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September 23, 2015

Memory: The Importance of Forgetting (Yom Kippur 5776)

Rabbi Lisa Rubin

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Would you remember everything if you could? 

If you could be granted a superpower of memory, would you choose to remember every day of your life?  Would you want the kind of mind that could recall extraordinary details on command?  I used to think I would.  Time goes by so fast.  Milestone birthdays come and I cannot believe the time that has elapsed in my own life.  I also think of those so close to me that I’ve lost and find it inconceivable how long I’ve been without them. 

So I often find myself wishing for a better memory—to feel, at least, that the past isn’t totally gone, that the people aren’t totally gone, that perhaps the experiences I can’t remember still live inside my head although inaccessible to me.  So, yes, I used to wish I could remember everything.  I had a fantasy of that superpower.

Then I read a fascinating story about a woman who has that superpower.  Jill Price is an American woman, living in California, who literally cannot forget anything about her life.  She remembers every single detail since she was fourteen years old.  Give her a date, and she can tell you the day of the week it was and what she did.  Give her an historical event in her lifetime and she’ll tell you what she was wearing and what the weather was.  Her autobiographical recall is unmatched.  She describes her life as a split screen TV with the present running on one side and the past on the other.

Let’s step into her shoes for a moment. She said in an interview:

“Though I hate the idea of losing any of my memories, it’s also true that learning how to manage a life in the present with so much of the past continually replaying itself in my mind has been quite a challenge, often a debilitating one.” 1 “Some memories are good and give me a warm, safe feeling. But I also recall every bad decision, insult, and excruciating embarrassment. Over the years it has eaten me up. It has kind of paralyzed me.” 2 Her case is obviously extreme—she was the first person in the world with her particular diagnosis.3  But her condition should really spark some thought about our own relationship with memory.

On Rosh HaShanah, I spoke about the command in Judaism to remember, and how it appears over 150 times in the Bible.  I shared that the collective memory of the Jewish people has been our lifeblood over the centuries.  Our tradition has been kept alive in no small part because of our ability to remember what we’re commanded to remember.  In the Torah, the imperative to remember usually occurs alongside instructions that the Israelites “not forget.”  In our tradition, we are simultaneously commanded to remember and to not forget certain rituals, events, and circumstances.  As Jews, we do it well.  We always have.

However, in our religious and secular life, the truth is that remembering and forgetting are intertwined.  Both are needed to craft the narrative of our lives.  Remembering has its merits, but forgetting does, too.  Nietzsche, in 1874, said, “Life in any true sense is absolutely impossible without forgetfulness… we must know the right time to forget as well as the right time to remember… [they are both] equally necessary to the health of an individual, a community, and a system of culture.” 4

Some forgetting happens immediately and automatically.  Since most of what we experience doesn’t need to be remembered, it simply isn’t stored in long-term memory and is forgotten immediately.  Selective memory works in our favor.  Forgetting prevents “thoughts no longer needed from interfering with the handling of current information—akin to ridding your home of extraneous objects so that you can find what you need.” 5  You probably remember how I started this sermon but not the details of the sentences. T hat’s because it’s already been dropped by your working memory.

And our long-term memories, too, can drop without our conscious knowledge.  I spoke about the animated movie Inside Out on Rosh HaShanah and again, it’s so relevant.  In one scene, we see the long-term memory cleaners inside the main character’s head. They come and choose which memories can go and which can stay.  I think the line was, “Piano lessons—Ok, keep ‘Chopsticks’ and ‘Heart and Soul’ and throw out the rest!”  The character isn’t even aware of what she’s lost.

Other forgetting involves choice. We decide which stories to keep alive and which to lay to rest.  We decide what to dwell on and what to let go of.  We decide how to reshape recollections to edit out the harmful stuff.  We decide where to focus, where to reframe, or where to block things out.  We choose when to forget the details.

Forgetting, whether automatic or by choice, is a healthy and vital part of living.  There are many reasons why—I want to offer you two.  The first is that we must forget in order to remember, and the second is that we must forget in order to forgive. 

