Memory

Goodbye

We will not forget you
— Text of Hadran

Peter Pan hated goodbyes: “Never say goodbye because goodbye means going away and going away means forgetting.” He assumed that with our farewell, a piece of memory dies. The images, the special moments, the feelings wane and then disappear as we move forward into a new reality. In Jewish life, we try to extend that reality by walking a guest out of our homes minimally the span of four cubits, about six feet. It’s a small gesture of tenderness that we are not anxious to let our guests leave us. We linger a little with them. 

Four cubits is a Jewish legal measurement of personal space. By walking four cubits out of our homes, we are, in effect, leaving our personal space to be in the space of those we have just entertained for a little bit longer. One of my earliest childhood memories is seeing my grandparents out of our car window. They hated saying goodbye and would always stand on the road waving and waving until they were no longer in view. It was a powerful way they communicated how important we were to them.

We also engage in a similar intellectual exercise when we say goodbye to a book we’ve been studying. The prayer is called the “Hadran” from the Aramaic word for “return.” In Hebrew H-D-R means “glory” and in thinking about some metaphysical merging of the terms, we try to glorify the completion of a lengthy period of study by committing ourselves to return to it. The Talmud [BT Shabbat 118a-119b] mentions that completing a sefer or Jewish book occasions a feast and Talmudic discourses were often created for this siyyum or completion. Often these discourses connected ideas from a tractate one was just completing with those one was just beginning. This spurned a genre of Hadran writings in the eighteenth century.

The text of the Hadran treats the book as if it were an animate object in relationship with its reader. We name it and recite the following line three times, as if trying to avoid Peter Pan’s farewell pitfall of forgetting: “We will return to you tractate ________ and you will return to us. Our thoughts are about you tractate ________ and your thoughts are about us. We will not forget you tractate ________ and you will not forget us, not in this world, and not in the world to come.” We romance the book and tell it that its contents will never leave us.

While this is wishful thinking for those of us whose memories aren’t what they used to be, we find it’s also deeply spiritual thinking, as the prayer continues: “May the words of Torah, Lord our God, be sweet in our mouths and in the mouths of all your people so that we, our children, and all the children of the House of Israel, may come to love You and want to study Your Torah on its own merit.” We understand that study is not only about the attainment of ideas but about the strengthening of a bond with God and with others that takes place through study. For us, study is not only about outcomes but about the process of who we become when we learn. 


Finally, we ask that God give us the endurance and stamina to do it all again: “May it be your will, God, my God, that as you have helped me finish tractate ________, thus will you help me begin other tractates and books and finish them. To learn and to teach, to protect and fulfill all the words of your Torah with love. May the merit of all the Tanaim and Amoraim [early scholars] and scholars stand with me and for my progeny so that the Torah does not leave my mouth and the mouths of my descendants forever. And may it be filled through me: when you walk it will guide you, when you lie down it will protect you, and when you wake, it will converse with you. For in me (Torah) your days will increase and years of life will be added for you. Length of days is in her right hand and in her left, wealth and honor. God will give strength. God will bless God’s nation with peace.”

When we study, we stand not only with our contemporaries but with all those before us who
also revered and treasured their learning. We study so that we can pass on our wisdom and protect our values and link ourselves to generations we have never seen.

This week, we said farewell to this month long celebration of holidays. Let’s hope it was a meaningful farewell, a long nostalgic wave to our calendar that says we will return next fall and do it all again. But as we clear the table and head back to “normal” life, it might be a good time to think about saying hello to a Jewish book that we work our way through, alone or with a study partner. And when we finish, we can join the long procession of scholars who said goodbye to their books only to say hello to others.

Shabbat Shalom

Revisiting History and Memory

What does this mean to you?...
— Exodus 13:14

Remember the aggravation of a he said/she said dialogue when you're in an argument? Well, The Wall Street Journal says you're not alone. Elizabeth Bernstein in her article "Honey, You Never Said..." shares fascinating research on how it is that couples recall events or commitments very differently from each other. Who's right? We all want to know, but we will probably never know because there is no right. "Fights often begin with two versions of events. People tend to remember the arguments they lost."

To illustrate, Bernstein opens with a disagreement between a couple. Both agree that after compromising, Carrie told her husband Joe that he could get the arcade machine he wanted. But when he went to pick it up, he purchased two. Carrie was surprised. They hadn't talked about it. Joe claims they did. Isn't it a simple fact? No, it isn't. "How can two people have different memories of the same event? It starts with the way each person perceives the event in the first place - and how they encoded that memory," concludes psychologist Dr. Michael Ross.  

It turns out that women seem to remember more about relationship issues and their memories of them are "more vivid and detailed," possibly because women report being more emotional at the time of the argument. But before we develop a gender superiority complex, this does not mean that their memories were more accurate. You usually remember the most recent version of your story. Feelings can also change, manipulate and shape memory, especially negative ones. 

In other words, there is not one version of every story. Best to focus on the emotions associated with the argument than fight over recall, says Professor Andrew Christensen in Reconcilable Differences. This can be liberating, especially when it comes to happy facts and memories. 

We are getting ready to share our national narrative with family and friends around the Seder table. That story is dependent on memory, even if it's not first-hand. We are mandated to tell the story and relive history from four different biblical verses representing different ways that people seek out their history: either they ask, it is triggered or it is told to them: 

 Exodus 12:26-27:

 "And when your children ask you, 'What do you mean by this rite?' you shall say, 'It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, because he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians but saved you houses.'"  

Exodus 13:8:

"And you shall explain to your son on that day, 'It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt.'"  

Exodus 13:14

"And when, in time to come, your son asks you, saying, 'What does this mean to you?' you shall say to him, 'It was with a mighty hand that the Lord brought us out from Egypt, the house of bondage.'"  

Deuteronomy 6:20

"When in time your children ask you, 'What do the decrees, laws and rules mean that the Lord our God has enjoined upon you?' you shall say to your children, 'We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the Lord freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand.'"  

These verses form the spinal cord for the famous Four Sons portion of the Haggada. The sages of old could not understand why the Torah, with its economy of language, would include four verses to get you to share the exodus with the next generation. Their conclusion: there are four different learners, and each needs to know the story. If so, then we have to be generous story-tellers with the capacity for differentiated learning at the table.

But perhaps this isn't the only reasonable interpretation of these multiple commands to do the same thing. You can have one child who remembers a story four different ways depending on the vantage point and the situation. We are often called upon to share differing versions of what we experienced. This is why being a witness is a sacred job. You cannot limit the way the imagination weaves together facts.

What you can do is tell a story with lots of positive energy and - as the quote above suggests - in a way that amplifies mood and meaning so that the memory will last longer and be more transformative. "What does this mean to you?" suggests the personal relevance of the story to everyone who hears it. We tell the same story in different ways all of the time. We may eventually settle on a consistent narrative and then adapt the core aspects to an audience; the audience also change the story. Our Haggadah presses us to read more deeply into the exodus and its meanings that will subsequently allow myriad other stories to unfold. 

What does it all mean to you?

Shabbat Shalom

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