In 2007, I had the privilege to study for a semester under Elie Wiesel. You likely know him not only because he is a Holocaust survivor and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize but because he is the author of over 35 books, among them Night, frequently required for reading in High School. The course, entitled Hope and Despair,gave us an opportunity to explore these issues through the lens of the collected literature of the Hasidic teachers, or Rebbes as they were called, who lived and taught during the 1700s, primarily in Central Europe. One of the most famous of these Rebbes was Yisrael Ben Eliezer, also known as the Baal Shem Tov, the founder the Hasidic movement.
Once the Baal Shem Tov was approached by his Hasidim and asked why he always answered their questions with a story. Then they waited for him to answer with yet another story, but after a “loving and lingering pause,” he responded: “Salvation lies in remembrance.” 1
Years later the Baal Shem Tov’s grandson, Rebbe Barukh of Medzebozh was talking with his Hasidim about their Torah studies and he told them this story:
“Do you know the legend about the light that shines above the child’s head before he is born? This light enables him to study and absorb the entire Torah. But one second before he enters into the world, the child receives a slap from his personal angel; in his fright, he forgets all that he has learned. So why study if it is all to be forgotten? It is to teach man the importance of forgetfulness–for it, too, is given by God. If man were not to forget certain things, if he were to remember the time that passes and the approaching death, he would not be able to live as a man among men. He would no longer go to plow his field; he would no longer build a house; nor would he have children. That is why the angel planted forgetfulness in him: to allow him to live.” 2
One lesson I learned by serving as a pastor and chaplain for thirty-four years is that the ability to forget can be a blessing. So many of us have suffered things in our lifetime that, were we to think on them often, they would severely impact our capacity to live fully. Sometimes those things come back involuntarily, invading our sleep with disturbing dreams and our waking times with intrusive thoughts. Other times these memories are invited, in the vain hope that if we ruminate on them often enough, the outcome might change. For all of us whose past continues to haunt and disturb, or even just causes us to live with undue caution, regret and pain, the ability to forget is truly a gift from God. It opens to us the opportunity to transcend our injuries and failings, it gives us hope for a future not defined by past trauma and it increases the possibility of forgiveness, both for ourselves and others. For me, one of the surprising delights of aging has been a growing inability to recall past grievances, which makes me wish I could forget more of them and sooner.
Forgetting is a blessing, but so is its antithesis – remembering, for by it we come to know our true selves. We are reminded of who we love and to whom we matter by the photos we carry. Thinking on the kindnesses we have experienced helps us discern our value to those around us. The love of our Creator is recalled by remembering the grace we have received. The difficulties we have overcome point to our resilience. Our ideals and principles are fortified by seeing the trust others place in us. The events and relationships we cherish evoke hallowed memories and fill our lives with meaning. No wonder the Baal Shem Tov declared “salvation lies in remembrance,” for by it we know who we are, what we value, and to whom we belong.
In a world fraught with things that threaten undo us, may God bless both your forgetting and your remembering so you might find both fullness of life and salvation for your soul.
1. Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham, The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Journey to Wholeness (New York: Bantam, 1992) 155.
2. Elie Wiesel, Four Hasidic Masters and Their Struggle Against Melancholy (London: Notre Dame Press, 1978), 69.
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