This is the time of year to remember. Rosh Hashanah is called Yom Zikaron, the day of remembrance because the great mitzvah of Rosh Hashanah is memory. Torah knows how easy it is to forget. This is why we wear a tallit – in order to remember that Hashem brought us out of the land of Egypt. Like a string tied around a finger, the tallit reminds us that we are children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and therefore are expected to live up to that legacy. What the tallit is on a daily basis, Rosh Hashanah is on a yearly basis.
We forget all the time. The practice of the traveler’s prayer calls our attention to one occasion of forgetting. When we are in other places, surrounded by strange noises, smells, and temptations, we may find ourselves doing or saying things that we know to be wrong. Thus the businessman on holiday who puts away his wedding ring. That reminder of himself is hidden, allowing him to forget his family and descend into the pit.
But we forget even in the safety of our home. The confines of our lives today encourage isolation. Big screen televisions allow us to be pleasantly numbed and entertained every day. Internet access means we can gain access to a whole community of like minded people without ever actually meeting them. It’s easy to forget our immediate community and what that community asks of us.
“When you enter the land that God promised…and you come to the third year of Ma’aser, of tithing, give it to the Levites, the stranger, the widow, and the orphan.” (Dt. 26:12). We have to remember those we would prefer to forget, specifically the levites (meaning the poor), and widows and orphans. We would rather live safely in our own homes and not worry about how close we are to poverty or tragedy.
To help the orphan or widow is to remember the fragility of our own lives. When someone loses a spouse, especially earlier in life, that person’s friends often disappear. The couples who previously went to the movies, or dinner, or opera together are suddenly too busy to make time for this widow. Better to forget and go about our lives as though nothing is different. The widow cannot hide – but we can.
To feed the hungry is to remember that our own wealth and comfort is tenuous, as much a gift of God and social conditions as it is a reward for hard work. There go I but for the grace of God. Easier to sit and watch “reality” TV.
This is why God reminds us of blessings and curses when we enter the land. It is in the time of blessing that we can disappear into our own homes and forget about everyone else. Forgetting is a disease of affluence. Thus Torah reminds us of our wider responsibilities as human beings in the midst of affluence.
Rosh Hashanah is getting closer. Mahzor Vitri, one of the earliest prayer books extant, recommends at especially engaging in mitzvoth during Elul. In particular, Vitri suggests praying early in the morning and feeding those who are hungry. This gets us in the habit of encountering those less fortunate and seeing that we must help them, but also of encountering our selves in the silence of prayer and so seeing how much we need Hashem.
This year, as Rosh Hashanah draws close, let us make the emerge from our cocoons and remember. It is past time to help those in need and remember that the power of blessing placed by Hashem in Abraham’s hands has come to rest with us. Carol and I donate 3% of our grocery bill to Mazon, the Jewish response to hunger. It reminds us of our blessings and the responsibility to share those blessings with others. Come help make sandwiches on Sunday the 17th at KE.
It’s time to remember. The Day of Remembrance is upon us.
Rabbi David Booth