Rosh Ha-shana: The
Day of Remembrance
Rosh Ha-shana is the name by which common parlance has, quite literally,
designated the onset of the new year.
The Rabbis, however – while they, too, frequently use this term – have
chosen a more definitive and descriptive phrase to denominate the occasion in
prayer: yom ha-zikkaron, “the day of remembrance.” Hence, in order to grasp the
significance of the day as they conceived it, we need to understand the
substance of zikkaron.
I presume that if
any of us were asked to define remembrance and its associations, we would most
likely focus upon storage of the past.
To remember, so we are inclined to think, is primarily to preserve in our
consciousness – generally, in an intellectual mode – a fact or an experience
which we have previously appropriated through the mind or our senses. A “good memory” is one which succeeds
in retaining, precisely and vividly, that which has been seen, heard or learned. The best memory, in this sense,
therefore belongs to a sophisticated computer which can absorb a massive stream
of information and emit it, instantly and exactly, upon a moment’s notice. In short, we tend to regard memory as
simply one comprehensive archive.
Even in this sense, memory may vary in character and purpose. It may, for instance, be either
passive or active. A phenomenon may
be stored in the recesses of the mind, available should the need arise; or it
may be recalled at this very moment, as one component of current existential
consciousness. And memory may of
course be variously motivated. The
historian reconstructs the past in order to interpret it. Whether consciously selective or
striving to delineate his subject in its entirety – “exactly as it was,” in
Ranke’s celebrated phrase – he is less interested in disjunct details than in
the overall picture; and he is primarily animated by the desire to create a
framework which should enable him better to understand the past as well as,
hopefully, the present. His aim is
the imposition of mastery and order upon the welter of data, persons, and
events, to grasp the dynamics and the climate which brought them forth; and
memory is the medium through which Clio’s history, the story of the past,
confronts history proper.
On the other hand, one may conceivably remember the past with no interest
in either analyzing or ordering it but rather out of a desire to arrest it. The attempt to recall the evanescent
may spring from nostalgia longing for some familiar period to be imaginatively
reconstructed. Feeling swept along
by the maelstrom of a changing present, one may seek anchor in a segment of the
past which might initially have been no less turbulent but which retrospectively
appears relatively stable. Through
the vehicle of memory, artistic sensibility can create a seemingly timeless
haven from anguish and responsibility.
Proust is the best known modern exemplar of this tendency but he hardly
stands alone. Or again, the artist
may recapture the past not in order to return to it but, on the contrary, so
that he may, in part, transcend it.
“Poetry,” Wordsworth wrote, “is emotion recollected in tranquility.”
Retention of the past has great significance per se. The capacity, in Hamlet’s phrase, for
“looking before and after” characterizes man and sets him off from the rest of
nature. Nevertheless, it hardly
exhausts the full range of memory, of zikkaron. There is memory which is not the
recollection of an emotion but which is itself an emotion; and as such it
may, strangely enough, relate to present and future no less than to the past. When the Torah tells us (Bereishit
30:24), “And God remembered Rachel, and God hearkened to her, and opened her
womb,” are we to understand that hitherto she had, as an objective datum, been
forgotten? Does the pasuk (Bereishit
8:1), “And God remembered Noah, and every living thing, and all the cattle that
were with him in the ark,” describe, salve reverentia, some change in the
range of His knowledge? Clearly,
vayizkor in these verses signifies attention rather than knowledge. They tell us that God heeded Rachel
and Noah, respectively; and they suggest that zikkaron may denote
response and relationship. That
relationship may of course vary.
Generally, it is sympathetic.
However, it may be negative as well. The mishna (Rosh Ha-shana
4:6) speaks of retributive zikkaron, and in at least one instance,
hostile remembrance is even normatively commanded. As the Rambam in particular
emphasized, the mitzvah to remember Amalek does not merely enjoin
awareness of the historical facts but calls for enmity as well. In either case, however, remembrance
is more experiential than cognitive.
It is closer to revulsion or yearning than to knowledge. Referring to several Rabbinic
ordinances which were instituted as zekher le-mikdash, “a commemoration
of the Temple,” the gemara (Sukka
Whence do we [learn]
that we commemorate the Temple? R. Yochanan said: For the verse says
(Jer. 30:17), “For I will restore health unto thee, and I will heal thee
of thy wounds, saith the Lord; because they have called thee an outcast: ‘She is
Zion, whom no one seeks’” –
evidently, she ought to be sought.
