Rosh Hashana – The Day of Remembrance - Matan - The Sadie Rennert
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Rosh Hashana – The Day of Remembrance

Dr. Miriam Weitman

In the supplementary prayer ya’aleh ve-yavo, Rosh Hashana is referred to as יום הזיכרון – ‘the day of remembrance.’ Although ya’aleh ve-yavo is recited on every Chag and Rosh Chodesh, Daniel Goldsmith (Machzor for the High Holidays, vol. I p. 19) suggested that this prayer may have originally been written specifically for Rosh Hashana, since it focuses on the concept of remembrance multiple times:

[…] may there arise, come, arrive, appear, be favored, be heard, be considered, be reminded our remembrance and consideration, and the remembrance of our forefathers, and the remembrance of the Messiah, son of David Your servant, and the remembrance of Jerusalem, city of Your holiness, and the remembrance of Your entire nation of the House of Israel before You, for deliverance, goodness, grace, kindness, mercy, life and peace on this Day of Remembrance (Rosh Hashana). Remember us on it …

What is the significance of memory in relation to God, who never forgets anything, as we proclaim in Zichronot: “there is no forgetfulness before the throne of your glory, and nothing hidden from before your eyes?”

Divine ‘memory’ is not limited to observing the past; it is a description of God’s active ongoing relationship with mankind, and His constant attention to the human state. In other words – judgment. This is the reason Divine memory is generally linked with a turning point in human destroy. “And God remembered Noah, and all the animals and all the cattle that were with him in the ark – and God sent a wind over the earth, and the waters subsided” (Gen. 8:1); “And God remembered Rachel – and God listened to her, and opened her womb” (Gen. 30:22); “And I myself remembered my covenant with you in the days of your youth – and I have established for you an everlasting covenant” (Ezek. 16:9). On the Day of Remembrance, God recalls each and every individual, thereby determining his destiny. The remembrance is man’s judgment before God.

In R. Haim Sabato’s book Ani LeDodi – Essays on the Days of Awe (pp. 91-95), he distinguishes between two facets of divine memory: judgement and redemption. The essence of God’s remembrance of man is judgment. However, in his judgment, man faces God as a whole – including his personality, prayers and aspirations, and in response, Divine memory could transform judgment to blessed redemption. We therefore request, in ya’aleh ve-yavo, that our memory before God should be favorable: “Remember us on it, Lord our God, favorably, and consider us on it for a blessing, and redeem us on it for life … have pity and be gracious to us and have mercy on us and save us, because our eyes are turned to You.”

Alongside the Divine remembrance of man, the Torah also includes various mitzvot that hinge on human remembrance. However, in distinction from Divine remembrance, the concept of human memory is intertwined with forgetfulness. When man faces and experiences reality in its full force, it becomes engraved in him. but the power of the experience is diminished over time, and can slowly become a vague and forgotten memory somewhere in the depths of consciousness. This is the meaning of forgetting. As R. Abraham Yitzhak Hakohen Kook wrote: “The skies open and we see Divine visions – but we know this is a temporary state for us, the lightening will pass and we will descend not within the Temple, but in the courtyard of God” (Orot, Zeronim I).

This is as true for the individual as it is for the nation’s collective memory. Over the years national experiences, great as they may seem at the time, will diminish. With time, their radiance and existential significance wane. The Torah therefore initiates a formal remembrance of significant events, through actions or speech, study or recitation. In this manner we turn the linear and passing event to a conscious cyclic constant.

The foundational experience of the Jewish nation was the Exodus from Egypt. The Torah attempts to preserve this incomprehensible memory within us through a recurring observance of various commandments which remind us of the events our nation underwent. Approximately ten commandment directly integrate remembrance: four were given to the nation in Egypt or during the first and second year after the Exodus, and six more were commanded in the fortieth year, at a distance from the event, when there is a greater concern that its power and meaning will be lost. A look at the Torah’s formulation with regard to these ten mitzvot shows a surprising distinction between the commemorative content the Torah commands those who experienced the Exodus, and the content provided to the next generation. This distinction might indicate the manner in which memory is designed, highlighting the Divine compassion of this design.

