Remember, Reflect, and Return

Memory, the act of remembering, is the greatest benefit of the mind, the greatest gift that God has given us. The brain allows us to think, to deduce, to be creative, to be both rational and irrational. The brain gives us the opportunity to believe. Yet, all that pales in comparison to memory, the act of remembering. Truly, to remember is to relive.

I enjoy collecting interesting newspaper articles that I come across.  There was a brilliant article a few years ago in the Science section of the New York Times that speaks of a scientific breakthrough. The article said that for the first time, scientists have recorded individual brain cells in the act of summoning a spontaneous memory, revealing not only where a remembered experience is registered but also, in part, how the brain is able to recreate it. In essence, the article suggests that remembering is a lot like doing. Remembering is a lot like reliving. The brain associates a memory of a place, a moment, or an individual as if it is currently happening — as if you are in that place, experiencing that event. A memory is so powerful that your brain does not distinguish between past and present.

Our tradition is filled with the power of memory. Only a couple of weeks ago, we read in Parashat Ki Tetzei: That we should remember what Amalek did not us on our journey! We should not forget! With regards to Shabbat, the Sabbath day, we are commanded: Zachor et Yom HaShabbat L’kodsho, to Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. We are not simply remembering. We are reliving. We are acting. For memory is more than just thought, memory requires a level of action.

In this week’s Torah portion, parashat Ha’azinu, Moses is sharing his last words with the Israelites. In his final days, he shares with the people of Israel the importance of memory.

“Remember the Days of old, Consider the years of ages past; ask your father, he will inform you, your elders, they will tell you” (Deut. 32:7)

Moses reminds us to ask our parents and our grandparents, our ancestors, to tell us stories of the past. Yet, when we are told these stories, we remember. Even if we were not there. We relive. We reflect. We re-experience. We actively remember.

How appropriate then, that we read this advice as well, during the aseret yamei teshuva, during these Ten Days of Repentance, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We ask forgiveness of others, but really, we must ask forgiveness of ourselves. We should really call these the ten days of reflection. We look back on the year that has past, and we remember. We remember the good. We remember the bad. We remember those things that make us proud. And we remember those things that disappoint us.

We refer to this past Shabbat, the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as Shabbat Shuvah. While Teshuvah is repentance, Shuvah, which shares the same root, means return. The first words of our Haftarah: Shuva Yisrael ad Adonai Eloheicha. Return, people of Israel to Adonai, Your God.

We return to God. We do not TURN to God. We RETURN to God. We were once there and we left. We once knew our way, but we are now lost. We remember so that we can return – so that the moments of personal revelation felt during this season are not limited to just a couple of days, but rather become a constant in our lives. We take advantage of these opportunities to reflect and to remember. Because, as mentioned, memory leads to action. Remembering our past allows us to eeturn to God.

During these days of reflection, I am reminded of the powerful words of song written by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. He would close his eyes and sing the words:

Return again, return again, return to the land of your soul
Return again, return again, return to the land of your soul
Return to what you are, return to who you are, return to where you are
Born and reborn again…
Return again, return again, return to the land of your soul…

Here is a video of Neshama Carlebach, the daughter of the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach performing this beautifully written kavannah.

May we take advantage of this season, this opportunity to renew — to reflect and remember, so that we can together return to God, and return to better versions of ourselves.

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