Good yuntif! It’s so wonderful to be together to welcome in the New Year. No matter how good or how difficult the past year has been, I pray that the year 5780 will be a better year … for all of us.
This past summer, I had the opportunity to read a collection of science fiction stories by author Ted Chiang. Sci fi is my favorite “downtime” genre because of the many ways it can raise meaning-of-life philosophical questions. Plus: spaceships and lasers! From the moment I began Chiang’s story “The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling,” I knew I needed to share it with you. In it, he asks: what would it be like if we could implant a chip in our brains which recorded everything we saw, heard and did, and which was easy to index so that we could have perfect recall without having to rely on our less trustworthy brains? And, what would it be like, if we could share those memories with anyone who also had a chip?
According to the 9/11 Memory Project, we remember far less accurately than we think. Under two of the world’s leading memory experts, Bill Hirst of the New School for Social Research and Liz Phelps of NYU, 3246 people were asked the same three questions about 9/11 for ten consecutive years, beginning right after the event itself: where were you, who were you with, how did you feel? To my surprise, they tracked an average 60% decline in memory consistency over ten years. The level of detail, however, would sometimes grow. Even more, the subjects remained highly confident about the accuracy of their memories over time. When confronted with what they had written in previous years they could not understand why they would have presented answers which they knew were wrong because they were in conflict with what they clearly remembered now. You see, how we rehearse our memories, external influences like social contagion, and conflation of different memories, all influence our memory recall.
Ted Chiang’s story challenges us to imagine a different reality, one where we have perfect recall of the facts, on demand. Not the narrative we attach, but the actual repetition of what happened, which we could play over and again in our minds, or perhaps even on screens.
How would you act if you knew that absolutely everything you were doing was being recorded?
What would happen to our society?
What would happen to our relationships?
Not that we should all get these chips (assuming they actually existed). Like any technology, they could be used to affirm life or to destroy life. However, this idea raises important questions for these holy days, and for our lives. How much do we change what we remember to fit a more satisfactory narrative? Which memories do we emphasize, and which let go?
In other words, how honest are we, really, about ourselves with ourselves?
That’s the question.
How honest are we, really, about ourselves with ourselves?
The Mussar tradition, a Jewish ethical piety practice, teaches that we each have a series of soul or character traits, like patience, humility, courage, gratitude and many more. It also teaches that most of us are out of balance, each in our own unique ways. While each soul-trait is connected to the others, one of the most central is ‘truth.’ If we are not honest with ourselves and with each other, we will never correct our imbalances.
We all have our own ways of distorting or even manufacturing the truth. Alan Moranis, the founder of the Mussar Institute, links dishonesty to fear. We manipulate or manufacture the truth because we are afraid: maybe I won’t get the job, maybe I won’t pass the test, maybe they won’t like me, or I won’t like them, maybe they will judge me. When we are truly honest with ourselves, we confront the underlying fears which get in our way, in deed and in memory. Most of the time, we discover that our fears are more trivial than we thought.
While our tradition generally condemns lying, we are Jews, so it gets complicated. The famous rabbis Hillel and Shammai asked, “What do you say to a bride who is not beautiful?” Shammai taught: do not lie, ever; instead of commenting on her beauty, search until you can find something else that is true and positive, and if you cannot find something, try harder. Hillel taught: every bride should be complimented as being “beautiful and gracious.” Hillel teaches that we should be more concerned with how our words impact another person than with how our words correspond to our perceptions of reality. For him, kindness is a higher truth than a personal opinion, and the preservation of human dignity is higher still. In other words, not all “lies” are false.
Similarly, not all “truths” are true just because we say they are. We should question our biases and opinions if we seek true honesty.
And we should especially avoid distorting the truth for personal gain or satisfaction. Our tradition understands that, more often than not, our lies will eventually catch up with us. Yet, even if we don’t get caught, we still damage ourselves through dishonesty. Moranis writes:
“Deceit undermines the soul of the person who is not dedicated to truth. When we habitually lie, flatter, boast, cheat, and otherwise deny truth, the impact registers at our deepest internal level. Soul-traits that are out of balance are kept that way, or driven even further toward pathological extremes. In The Path of The Just, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato tells us that lying is a spiritual illness. Ultimately, contact with the soul is lost completely. It is taught in the Talmud that a habitual liar is unable to perceive the Shechinah (the Divine Presence) [Sotah 42a].”
On Rosh HaShanah we consider the truth of our lives as we have lived them over the past year. Shammai teaches us to use our personal perceptions as our guide to truth. Hillel, challenges us not only look through our own eyes, but also through the eyes of the other people who “were there.” Hillel teaches that we are not the singular arbiters of truth, and that speaking accurately is connected with seeing accurately – which brings us back to the primary question before us.
How honest are we, really, about ourselves with ourselves?
