Forgetfulness – the human condition

Spiritual amnesia on the path of spiritual renewal.

Painting by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Painting by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
IT NEVER fails. At first we feel genuine gratitude for gifts, blessings and opportunities, but memory fades and gratitude drains.
It’s not that we’re uppity ingrates but that our recall and attention are inherently limited. Add the information torrent surging at us digital-age moderns (how long since you checked email?) and our human circuits overload – ever more wiring our hearts and minds for distraction and forgetfulness.
Forgetfulness, it seems, is the human condition: we might call it spiritual amnesia. For most of us living workaday lives, spirituality is rarely what drives us while sitting in traffic late for a meeting or on line in a crowded market.
The divine spark that Jewish tradition associates with each soul, the unifying oneness we call God, the blessings that abound all around – all seem to hide in plain sight. We don’t see, and we forget.
So here’s a reminder to my fellow amnesiacs (which, let’s face it, we’re soon to forget): Spiritual amnesia is a natural part of life, but so too is spiritual remembrance. All wisdom traditions prod us to remember – literally re-member, bring back to mind – then live in the ethical and caring ways inspired by what we remember.
Our challenge is that forgetting is like a black hole, cloaked in its own darkness. Much like a black hole’s gravity absorbs visible proof of its existence, so too spiritual amnesia. When we forget, often we forget that we forget. Pulled by the gravity of routine and need, gratitude fades. Sucked into a vortex of distraction and overload, we forget our spiritual core. In the darkness of spiritual amnesia, if we think of God or spirituality at all, we might not see or remember. It becomes natural then to ask, “What have You done for me lately?” ’Twas always thus. In the Beshalah Torah portion, the Sea of Reeds miraculously split, fleeing slaves crossed on dry land, the Egyptian army was left behind, and the Israelites became free. So awesome was the passage that in Midrash interpretation even the “lowliest handmaiden” achieved spiritual vision unattainable by the greatest prophets. The sight should have forever wired spiritual gratitude into their very being.
But just three Torah verses later, amnesia set in: The people grumbled, lamented leaving Egypt and even repeatedly defied their liberator.
These are symptoms of raging spiritual amnesia. “What have You done for me lately?” It’s telling that Torah tells this story of spiritual amnesia immediately after liberation. Forgetting is so ingrained that to depict the liberation idyllically, without the darkness of amnesia and ingratitude, would be to tell a lie.
Liberation is the story of forgetting and remembering anew.
It’s why Jewish liturgy tells this story twice daily. It’s why Jews tell this story annually at Passover. It’s why Jews are to tell this story as if each of us personally had come forth from Egypt.
One Biblical treatment for spiritual amnesia was visual reminder. In the Beshalah portion, we filled a jar with manna and displayed it to remember the miracle of food in the desert. In a later portion with a similar name (Shlah), we tied a blue fringe on garment corners “to look at it and remember.”
Time evolved other mnemonics. All of Shabbat is to “remember” (Ex. 20:8). Yizkor is named for it. Jewish mitzvot are connectors for spiritual recall. Maggidut (spiritual storytelling), hitbodedut (speaking alone to God), hitbonenut (a Jewish meditation form), hashpa’ah (Jewish spiritual direction), sacred chant (what Sufis call zikr, like the Hebrew zakhor, “remember”) – all seek the spiritual renewal of remembrance. All can help answer the amnesiac’s timeless question, “What have You done for me lately?” For us forgetful folks, however, spiritual amnesia evokes a spiritual paradox: how to remember when we forget, when we forget that we don’t remember? We have many remembrance stories, but do we tell them? We have many spiritual practices, but do we use them? Reminders of spirit surround us, but do we engage them? Often we’re like one who keeps lists but forgets to check them, or sets a morning alarm but hits the snooze button, or ties a string around the finger but doesn’t look.
Beshalah teaches that spiritual amnesia isn’t failure but an inherent part of liberation’s journey. Just as our ancestors forgot and received new chances, so can we. Every day is another chance. We have tools for remembering, and we can help each other use them.
Joining together in these ways, we can help break free from spiritual black holes and transform spiritual amnesia into spiritual renewal.
Rabbi David Evan Markus is co-chair of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal and co-rabbi of Temple Beth-El of City Island (New York, NY). A member of Rabbis Without Borders, by day he serves as judicial referee in the New York Supreme Court