Many moons ago, I got a fortune cookie that read: “Everyone has a photographic memory, some just don’t have film.” Oh how true this is! It’s amazing that for some completely random things, my memory is spot on. But for other things, especially the important things that I really want to remember, it appears I’ve run out of film.
Wouldn’t it be a great superpower to never forget? To always remember? If so, what needs to be remembered? And on the flip side, is there anything important enough to forget?
Our tradition is full of reminders. To name just a few:
- Mezuzot – recalls the Angel of Death passing over our houses in Egypt
- Tefillin (that are bound around our arm and head during prayer) – to remember and follow the commands of God
- Brit milah (circumcision) – to remember our covenant with God
- Kiddush – to remember creation on Shabbat by blessing the fruit of the vine
- Kaddish – to remember the life of a loved one who has died
- We remember we were slaves in Egypt on almost every holiday!
We are continually taught to remember, remember, remember — which means we must be forgetting something. As my fortune cookie predicted, we simply lack the film. Or perhaps more accurately, we choose to forget.
In this week’s parsha, Shelach-Lecha, we learn about another reminder, tzitzit.
The LORD said to Moses as follows: “Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves [tzitzit] fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the generations; let them attach a cord of blue to the [tzitzit] fringe at each corner. That shall be your [tzitzit] fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the LORD and do them, [v’lo taturu] so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. So that you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God. I the LORD am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I, the LORD your God” (Numbers 15:37-41).
So what’s unique about tzitzit?
First, tzitzit help us address and manage our baser instincts that lust after anything our eyes and heart are drawn to. Rashi notes, “The eye sees, the heart lusts and the body rushes to fulfill the sin.” But tzitzit are a potential safety mechanism against that progression. If used correctly, the fringes of my garment remind me of the covenant I am in with my Higher Power, and instead of yearning to fulfill the whims of my desire I am encouraged to perform the sacred commitments that help me live out that covenant, become the best version of myself.
Secondly, it’s another reminder to be holy. According to this passage, the goal of performing mitzvot (sacred commitments) is for us to be “holy to your God.” I know I forget this on a daily basis. I forget that I matter. I forget that every action I do matters, that every deed impacts others and the world for good or for evil. When I see those fringes hanging from the sides of my legs, it is another invitation to be reminded that my actions matter.
Still, why are we programmed to forget? Why does it seem I have to learn and relearn the same lesson over and over?
According to the Midrash:
…The Rabbis said in the name of Rabbi Yitzchak, and Rabbi Tuvia said in the name of Rabbi Yitzchak: It is beneficial for them to study and then forget, for if they studied and did not forget, they would spend only two or three years involved in Torah-study, and then go back to their jobs. Then they would never again pay attention to Torah. But since people study Torah and forget it, they never lose contact with words of Torah” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 1:13).
We need to forget so that we can be immersed in the process. If we always remember, we lose the opportunity for growth. We lose the opportunity to choose to be connected. We lose the opportunity to choose to be in contact with wisdom.
This is in line with what Rabbi Mark teaches from this text, “Lo-taturu – do not be a tourist.” When we are tourists, we are not fully immersed in life. We are not fully immersed in the totality of the moment, and we are more easily swayed by our whims and the external noise around us.
Because, we are not just human beings, we are human be-comings! Reminders are necessary for us to remain in process of becoming our best selves. By forgetting and remembering, we never lose contact with our opportunity to choose.
May we rejoice in our forgetfulness, remembering that it is God’s open invitation for us to get to know Him better and grow.
May we remember that we are holy souls.
May we never forget the need to stay in recovery and fulfill our sacred commitments so that we can live in dignity with our brothers and sisters.
And may our photographic memories help us remember!!!
Rabbi Joseph Shamash