To remember, so we are inclined to think, is primarily to preserve in our consciousness a fact or an experience. A “good memory” is one which retains precisely and vividly, that which has been seen, heard or learned. In short, we tend to regard memory as simply one comprehensive archive. Retention of the past has great significance per se . However, 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 (Bereshit 30:24), “And G-d remembered Rachel, and G-d hearkened to her, and opened her womb,” are we to understand that she had been forgotten at some point?
Does the verse (Bereshit 8:1), “And G-d remembered Noah, and every living thing, and all the cattle that were with him in the ark,” describe some change in the range of His knowledge? Clearly, vayizkor in these verses signifies attention rather than knowledge. They tell us that G-d 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 commanded.
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 – 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. 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” 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 and mercy." Nothing is worse than being cast off from Him and left to our own devices.
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 L-rd of judgment” and hence celebrate that zikkaron which stores and recalls – and therefore accuses and reproaches. We conclude, however, with a plea to “the L-rd 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 ha-zikkaron.
We have dealt 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. 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 and that we examine the innermost recesses.
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).
It parallels G-d’s remembrance of His covenant with Israel, and its essence is yearning, longing, a deeply felt need to cling and to cleave. “My soul remembers and is bowed down within me. This I recall to my mind; therefore have I hope. Surely, the L-rd’s mercies are not consumed; surely, His compassions fail not. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness” (Eikha 3:20-23).
The first step in repentance and return to Him is to remember the past and take responsibility for it. We then commit ourselves to a different and better future, to walking in all His ways and not going our own way. We can rest assured that our return to G-d will be met by a complementary return on G-d's part. G-d will answer the simple words of the lowliest thief in his hour of need who, after acknowledging and taking responsibility for the deeds of his past and upon recognizing the One to Whom he must commit his future, turned to the Messiah and said:
May we dedicate and consecrate ourselves to Him, not only at the beginning and the ending of our year, but every single day and at every single hour; may we let no one day serve as a proxy for another day, let alone for an entire year. Have a blessed New Year and may you be inscribed in the Lamb's Book of Life. May He remember us favorably with mercy.