What do I mean by the first one—forgetting in order to remember?  Simply this: many details must drop out of our own life story so it can evolve in a way that serves our present selves.  Jill Price doesn’t have an evolving story because she has all her prior selves inside her—the self she was at every stage—intact.6

Details of our relationships with loved ones must likewise fade away to preserve the true essentials.  Rabbi Shoshanah Gelfand writes about today’s Yizkor service:

“It is not intended as a time to reflect our memories accurately; rather, it is designed to allow those memories to adapt. Without the corrective of actual physical evidence or the balance provided by others’ recollections, Yizkor provides us our own private ongoing relationship with a loved one. It encourages an evolution of that relationship as opposed to allowing it to be frozen in time. Remembering someone over and over again enhances the parts of that relationship that prove sustaining but allows us to forget those characteristics that are not.” 7

Forgetting, then, is a necessary part of the process by which we maintain meaningful memories.

Forgetting is also a mechanism that is crucial to soften grief.  It is impossible to ever completely forget those we love.  It’s not going to happen.  Our tradition acknowledges this but allows us to forget and move past the initial shock of loss.  Think of the ritual of k’riah—the tearing of a garment when someone in our immediate family dies.  Rabbi David Stern points out that although we tear, we don’t tear a piece of our garment off; the part always stays attached to the whole.  The Talmud addresses how the mourner’s garment is to be mended after the prescribed period of mourning is over: you can’t use a stitch that makes the tear disappear altogether.8  In other words, you can’t sew up the garment so well that you can’t tell there was ever a tear there in the first place.  A certain amount of forgetting is needed to move past the initial pain.  But we don’t deny our loss completely.9

The second reason I offer for the importance of forgetting is that in some sense, it allows for forgiveness—a key aspect of Yom Kippur.  Despite the saying “I’ll forgive but I’ll never forget,” we must forget in order to forgive.  It may be impossible to truly forget a hurtful act against us.  But we can forget our reaction to the event even if not the event itself. We can try to forget the pain that it caused us.  Today is about atoning and deciding to do things differently in the year ahead.  It takes a big person to choose to forget something, forgive, and move on.  It takes a brave person to stop an endless cycle of anger, resentment, and retaliation.  Choosing to forget can be cathartic and liberating.

However, in choosing and trying to forget, we face a challenge that prior generations did not.  We are faced with a seemingly insurmountable obstacle.  As I say this, I realize that every generation probably thinks their front-burner issue seems insurmountable, so I fall into line by worrying about ours: the digital revolution.  Technology is not only altering our ability to remember, but perhaps more importantly, it is causing an inability to forget.

Not being able to forget drastically alters the way we think about our pasts.  Take, for example, parents who snap a hundred pictures a week of their kids.  It is predicted that these pictures—if they are ever looked at—will supersede any natural memory of the events themselves.10  Whatever has been forgotten is remembered—the photographs become the memories.

Although it is said that “life is in the details,” I don’t actually think it is.  Life is not lived in the mundane details of our commute, what we had for lunch, or how many emails we returned.  Rather, we focus on the meta level of experience—providing richness and depth beyond detail.  However, with the advent of a camera on every phone and social media to share memories and thoughts instantly, nothing disappears.  Nothing is forgotten.  How can we remember the mere essence of an experience when we have thirty pictures of the details?

I am as guilty of this as anyone else.  When we’re taking pictures in my family, I constantly implore my husband not to wait for the perfect shot.  “It’s only a memory shot!” I tell him—“Just capture the scene!”  Research tells us that my experience is dimmer because I am depending on the picture rather than making an imprint in my brain of what is going on at that moment.

Not only is it important to allow the details of an experience to fade, but selectively forgetting is a vital part of moving forward past any sort of troubling experience.  We must be able to dim the harshness of the memory as time carries us away from the event.  But how is this supposed to happen in today’s day and age?  How is anyone supposed to move past a break up when you remain connected and aware on social media of the person’s next move?  And how can you forgive an ex if you can’t forget them?  How can anyone hold on to an image of their childhood home when you can check Google Maps to see how the new owners have renovated?  How can adolescents (or any of us) forget a humiliating experience or mistake when someone caught it on video and posted it?  These are all lesser versions of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  PTSD is not about the trauma—it is about not being able to forget the trauma.  It occurs when the acute memories don’t fade with time as they need to for mental health.

