Rosh Hashanah has four names: Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the year;
, the Day of Judgment;
, the Day of Remembrance;
, the Day of Shofar Sounding. These four names, and the purposes they express, are bound together by '
,' or memory.
During the 10-day season that begins with Rosh Hashanah and culminates in Yom Kippur, we are asked to recall and to declare with brutal honesty our offenses, sins, and possibly even some crimes of the past year. The Shofar summons us to this painful task of memory and recollection. Yom Hadin, Judgment Day, is impossible without the pain of memory. And judged we will surely be, not so much for our mistakes, but for our sins, the real stuff. The Day of Judgment is the Day of Remembrance.
And what is Yom Kippur with its declaration of sins, if not a day apprenticed to remembering and to memory and the recitation of the past? To borrow from Faulkner, the past year isn't dead, it isn't even past.
Yet this is also a season dependent upon forgetting. It is a season that calls for a form of erasure. It is a season that asks us not only to leave certain things behind, but to forget that they ever happened. One of God's great gifts to humanity is the capacity to forget. Renewal, the ability to start over again, is not possible without the blessed gift of forgetfulness. Some memories are crippling.
In this vein, Maimonides has an insight captured in the use of but one word:
, which has double entendre.
It is most often used in its sense of comforting and consoling. Isaiah consoles Israel after the destruction of the Temple with his famous declaration, "
! Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people!" At the same time
also means to regret, as in the verse in Genesis in which God regrets the creation of humanity because of its sinfulness. Thus, Maimonides teaches us that the sinner has two tasks to fulfill. The task of regretting with deep pain, and the task of comforting and consoling oneself over the sin.
Fundamental to overcoming despair is the capacity to forget. One cannot constantly live with the vivid images of one's sins. Indeed, Jeremiah writes in
that there will come a time when Israel's sins will no longer be remembered.
In those days and at that time-declares God-the iniquity of Israel shall be sought, And it shall not be found…
What is needed for two people to be reconciled? It is not enough to apologize, and for the offended party to say I forgive you; I accept your apology. The offender and the offended party, the sinner and the one against whom the sinner has sinned, both have to forget. If the sinner continues to remember his or her sin, there will never really be reconciliation. There are those who accept an apology but cannot erase from the stone tablet of their mind the deep offense they once felt. This is where forgetfulness arrives to make new life possible. This must be our season of forgetting, as Ezekiel teaches:
If the wicked one repents of all the sins that he committed… None of the transgressions he committed shall be remembered…
(Ezekiel 18:21, 22)
Having experienced pain, it is critical in this season not to be overwhelmed and drown in despair. Maimonides summons us to console and comfort ourselves in the conviction that renewal is ever and always possible.
Rabbi Yehiel E. Poupko is Rabbinic Scholar of the Jewish United Fund.