Why We Remember

Human consciousness expresses itself in many functions. One of these is the faculty of memory. When we remember things, we consider this useful in some pragmatic way (e.g. remembering your phone, the math you studied, or the pie in the oven). This allows us to be productive. Emotional memories provide an emotional stimulation that makes us feel a certain way. Sensory memory is almost instinctual, were it not for our ability to think about our associations and make choices. And yet, with all the marvelous feats that memory displays (which have certainly not been summarized adequately here), we find it hard to relate to our own memories. When we remember childhood interests, we may have sensory and emotional memory, but no usefulness; no concept is attached to this, because we have changed since the time of the experience. When we get an ice cream craving, it’s a distraction, albeit a vivid and forceful one. When we daydream, we go nowhere other than into the messy recesses of the mind. And don’t even ask about “remembering” things like Yetzi’as Mitzrayim or Creation. It seems like a category error to call that “memory”.

Perhaps this is all a mistake, however. Sure, we’re plenty busy with fixing practical, physical things, leaving no time to squander on daydreaming about daydreaming. But perhaps some of our fundamental confusion — our constant battle with our own “human condition” (as if it were absolute) — could be alleviated with a little fine-tuning. Perhaps what we ought to do — what the masters of Mussar, Kabbalah, Chassidus, etc. have been pleading from us — is to spend some time inside and go on a little hike of transcendence. To stop running and yelling, and instead to sit in tranquil thoughtfulness with past experience laid bare and unfurled.

The terms I would like to introduce here are “nostalgia” and “re-association”. The first was coined as a compound of Greek words to mean “acute homesickness”, which describes exactly what I believe memory to be (it is now used to signify yearning for a past experience). Memory is not superficial; memory is a longing for something that has become detached from our self-definition. When it hurts, it demands a solution. When it enthuses, it brings healing. Memory is inherently nostalgic: you don’t only think about something; you live it again; you return home.

And to what end? Re-association. As mentioned previously, memory can be the source of realization for the present. Every detail of your life has contributed to your current persona. We have an entire web of associations based on past experiences. That web tends to be misleading and terribly distorted. But with memory, we are given the challenge to re-synchronize, re-align, and place ideas in their proper places. By re-associating (e.g. the ice cream is flavored, sweetened milk that has been aerated and frozen, rather than “the best thing ever/the epitome of happiness”), we can redeem ourselves in a pre-emptive “Yom HaDin”. Man is a universe, and his history is no accident.

Perhaps it’s time we be unafraid to remember. By seeing the lattice of love through which HaShem peers into our lives, by integrating everything that has been used to form our present selves, our journey into the future will be thrust forward by the iridescent fire of the past. We will be able to transcend time, to see the relativity of experience from beyond the event horizon, to touch secrets of Infinity. We will relive Yetzi’as Mitzrayim, re-enact Creation, and turn the soft candlelight of the womb into a beacon by which we may march.

Parshas Vayechi: Yaakov & Rachel On The Side Of The Road

Amos 5:1-17: It’s All In The Past