The implicit equation of remembrance and quest presents the second
dimension of zikkaron with full force.
The implications for Rosh Ha-shana are clear. The day and its sanctity are grounded
in memory in both senses. The first
aspect – recollection of the past, retention of information, recall of events
(all this, of course, salve reverentia) – is unquestionably present. It finds its foremost expression in
the opening lines of zikhronot, “memories,” the middle blessing of the
mussaf prayer in which the character of Rosh Ha-shana as a day of judgment
is emphasized: “You remember what was wrought from eternity and heed all that
has been formed from of old; before You all secrets are revealed and the
multitude of hidden things from the beginning.
For there is no forgetfulness before the throne of Your glory, nor is
anything hidden from Your eyes. You
remember every deed and no creature is concealed from You….”
However, it is
equally clear that the second dimension is present as well. It, too, is reflected in zikhronot. Moreover, since we can generally
assume that the coda of a blessing defines its essence, I believe that it is the
dominant motif. Several sentences
after the beginning, we perceive a subtle but decided shift. Shortly after the declaration, “For
the remembrance of every creature comes before You, a man’s deeds and destiny,
his works and ways, the thoughts and designs of a man and the motives of human
action” – with its implicit threat to scheming, wayward, vulnerable man, caught,
naked to the universe, in the web of omnipotence and omniscience – a fresh note
is struck: “For the remembrance of all works comes before You, and You search
into the doings of them all. Noah,
too, did You remember with love and did visit him with a promise of salvation
note becomes dominant. It of course
pervades the Biblical verses cited, inasmuch as the Halakha has decreed that “we
do not cite calamitous remembrances.”
However, it is also central to the petition contained in the concluding
section of the blessing. There, the
theme of omniscience is, to be sure, repeated: “For You are He who remembers
from eternity all forgotten things and before Your throne of glory there is no
forgetfulness.” But it is applied
quite differently. What is
remembered is primarily God’s covenant with
and the self-sacrifice of the patriarchs and their children as its basis.
That being the case,
the nature of the remembrance is of course not disinterested cognition but
existential relation. In this sense,
being remembered per se is an inordinate benefit.
Nothing is worse than being cast off from Him, exposed to the vagaries of
an indifferent cosmos. Even
punishment at His hands is better than oblivion: “Even such wrath may the
Almighty pour upon us,” said Rav Nachman, “and may He save us” (Rosh Ha-shana
32b). Obviously, however, the
remembrance for which we plead is a favorable one: “Remember us for good and
visit us with a visitation of salvation and memory from the primordial heavens.” With that plea, the movement from one
sense of zikkaron to another becomes fully explicit.
“Rosh Ha-shana,” wrote the Ramban, “is a day of judgment with mercy.” In light of that description, it may
be said that in reciting zikhronot, we open with praise of “the Lord of
judgment” and hence celebrate that zikkaron which stores and recalls –
and therefore accuses and reproaches.
We conclude, however, with a plea to “the Lord of our fathers,” and hence
relate to that zikkaron which empathizes and redeems, to the source of “a
visitation of salvation of mercy.”
This range reflects the dual character of Rosh Ha-shana as yom
We have dealt heretofore with yom ha-zikkaron as it appears in our
prayers, as the occasion of divine remembrances.
However, as the opening day of the period of repentance it obligates man
to remember as well. And that
memory, too, is dual. On the one
hand, repentance requires search and recall of the past. It demands that we do not content
ourselves with attending to what we happen to be mindful of at the moment but
rather that we mine our consciousness, that we examine our innermost recesses,
that we remember by main force.
There can be no teshuva without knowledge of the past. One begins with the cognition and
recognition of sin. “For I know my
transgressions and my sin is ever before me” (Tehillim 51:5). To this end, we of course activate
the memory of retention, the storehouse of the mind. However, repentance enjoins a second
zikkaron as well. “Remember
then your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come, and the
years draw nigh when you shall say: ‘I have no pleasures in them’” (Kohelet
12:1). This remembrance, of our
Creator rather than of our sins, is more existential and experiential than
cognitive. It parallels God’s
remembrance of His covenant with
Israel, and its essence is yearning, longing, a
deeply felt need to cling and to cleave.
Through it we round out the dual character of our zikkaron; and in
so doing we lay the basis for the encounter of man and God at the plane of
relational remembrance. “My soul
remembers and is bowed down within me.
This I recall to my mind; therefore have I hope. Surely, the Lord’s mercies are not
consumed; surely, His compassions fail not.
They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness” (Eikha