And that is what is traumatic about social media.  A very large part of life is playing out on Facebook, which is the most popular social media site for American adults.  Close to sixty percent of adults use Facebook daily.11  And this is to say nothing of “Generation Z,” the kids who don’t know life without smart phones and social media.  Google, too, remains the default search engine for the vast majority (of any age).  These outlets don’t allow our memories to fade.  Thus, time stops abruptly and artificially when it goes online.

A man wrote an article in Wired magazine about his Google Knowledge Card, which is a small box with biographical information that pops up when someone searches for him.  He’s happily married, just not to the wife listed.  And he writes about the absolute inability to get it corrected and the psychological trauma that has ensued.  He says, “This digital reminder of a now-distant past is especially painful.  It took half a decade to wash my hands of all that, but there it is, taunting me while informing the world that history is written, not as Churchill said, by the victors, but rather by its chroniclers.” 12

Google likes to be the chroniclers.  On July 22 of this year, Google was awarded a patent for their wearable Google Glass, glasses that record everything the wearer sees and experiences, and then archive it for searching later.13  It would tag our videos, or memories in the making, according to time and location so we could search, “What flowers did I see in the Botanical Garden last Saturday?”  These could also be shared socially so anyone could see the flowers, if you wanted that footage to be accessible.  It’s not a reality yet, just a patented idea, but it’s not hard to imagine it coming to life. 

Can we even consider the implications of this?  Searching anything that has happened to us while those glasses are on?  “Show me everyone I saw at the baseball game” or “Replay my conversation with so-and-so.”  Not only does forgetting become a thing of the past, but so does our desire and ability to be in the present!  We all become Jill Price.

And like the man’s issue with his digital knowledge card, no one else can forget anything about us either.  We can never start clean when there is information about us on the internet that is outdated or worse, undesirable.  The courts of Argentina and the EU have addressed this.  Both have enacted the now famous “Right to be Forgotten” legislation.  The premise of this legislation, which mandates that search engines remove personal information at the request of the individual, is that people should have control over their past.  They should have control over their own story.

It concerns me equally that there is technology and intellect at work enabling us to tailor what we forget.  It is in the early stages, but there is a pill being devised to erase specific memories altogether.14  If this comes to fruition, and scientists find the universal eraser of history, then the act of remembering will become a choice in the future.  If you’ve seen the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, this sounds familiar.  Except the movie was supposed to be science fiction, the stuff of Hollywood.  But now, scientists tell us it’s possible.

It sounds convenient to eliminate painful memories altogether, but the problem with that, of course, is that pain is often educational.  We must move past and forget the initial and acute pain, but then in hindsight, we usually “learn from our regrets and mistakes; wisdom is not free. If our past becomes a playlist—a collection of tracks we can edit with ease—then how will we resist the temptation to erase the unpleasant ones?  Even more troubling, it’s easy to imagine a world where people don’t get to decide the fate of their own memories.” 15

What is happening to our cognition long term in the area of memory?  I’m not a neuroscientist; I don’t know. But as a rabbi, I’ll tell you what concerns me for the Jewish community.

Our collective memory fuels action in Judaism.  And what if our collective memory disappeared as a result of the technological age we live in?  Some of your children, my children, your grandchildren, are growing up in a world where they won’t have to remember anything.  What if current and future events won’t be remembered in the same way that past ones have—keeping the community together? 

Take the quintessential example of Passover.  What if the Israelites, as the Red Sea was splitting, had been taking pictures or live streaming to the rest of the world?  Would we regard ourselves as the generation who came out of Egypt when we would have pictures of those who actually came out?  Would we feel the imperative to remember?  Would those pictures or videos promote the deep sense of empathy that the memory of the event is supposed to?  I’m guessing not.  We see pictures of history-changing events all the time.  How much do we do in response to them?  Judaism’s safeguard against indifference is to harness our collective memory and make it purposeful in the future.

The heart of the matter for us Jews is that by living in the technological and digital age, we bear the responsibility of figuring out how to negotiate this tension between memory and technology.  We are charged, by virtue of being the Jews alive at this point in time, to navigate the rate of technological change and what it is doing to the landscape of our tradition. 

This is not an anti-technology rant.  It is a reminder that our communal past and future are affected by this, and so I feel an urgency to rethink the way we interact with technology vis-à-vis Judaism.  Our tradition, for thousands of years, has survived countless advancements in the society around us. So it is not a question of if, but a question of how. And I do not know yet.

Our abilities to remember and forget make up our core personalities; the past is always informing the present, which is shaping the future.  Jill Price said she had learned “just how profoundly our memories assist in constructing our sense of who we are and of the meaning of our lives.” She explains: “People generally create narratives of their lives that are fashioned by a process of selective remembering and an enormous amount of forgetting… [but] I have not been able to do so.” 16  This is the great tragedy of her life.

Today we are charged with remembering our past year so we can assess our actions and reactions.  We are charged also with forgiving and asking for forgiveness.  This entails allowing a measure of unpleasant memories to slip away.  This duality is the essence of Yom Kippur, our holiest day. 

We have seen how modern technology can interfere with and prevent our performance of these functions.  Becoming too enmeshed in the digital community can rob us not only of cherishing the moment, but also of the ability to effectively remember and forget.  Let us start by being mindful of resisting the lure to overdose on the social media opportunities before us.

We can hope our minds stay sharp—but that is where our wishes about memory should end. Evolution has done an incredible job in the area of memory, literally allowing us to sustain as a species.  And Judaism has done an equally remarkable job in that area, allowing us to sustain as a people. 

Let us renew our age-old determination to embark on a new year having dealt with the past one to the best of our abilities: remembering the essence of our lives and forgetting what needs to be forgotten. 


1. Excerpted from The Woman Who Can’t Forget by Jill Price with Bart Davis. Copyright 2008 by Jill Price. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. on “Blessed and Cursed by an Extraordinary Memory.” May 19, 2008. (back to text)

2. “The Woman Who Can Remember Everything” May 9, 2008.   (back to text)

3. Hyperthymestic syndrome, academic Greek for “exceptional memory” (back to text)

4. As quoted in Yerushalmi p. 109 (back to text)

5. The Importance of Forgetting: Why a Bad Memory is a Good Memory by Sam McNerney January 4, 2012. (back to text)

6. Excerpted from The Woman Who Can’t Forget by Jill Price with Bart Davis. Copyright 2008 by Jill Price. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. on “Blessed and Cursed by an Extraordinary Memory.” May 19, 2008 (back to text)

7. Hoffman, Lawrence, ed. Yizkor p. 150 (back to text)

8. Mo’ed Katan 26a-b (back to text)

9. Hoffman, Lawrence, ed. Yizkor p. 211 (back to text)

10. Wayne, Teddy. “Shutterbug Parents and Overexposed Lives.” NY Times February 20, 2015. (back to text)

11. 2015 Pew Report (back to text)

12. Null, Christopher. “Google, Why Won’t You Let me Forget my Divorce?” Wired Magazine Online May 7, 2015. (back to text)

13. Murphy, Mike. “Forget forgetting: Google wants to index your real-world experiences and make them searchable” July 22, 2015 (back to text)

14. Lehrer, Jonah. “The Forgetting Pill Erases Painful Memories Forever” Wired Magazine online February 17, 2012. (back to text)

15. Lehrer, Jonah. “The Forgetting Pill Erases Painful Memories Forever” Wired Magazine online February 17, 2012. (back to text)

16. Excerpted from The Woman Who Can’t Forget by Jill Price with Bart Davis. Copyright 2008 by Jill Price. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. on “Blessed and Cursed by an Extraordinary Memory.” May 19, 2008 (back to text)