A few months ago, when I was about to replace my computer, I needed to answer the question, “How much memory do I need?” Every few years when I upgrade my desktop at home, the cost of memory has gone down but the need has gone up. Now I have several thousand digital photos on my hard drive. I even own an “Iomega Back Up Hard Drive” with 500 gigs of memory. As a Jew I also know that I need a very large memory for all of the events and messages that the Torah commands us to recall. A verse in this week’s portion says “lo tishchach” – do not forget. That leads to two important lessons about memory as we are approaching the Yomim Noraim, the Days of Awe, the High Holy Days.
The verse contains a passage that was recited in ancient times, when the Temple stood in Jerusalem and tithes were brought there: “When you have separated out a 10th of your production in the third year, the year of the tithe, and have given it to the Levi, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, that they may eat and be satisfied under that protection of your settlements, then you shall declare before the Lord your God, ‘I have cleaned out the consecrated portion from the house and I have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, just as you have commanded me. I have not transgressed your commandments and I have not forgotten'” (Deuteronomy 26:12-13).
The statement indicates that one has fulfilled an obligation to help those in need. Why does it contain, “I have not forgotten”? If you gave the appropriate tithe, then of course, you did not forget!
Rabbi Aryeh Leib of Ger suggests an answer in his work “Sefat Emet.” He asks the obvious question – “How is it possible to say ‘I didn’t forget,’ when in fact you just fulfilled a mitzvah?” He says that those words are there to remind us that we can fulfill a commandment while distracted – from force of habit, mechanically, while our brain and heart are preoccupied with other matters. Therefore saying, “I did not forget” means “I was not multitasking when I did it. I was not on my cell phone or reading e-mail or on Facebook. I gave it my full and appropriate attention.” Rabbi Aryeh Lieb of Gur lived, of course, in a time before the term multitasking was used. He suggests that when we are not focused on a task, we have not fulfilled our duty. As we approach the Days of Awe we think of our prayers, our promises to repent, and our intentions to do better next year. We consider those closest to us and how dear are our relationships with them. Unless we focus our full attention on those tasks and those people, we won’t be able to say that we did not forget them.
A second explanation by Rabbi Pinchas Peli points out that this is one of the few fixed prayers that appear in the Torah. It is called a confession. The rabbis of ancient times wondered what is being confessed here. A confession is usually about something that causes guilt. Why should a person feel culpable when talking about his generosity and good deeds to the poor and the needy? Rabbi Peli suggests that the person is really saying, “I never forget all the generous gifts I have made to charity. I want to go on living on the laurels of my good deeds. Do you recall my pledge to the synagogue and the federation last year? I always will!”
Even when we do something good and praiseworthy, there is a time to forget the past and make a pledge for the present and the future. The needs of our communities will continue. I hope we all will think of the future and not just the past when we are asked to support the worthy work done by our synagogues and communal agencies.
This year, “Don’t forget.” Don’t forget to give your full attention to your prayers and to your loved ones during the Days of Awe. Don’t forget the continuing needs of those individuals and organizations that need your tzedakkah. Remember that it did not cost a penny for God to give you all the memory you need. Use those circuits in your brain to start a sweet New Year.