Back in an Intro to Psychology class in college, I remember reading a book called The Mind of a Mnemonist. This book, written by the Russian psychologist Alexandr Luria, is about a man − called “S” in the book who had an extraordinary memory. Show him a page of several hundred random numbers, and he could instantly remember them in order. Read an entire opera libretto to him in Italian, and he would instantly remember the whole thing (and he didn’t even understand Italian.) And if you went up to him 15 years later, he would still remember the entire libretto word for word.
Wouldn’t you think his life was fantastic? This is a man who never forgot where he put his keys or his glasses, never forgot anyone’s birthday or anniversary… (If he were a GOA student or parent, presumably, he would never have forgotten a homework assignment or a change in the school drop-off or pick-up plan.) Wouldn’t you give anything to have that kind of memory?
Actually, this man would have done anything to have his special talent removed. To him, it was more of a curse than a blessing. His attention to every little detail made it difficult for him to follow even a simple conversation. When he would see people he knew, he would never recognize them, because he always remembered them exactly how they looked the last time he saw them. His mind was so cluttered with things he wished he could forget − things he preferred not to know, or not to notice. He lived a reclusive life, withdrawn from society. The story of “S” reminds us that crucial to a vibrant life is knowing what to remember, but also what to forget.
At several points in this week’s Parashah, Ki Teitzei, we read commandments about remembering and forgetting. We are told, for example, to remember how Miriam was punished for speaking ill of Moses (Deuteronomy 24:9) and to remember what the Amalekites did to the Israelites upon leaving Egypt (Deuteronomy 25:17ff). We are told to return lost objects that others may have forgotten behind (Deuteronomy 22:1-3).
Most surprisingly, however, is the commandment that is referred to as shikhecha שכחה, or “forgetting” (Deut. 24:19): “When you reap the harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, do not turn back to get it; it shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.”
The commentators of the Jewish tradition noted that this is the one positive commandment in the Torah that you can only observe by accident. You can’t really “forget” something on purpose. And yet the Torah is encouraging us to “forget” to harvest everything in our fields, so there will be something left for the poor and needy.
The commandment about returning lost objects encourages us to be especially concerned with resolving the difficulties of others, but this commandment about the forgotten sheaf urges us to take a more relaxed attitude to our own property and our own possessions. Our possessions are, of course, especially important to us, but they ought not be so important to us that we would scrape out every last bit of what belongs to us. If we never forget to collect something that is due to us, then we may be taking our possessions more seriously than how the Torah encourages.
A few weeks from now, in the High Holy Day prayers, we will refer to God as zokher ha-nishkachot זוכר הנשכחות, “the One who remembers what has been forgotten.” Perhaps we refer to God in this way because it takes the pressure off of ourselves. If we can rely upon God to remember everything, then we have permission to be judicious about what we choose to remember. Every single sheaf of wheat? Better to forget some of them so the needy have something to collect. Embarrassing moments from our pasts that paralyze us and keep us from moving forward? We are better off forgetting them. Comprehensive catalogues of every single time someone has slighted us or offended us, remembered in perfect detail years and decades later? There are much better ways than that to use our gift of memory. May we be thoughtful about what we remember and what we forget.