Have we recognized our wrongs, felt regret, attempted to make amends? Have we determined not to repeat our mistakes, and considered how we might act differently under similar circumstances? Are we really performing teshuvah?
Sometimes, I think that it’s just too hard. How can I remember a whole year in a day? How can I trust that I haven’t re-framed what I do remember? In the end, we can only do what we can do, for we are imperfect beings. Yet, while we Jews always begin with memory, we end with hope. I have hope in “us.” I have faith that if we put our minds to it, that we will remember at least some of the past year. I have faith that if we put our hearts in it, that we can become more honest with ourselves. I believe that we are capable of becoming more than we are now.
That said, hope does not replace action. So I would also like to offer something practical that you can take home with you. Literally. It is printed on a refrigerator magnet which you can take on your way out today.
Since it is difficult to remember a whole year at once, I adopted a practice, years ago, which I try to do every Shabbat. I figured that since Yom Kippur is called Shabbat HaShabbatot, the Sabbath of all Sabbaths, that I could use Shabbat as a weekly check in. After all, a weekly check in is much easier than waiting until the end of the year. So I took a page from one of my teachers, Rabbi Levi Kelman, who began each Kabbalat Shabbat service at his synagogue in Jerusalem with a review of the week. Let’s try it together right now.
If you are comfortable, I’d like to invite you to close your eyes. If not, then please at least let your eyes go out of focus, so that you are not looking at anything in particular. Let’s go back in our memories one week, to last Monday. Try to remember where you were, who you saw, what you did. If it is difficult, that’s ok. That’s just a sign that we aren’t paying as much attention to the lives we live as we think we are. It gets easier with practice. Sometimes, it helps me to think about what I ate. Then everything else seems to fall in place. In any event, work your way through the day in your memory, starting with waking up. Did you leap out of bed to greet the day or did you groan, roll over and cover your head with your pillow? Try to remember your day in the order that you lived it. Each activity, each person you saw or spoke with. What did you do that evening? What was the last thing you said before going to sleep, and to whom did you speak those words?
Then day by day, continue to work your way through the week. And, while you are doing it, try to identify three kinds of memories. If you want a deeper challenge try using Hillel’s frame – looking at your week through more than just your own eyes.
The first kind of memory is something that you did, which you think you got right – in your eyes and in the eyes of the people around you. Something, that you would do exactly the same way the next time around. It is important to celebrate our good choices, and remembering them with intentionality reinforces this behavior.
The second is something that you did, but wish you could get a do-over. Think about the mistake you made, and how you would handle it differently if the opportunity arises – which it will. It is important to consider how we can make better choices in order to improve our chances for the future.
The third kind of memory is something, someone, some moment, for which you are grateful. Even if it was a difficult week, try to find those moments, and label them, and then offer your thanks heavenward. Regardless of how we did this past week, we should always count our blessings. This reinforces and strengthens our sense of hope and satisfaction.
Perhaps now it is Thursday …
Taking time each week to think about how we have lived in these three ways helps us to cultivate greater awareness of how we move through time; how we impact the people around us; how we use the precious time we are given. It helps us to feel good about the positives we bring to the world, and helps us correct ourselves along the way. It is Jewish mindfulness at its best.
Perhaps now it is Sunday. Yesterday. Think about where you were, who you saw, what you said. Think about the beginning of Rosh HaShannah last night. Did you celebrate at home, here in the synagogue or both? Or were you distracted? Or did other pressures of life take precedence? Whatever is true, this is what we should recall, note, acknowledge, and consider for the future.
Now it is this morning. We are waking up, getting dressed, and coming here to synagogue to bring in the New Year.
Take a deep breath … and slowly open your eyes.
Hineynu. We are here. It is a New Year. May we use this precious gift to look inward with honesty, so that we can grow in spirit and in love and do our best to make the year 5780 a year filled with success, meaning and joy.
 I first learned about the 9/11 Memory Project from Malcolm Gladwell’s Podcast: “Revisionist History” (Season 3). I highly recommend episode 3, “A Polite Word for Liar (Memory part 1)” and episode 4, “Free Brian Williams” (which is part 2 – they need to be listened to in order). Much of what I included here comes from these podcasts first, and then my review of the actual 9/11 Memory Project report second.
 Hirst, William and Elizabeth Phelps (et al), “A Ten-Year Follow-Up of a Study of Memory for the Attack of September 11, 2001: Flashbulb Memories and Memories of Flashbulb Events,” Journal of Experimental Psychology (American Psychological Association): General 2015, Vol. 144, No. 3, p. 604-623.
 Talmud Bavli, Ketubot 16b-17a [The literal question is: “How does one dance before the bride” but the meaning is as stated above.]
 Moranis, Alan. Everyday Holiness, Trumpeter Press (Boston and London: 2018), p. 168. [translation of Luzzato by Feldman, p. 94]
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras