Forgetting and Remembering
Rabbi Pamela Frydman gave this talk at Congregation Netivot Shalom
in Berkeley, California on Rosh Hashanah 5775
I have a young friend who drives an old car. One day he ran out of gas and he began walking in the neighborhood to look for the nearest a gas station, which turned out to be about half a mile away. He lugged a heavy gas can back to his car and as he approached, he noticed that there was another car up ahead that looked just like his. He took out his keys to try it the car door to be sure it was his car and just then his cell phone rang. He put his keys back in his pocket and took the call. By the time he finished the call, he had completely forgotten to check whether this was his car. Since it was an old car without a lock on the gas door, he was able to flip open the gas door without using his key and he proceeded to empty the can of gas into the tank. When he went to unlock the car, his key didn’t work and that’s when he realized that he had just donated two gallons of gas to a complete stranger.
My friend walked the half mile back to the gas station and paid the attendant for another two gallons of gas. The gas station attendant took his money and gave him lecture. He said, “You know, when you’re out of gas, you can just empty the gas can into your tank and drive over here to fill up. You don’t have to keep walking back and forth.” My friend was too embarrassed to explain what he had done, so he just said, “thank you,” and kept refilling the gas can.
I am interested in the phenomenon of forgetfulness because sometimes I am forgetful. I am also interested in forgetfulness, because forgetfulness has two sides. Forgetting can lead us to perform a mitzvah like when my friend accidentally donated gas to a stranger. And forgetting can also cause great harm such as when someone causes a serious accident by forgetting to take safety precautions.
The sages of the Talmud were also interested in forgetfulness. In Masechet Brachot, the sages tell us that we should be careful to respect the elderly who have forgotten their knowledge, because the shattered tablets were kept in the holy of holies in ancient times together with whole tablets.
As we know, it says in the Torah that the Israelites received the Ten Commandments while they were gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai. After the Israelites received the commandments, Moses went up on top of Mount Sinai for forty days and G-d gave Moses stone tablets with the Ten Commandments on them. During those forty days, the Israelites contracted a serious case of forgetfulness. They forgot that Moses was going to come back from the top of the mountain and they forgot what G-d had just told them in the commandments--that they should not have idols and they should not have any other gods. Lost in forgetfulness, the Israelites turned to Aaron and said, “make us a god to lead us!” So Aaron took up a collection of gold rings. He placed the gold in the fire and fashioned a golden calf. The Israelites worship the golden calf. They pointed to it and said, “this is your god, oh Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!
Moses came down from Mount Sinai, and when he saw the golden calf, he dropped the tablets and they shattered. Some time later, G-d said to Moses, “I made the first set of tablets, now you, Moses, you make the second set. You bring your tablets up on the mountain and I, G-d, will write the commandments on them.
Now some of us may consider this story as history, while others may consider it as myth. But it doesn’t really matter because regardless of whether we view the Torah as history or myth or something else, the first set of broken tablets and the second set of whole tablets are deeply relevant to our lives because each of us is broken and whole, whole and broken.
We never get to have everything we want. Life never works out the way we want it to. And as if that weren’t enough, no matter how much good we do, we are often rewarded with cynicism, criticism, sarcasm and worse. And as if that weren’t enough, when we look at the world around us, we see violence, corruption, prejudice, starvation and misery.
We are the broken tablets and we live in a broken world. Just as the sages placed the first set of broken tablets in the ark together with the second set of whole tablets, so we must room for our own brokenness and wholeness in the holy of holies of our own lives.
As we know, here at Netivot Shalom in the ארון הקודש, the holy ark, we have two precious Torah scrolls adorned with velvet covers and silver ornaments. But what you might not know is that tucked into the corners of the ark are broken pieces of silver that used to be part of the Torah ornaments. For those who will attend services in the social hall tomorrow or on Yom Kippur, there are precious Torah scrolls in that ark as well and there is also a broken silver fragment. Just as we make room in the ארון הקודש for the whole and the broken, so there is room in the divine presence for our wholeness and our brokenness.
