Long Term Memory

For behold I create a new heavens and a new earth. And the former things will not be remembered or come to mind.
— Isaiah 65:17

This week, once again, I forgot where I was parked. I shaved at least twenty minutes off a productive life looking for my car. Those of you who are also guilty of this memory offense, please write and console me. Tell me I am not alone. What really gets to me is how my memory works when it's working. Why is it I can remember obscure things in books that I read years ago but cannot remember where I put my glasses an hour ago? Why can I remember what someone was wearing to an event but have no idea who spoke at the lecture or what they said?

I did remember an excellent article from a New York Times Book Review from 2010 on the value of reading books when you can't remember them at all. I just couldn't remember anything it said. And I have written about it before. That is why people like me thrive on search engines. I usually remember just enough to find what I need. And I did. In a wonderful article called "The Plot Escapes Me," James Collins describes the memory of reading a book - like where he was or what he felt about it - while not remembering anything about its contents. "Anecdotal evidence suggests that most people cannot recall the title or author or even the existence of a book they read a month ago, much less its contents." 

Collins spoke to a professor of child development who assured him that there was value to his reading habits even if he could not remember plots, place names or characters because books impact our reservoir of knowledge and shape our brains even if the details are long gone.

I thought about this in relation to a piece of Talmud I came across in Daf Yomi, the daily Talmud cycle, this week. It was a passage among many on testimony. Giving testimony legalizes memory. It can determine the fate and future of another person or many, and this particular passage made a remarkable claim:

With regard to testimony - until sixty years have passed, it is remembered, and if more than sixty years have passed, it is not remembered. That is not so. There, it is where it was not imposed upon him. However, here it was imposed on him so he remembers his testimony even after a greater period of time.[BT Ketubot 20b].

Astonishing. I guess long-term memory was better two thousand year ago if our sages could have a debate about whether or not events were memorable 60 years earlier  - or more, if a memory was "imposed" upon another person. I suppose an imposition would be if that person was specifically tasked or self-tasked with remembering an event so that he or she could be a witness to history or trauma or particular joy. According to this view, when someone tells us not to forget what we've seen, it adds an extra layer of responsibility or weightiness to our eyes and ears. If music and fragrance sit in our long-term memory boxes then perhaps other information can get stored there as well. Philip Roth, however, claims that not only do we forget things that matter. Sometimes we forget things that matter too much. Maybe the pressure of some memories has a release valve and escapes into the ether of Lethe. An act or event disappears into oblivion because we cannot afford to keep it.

The quote above from Isaiah explains another reason memory leaves us: "For behold I create a new heavens and a new earth. And the former things will not be remembered or come to mind." Sometimes in the sediment of memory, we add a new layer that wipes out the old one. A new heaven and a new earth surpass the old world and its assumptions so we move on and can no longer remember things another way. I did not grow up with computers, but I cannot imagine a life without them now. I did not have a cellphone until I was in my thirties. How did we communicate? I had no GPS. How did I get anywhere? For two thousand years, we had no homeland. Now we cannot envision a world without one. When a new universe replaces and enhances an old one, we tend to forget life before it.

And one day - in a new heaven and a new earth -  I will never forget where I parked my car.

Shabbat Shalom