I have a terrible habit that I am going to try to break in the coming year. Often, late at night, as I am winding down from the day, I turn on the TV and surf the movie channels. I’m not really interested in watching a new movie. At that time of night, I don’t have the patience or desire to have to concentrate on something unfamiliar. Instead, I usually look for a movie I’ve seen before – usually one that I’ve caught pieces of many times.
There’s something very soothing and relaxing about coming back to a story that’s ultimately familiar. A familiar movie is a great escape from whatever is happening. For a few minutes I get to leave my world behind and go inhabit someone else’s world. It’s no longer my problems that dominate my consciousness; a movie invites me to spend time worried about someone else’s issues. Even though I know how it’s going to end, I still rejoice when the main characters triumph, and I cry each time when they suffer and fall. A good movie invites me to transcend my own experience to inhabit the life of someone else – even if that person is real only on screen.
I’m sure I could use those last minutes of the day more productively – I could read a book, or, God forbid, go to sleep a little earlier. But what I would suggest is that during Elul we take some time to escape our present and jump into another world – the world of our memory.
Rosh HaShanah is called Yom HaZikaron – the day of memory. Memory is a powerful spiritual tool. Memory allows us to transcend our physical reality. We can leave behind the here and now, and travel back to a different time and place. Memory invites us to gain a different perspective on that which we once experienced, to look more carefully at what occurred, to reflect not only on the experience itself, but on what that experience meant. Memory allows us to inhabit our own life in a new and different way.
Many of us like to spend time looking at pictures of important occasions. We celebrate a simcha or return from a trip. In real-time, it all seemed to go by so fast. When we flip through the pictures, we can slow down the clock and savor an experience. We can think about what we saw, what we heard, how we felt, and ultimately what we’ve learned. We can look even deeper, and see how a particular experience or event affected what happened to us next, or how we were transformed by what transpired. It’s that process of taking a good hard look at ourselves and our experience that can be so spiritually powerful and transformative.
This is how Jewish ritual works – it forces us to stop the business and busy-ness of our lives to remember and reflect. A baby is born, and the experience of the delivery can be overwhelming and powerful. But then, eight days later, we stop and look back on that miracle and think about what it all means. We think not only about the miracle of life, but also to what we are dedicating that life. Whose memory do we want to honor, what values and principles do we hope to impart, what do we pray this child will come to know and understand in the course of his/her life?
So do these holy days force us to look inward and explore the realm of memory. The moments when we stop, look back, and reflect on the meaning we choose to draw from the memory of our lives can be the most powerful moments in our spiritual lives. They are transcendent because they invite us truly to transcend the boundaries of physical existence. It is this work and this process that makes them truly high holy days.
Let us all afford ourselves the oppotunity this month to take that spiritual journey down memory lane, and let that experience of transcendence inspire us as we look forward to our own life’s journey.