World of the Sages: To forget or not to forget

Forgetfulness is a prevalent human trait that clearly does not plague the Almighty. Though we lament forgetting things, there are times that we want to put experiences or events out of our minds.

Forgetfulness is a prevalent human trait that clearly does not plague the Almighty. Though we lament forgetting things, there are times that we want to put experiences or events out of our minds. We may also wish that God would forget certain actions that we have done. From an exilic perspective, the prophet bemoans the sense that the Almighty has forgotten the Jewish people: "And Zion said: God has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me. The prophet supplies God's reassuring reply: Can a woman forget her baby, not feel compassion for the child of her womb? Even these they will forget, but I will not forget you" (Isaiah 49:14-15). Seeking to interpret the verse, our sages ask: Forsaken is essentially the same as forgotten, what can we derive from the repeated expression? According to one sage this verse contains an extensive dialogue between Israel and the Almighty about what God chooses to remember (B. Berachot 32b). "Master of the universe, ordinarily if a man marries a second wife in addition to his first wife, he nevertheless recalls the actions of the first wife. You, Almighty, have both forsaken me and forgotten me." Indeed marrying a second wife hurts the first wife, who perceives that she has been inadequate (Rashi, 11th century, France). Nevertheless, she can hope that though she is forsaken, the husband will recall the good times they had together. Despite having been exiled, Israel feels not only forsaken but totally forgotten. The Almighty responds kindly assuring Israel that it is still the center of God's world: "My daughter, I created 12 constellations in the firmament, and for each and every constellation I created 30 army commanders. And for each and every army commander, I created 30 ligyon. And for each and every ligyon, I created 30 rahaton. And for each and every rahaton, I created 30 karton. And for each and every karton, I created 30 gastera. And for each and every gastera, I hung 365 thousands of myriads of stars corresponding to the days of the solar year. All this was created only for your sake, and you claim 'You have forsaken me and forgotten me.'" The expressions used here are apparently from Roman military parlance and reflect God's assertion of the centrality of the Jewish people for whom quadrillions of stars have been created. Punning on the continuation of the biblical verse, the Almighty continues: "Can I possibly forget the burnt offerings [ola rather than ula - her baby] of rams and the first issues of the womb that you sacrificed before Me in the desert?" Realizing that God will never disregard it, the concern of Israel shifted focus: "Master of the universe, since there is no forgetfulness before Your throne of glory, perhaps You will not forget the incident of the Golden Calf?" The continuation of the biblical verse, albeit with a vowel change (the passive tishakahna instead of the active tishkahna), reflects the Almighty's assurance: "Even these [indicating the Golden Calf] will be forgotten." The term "these" (eileh) reminds us of the Golden Calf episode where the people declared, "These [eileh] are your gods, O Israel" (Exodus 32:4). But Israel's fears were not totally assuaged: "Master of the universe, since there is indeed forgetfulness before Your throne of glory, lest You forget Sinai where we declared our loyalty to You." The conversation concludes with God's final reassurance taken from the conclusion of the verse: But I will not forget you. When the Almighty says "I" (anochi), we are reminded of the Ten Commandments which open with the word "I" (anochi). God promises not to forget Sinai. Looking back at the talmudic passage, we see that Israel is concerned that if God overlooks the Golden Calf, its loyal declaration at Sinai will also be forgotten. Why must there be a connection between forgetting the Golden Calf and forgetting Sinai? The Almighty can undoubtedly choose to dismiss one event while focusing on another? In various hassidic sources, an explanation is offered in the name of the beloved Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev (1740-1810) that began with a parable of two peers - one the child of holy parents, the other born to simple folk. As the two youngsters attend school, they both excel in their studies. The greatest praise is reserved for the child of lowly lineage who was not fortunate to be raised in an environment that valued academic achievement. The success of the other student is expected and largely taken for granted. Were both children not to shine in school, no one would have claims against the student born to simple parents, while the offspring of the holy parents would be looked down upon - how could this child of lofty lineage not have continued the ancestral tradition of holiness?? Unpacking the parable, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak explained: The Jewish people are descended from holy ancestry and hence a holy demeanor is expected. Though the Almighty would heap reward upon us, there are forces who claim: They are merely following in the footsteps of their forefathers and should not be lauded for this conduct. If the Jewish people were to sin, these same contrary forces would be quick to disparage us: such lofty lineage and such lowly behavior. Thus the Jewish people turn to the Almighty: If You disregard the Golden Calf, then the Sinaitic assertion of loyalty is no longer significant, for it merely follows the model of our ancestors. To this God responds: Fear not! When it comes time to recall Sinai, I will not overlook the Golden Calf so that your declaration of fidelity at Sinai looks all the greater. While there is no true divine forgetfulness, the Almighty is willing to choose what to spotlight, overlooking certain episodes in particular situations and focusing on those same events in other circumstances. In dealing with our surroundings we should try to imitate the Almighty, choosing what to remember so that we judge others favorably. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.