge the momentousness of the end, which is not really an end. The Hebrew root H-D-R means glory; in Aramaic it means return or review. If you pay attention to the opening text of the Hadran, you find both of these meanings. Learning is retained when we glorify what we study and when we review it.


We shall return to you [name of book] and your glory is upon us. Out thoughts are upon you, and your thoughts are upon us. We will not be forgotten from you [name of book] and you will not be forgotten from us; neither in this world nor in the world to come…


Another striking feature of the Hadran is the way we personify the book. For the days, weeks, months or years we study it, it is in our mental embrace. We think about it. It thinks about us. It will not forget us. We will not forget it. The relationship is long-term, stretching far into the future. The dialogical nature of this prayer reflects a deeper approach than respecting the act of completion. It surfaces the nature of immersion. If a book is a true friend then not only does it stay with us and speak to us, it never leaves us because we return to it. The Hadran is not a “good-bye.” It is a “see you later” kind of expression.


Many of us who have trouble remembering what we read, have no trouble remembering people who have made their mark upon us. The Hadran makes the comparison between people and texts explicit. If you do not forget who your friends are, make this book into your friend, and it will come back to you. It will only come back to you, however, if you return to it. Learning, in Jewish terms, is not about completion but about suspension. You need to initiate.


Sometimes we can only remember the affection we have for a text; the content has long ago dissipated. It is at those moments that the Hadran gives us more than a ritual finish line. It gives us a philosophy of study. It comforts and inspires us to continue a relationship. Look at your books some time soon and whisper to your friends on the shelves, “I’ll be back soon.”


Shabbat Shalom