In Egypt, and within the 18 months following the Exodus, the nation was given various mitzvot with the purpose of preserving the memory of the Exodus:

  1. Pesach: “This day shall be to you one of remembrance: you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord throughout your generations … for on this very day I brought your ranks out of the land of Egypt” (Ex. 12:14-17).
  2. The prohibition of chametz: “And Moses said to the people: remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt, from the house of bondage, how the Lord freed you from it with a mighty hand: no leavened bread shall be eaten” (Ex. 13:3).
  3. Tefillin: “And this shall serve you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead —in order that the teaching of the Lord may be in your mouth—that with a mighty hand the Lord freed you from Egypt” (Ex. 13:9).
  4. Tzitzit: “That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord … thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments … I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God” (Num. 15:39-41).

On the fortieth year, the Torah repeats only one mitzvah, remarking that it is a remembrance of the Exodus – the mitzvah of Passover: “Observe the month of Aviv and offer a Passover sacrifice to the Lord God … so that you may remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt as long as you live” (Deut. 16:1-3). Along with this commandment, the nation was given five additional mitzvot which relate to the commemoration of Egypt, with an added element of commemorating the slavery:

  1. Shabbat: “Observe the day of Shabbat and sanctify it … you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your ox or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the stranger in your settlements, so that your male and female slave may rest as you do; Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Deut. 5:12-15).
  2. Providing compensation for a released slave: “If a fellow Hebrew man—or woman—is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall set him free.; When you set him free, do not let him go empty-handed; Furnish him out of the flock, threshing floor, and vat, with which the Lord your God has blessed you; Remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I enjoin this commandment upon you today” (Deut. 15:12-15).
  3. Shavuot: “Then you shall observe the Feast of Weeks for the Lord your God … You shall rejoice before the Lord your God, you and your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite in your communities, and the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your midst … Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and take care to obey these laws” (Deut. 16:10-12).
  4. The prohibition to miscarry justice: “You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the fatherless; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pawn; Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and that the Lord your God redeemed you from there” (Deut. 24:17-18).
  5. Giving to the poor: “When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not pick it over again; that shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow; Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment” (Deut. 24:21-22).

These mitzvot, given on the cusp of the nation’s entry to the Promised Land, intend to provide support for the weaker facets of society, in various ways. The phrase “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt” is a motto throughout the mitzvot of the fortieth year. It links 19 long chapters that keep returning to the obligation of commemorating the enslavement, which was never mentioned in earlier books.[1]

Why was the generation of the Exodus given mitzvot that commemorate leaving Egypt, and only forty years later, the next generation was given commandments that commemorate the enslavement? Should remembering the Exodus not be preceded with a commemoration of the enslavement, according to the historical-chronological order of events?

Understanding the two separate facets of commemorating the Exodus reveals the purpose of remembrance in the Torah. Upon leaving Egypt, the nation was not commanded to remember its enslavement; the purpose of commemoration is not to burden and upset. The generation of the Exodus required emotional liberty from their bondage no less than physical freedom. The nation needed to practice independence, lest they collapse under the weight of the terrible memories. Only forty years later, a new generation can look back at the events of the nation’s foundation, at the enslavement and torture, and the murder of babies in the Nile. The Torah did not burden the generation of the Exodus with remembrance, while they still carried the pain of their own bondage. The mitzvah of remembrance is meant to illuminate the path and leverage life.

We stand before God at this time of year and pray that he should remember us favorably and illuminate our path. we ask him to awaken us to return to him sincerely and wholeheartedly, and remind us who we are, the purpose of our lives, and what we can strive to achieve. The Torah’s remembrance does not encourage wallowing in the past – but rather leveraging the memory to elevate the future, by acting in the present. The purpose of remembrance is to create a life that centers of spirituality and faith, and focuses on providing for those in need.

אָבִינוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ זָכְרֵנוּ בְּזִכָּרוֹן טוֹב לְפָנֶיךָ

Our Father, our King, remember us with a favorable remembrance before you

[1] Egypt is mentioned in the context of other mitzvot, such as the appropriate treatment of the foreigner (Ex. 22:20; Ex. 23:9; Lev. 19:33-34; Lev. 25:35-38; Deut. 10:19), and the prohibition to make a Hebrew slave do slave-labor (Lev. 25:39-43). However, the memory motif is not mentioned in these mitzvot, and their purpose is not to preserve memory.

Dr. Miriam Weitman

Dr. Miriam Weitman

is a graduate of Matan and she was a fellow in the first cohort of Kitvuni writing a book on Chronicles. Miriam holds a doctorate in Contemporary Judaism from Bar Ilan University. She works in the educational field, teaching in high schools and academic settings and through the Ministry of Education has mentored teachers throughout the country.