According to the sages, Moses carried the second set of tablets up Mount Sinai on the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul and he came down the mountain forty days later on Yom Kippur. According to my friend and teacher Rabbi Art Green, it was on Rosh Hashanah that G-d wrote the commandments on the second set of tablets. So this is the anniversary of G-d giving our ancestors a second chance.
May we all be like Moses with empty tablets in our hands, ready for God to write the holy teachings that we need for the coming year. May we each have the courage to believe that we can also have a second chance, or a third or fourth chance, or however many chances we need to right the wrongs in our own lives and get back to the holy work of becoming who we are and who we are meant to be.
The first set of broken tablets and the second set of whole tablets are metaphors for the capacities we need to engage in the risky and vulnerable process of תשובה. The process of turning to one another to say, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I let you down. I’m sorry I didn’t come through for you. I’m sorry I hurt you. I’m sorry for so many things.”
We need courage and an open heart in order to apologize to those whom we have hurt. We need courage and faith in one another in order to forgive those who apologize to us. We need strength in order to face our brokenness as we ask G-d for forgiveness. And we need to believe in ourselves in order to forgive ourselves.
And yet, at the very same time, we need to remember that keeping the shattered tablets in the ancient holy ark does not imply permission to dismiss our mistakes. We cannot simply say, “well, my brokenness is holy. I’m fine just the way I am. I can apologize, but it doesn’t matter. The fact is that it does matter.” The early sages had the wisdom to place the shattered tablets in the ark, but the generation who worshipped the golden calf did not enter the promised land, and instead, they wandered in the wilderness for forty years living out their days and watching their children grow up.
On those occasions when we ourselves are not guilty, we must still partake of communal responsibility. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel responded to the existence of evil by saying that in a free society, few are guilty, but all are responsible. We may not be the cause of homelessness here in Berkeley and Alameda County, but we take responsibility as a congregation to provide a monthly meal at the men’s homeless shelter. Our personal practice may not contribute to environmental problems, but we are, nevertheless, responsible for taking steps to conserve, reuse and recycle in order help nurse our planet back to health.
The shattered tablets in the ancient holy ark are a symbol of the work we must do to heal our own brokenness and the brokenness in the world around us, and they are also a symbol of the reality that no matter how serious our mistakes, there is still room for us to come home, to reclaim our connection with the source of life, to make amends and to try to do things differently in the future.
The broken tablets are also a symbol of the broken heart. The Chassidic Rabbi Menachem Mendyl of Kotzk used to say, “there is nothing more whole than a broken heart.” If we pay attention to what is going on in the world around us, it is likely that our hearts will break and mend and break again and mend and break. With all the pain in this world, we would need a heart of stone to avoid heartbreak, at least from time to time.
May this be a year when we have very little heartbreak and when our hearts do break, may we have the presence of mind to remember the words of the Kotzer Rebbe, “there is nothing more whole than a broken heart.” May this be a year in which our sowing in tears leads to reaping in joy. May this be a season when we forget our pettiness and remember those who need our help. May this be a time when we remember what is truly important and forget our grudges and hard feelings.
May we all be remembered for a life of blessing.
זכרינו לחיים, מלך חפץ בחיים, וכתבנו בספר החיים, למענך אלקים חיים
Remember us for life, oh Sovereign of life. Write us in the book of life for Your sake, oh God of life.
Forgive us, oh God, for all of our sins and mistakes. Bless us with a year of fulfillment, a year when we can make a difference in our own lives and in the lives of our loved ones, and in our communities and in our world.
כן יהי רצון.
So may it be.
. I learned this story from my friend and colleague Rabbi Aubrey Glazer.
. Brachot 8b.
. Exodus 19:11, 17, 25.
. Exodus 24:12-18.
. Exodus 20:3-5, 32:1.
. Exodus 32:2-4.
. Exodus 34:1, Deuteronomy 10:2.
. I learned this teaching from Rabbi George Gittleman who learned it from Rabbi Art Green, Seek My Face, A Jewish Mystical Theology. Jewish Lights, 2003.
. During the high holy day season and at other times during the year, our congregation also collects packaged food for the Alameda Food Bank.