Rosh Hashanah: “Awash With Particles From the Past”

“I Have a Time Machine”

But unfortunately it can only travel into the future
at a rate of one second per second,

which seems slow to the physicists and to the grant
committees and even to me.

But I manage to get there, time after time, to the next
moment and to the next.

Thing is, I can’t turn it off. I keep zipping ahead—
well, not zipping—And if I try

to get out of this time machine, open the latch,
I’ll fall into space, unconscious,

then desiccated! And I’m pretty sure I’m afraid of that.
So I stay inside.

There’s a window, though. It shows the past.
It’s like a television or fish tank

but it’s never live, it’s always over. The fish swim
in backward circles.

Sometimes it’s like a rearview mirror, another chance
to see what I’m leaving behind,

and sometimes like blackout, all that time
wasted sleeping…

I thought I’d find myself

an old woman by now, traveling so light in time.
But I haven’t gotten far at all.

Strange not to be able to pick up the pace as I’d like;
the past is so horribly fast. [1] 

On Rosh Hashanah, we begin the process of filing through the memories we've stored throughout the year. Some of us have compartmentalized and categorized them into neat folders, stored away in labeled boxes – neatly placed on shelves inside the closets of our minds. We know just where to find them. We know just where we left them. Like holiday wrapping paper, each memory serves a particular purpose. And regularly we recall them – projecting them like a movie onto the theatre screens of our mind.  To laugh over them. Cry over them. Reminisce over them. Revisiting those blissful memories preserved in air–tight containers. Times when life was whole. Idyllic. Dare I say perfect, even. Like a Babe Ruth trading card or Muhammad Ali's fight gloves, pieces of psychological memorabilia encased in glass so thick – they’re untouchable, but viewable. We watch and adore them. 

But for others like myself, who don't have such filing systems – my memories are more like one colossal pile – of laundry. A conglomeration. An entanglement of both fresh, clean towels, but gnarled and knotted with stale, grimy gym clothes. Their pungency clashing with the smell of fabric softener. Ball–up pants inside twisted, fitted bed linen. 

It’s all there,” I say. All the memories sitting there in front of me. Laughter with friends and the best hours of my life – tied and knotted – to sleepless, anxious nights and unrelenting frustration. A little bit of this and that. Sometimes I just leave the pile in the dryer. In the back of my mind for another day. Because it’s not easy to siphon out some memories, but not others. To unhitch the best days from the worst. Those memories that tarry behind us like wobbly cargo trailers. Because our memories are entwined. The hours, days and years all blurring together. 

But on Rosh Hashanah, we are asked to disentangle. Chronicle. Account for our year. Revisit our past. Take our memories and lay them all out. Display them for God, and ourselves, like an evidence hanger that stores “bagged and tagged” debris after a plane crash. We are asked to be our own detectives. To look for clues. Patterns. People of interest. Leads. Inconsistencies. Rummage through new and old relationships. We are encouraged to pick apart our recollections. Our moments of maturity and mindlessness alike. All of them in the span of just one year. “The past is so horribly fast.” Which is why on Rosh Hashanah, we are asked to remember.  

“Memory,” Dr. Ismar Schorsch, chancellor emeritus of The Jewish Theological Seminary explains, “Is the lifeblood of Jewish being. No word in the Hebrew language rings with greater resonance than "zakhor”...Moses adjures Israel in his great poetic peroration to place memory at the center of their consciousness…

“Rosh Hashana,” Ismar writes, “the least  historical of Judaism's holy days, is still called Yom ha–Zikaron (the day of remembrance) to underscore the role of memory in the process of introspection. And the word surfaces again slightly altered in the name of the memorial service for the dead, Yizkor (may God remember), at which time we are awash with particles from the past.” [2] 

However, some memories – while integral aspects of personhood and personality – are nevertheless...terrible. Tonight, we face those zichronot. This evening our memories assemble before us. Waiting to be unpacked and folded. Waiting to registered and bonded into our psyche. “On Rosh Hashanah it is written…” The entire year like a bound journal in our hands. Tonight we face the entanglement. 

And if we're putting honesty on the witness stand this evening; let me say that it's impossible to continue on with our yearly melodies and rituals – without calling attention to the tears. Without giving credence to the pain. The memories that still dwell in these very walls. To be awash with particles from the past – but not speak their names:

Ann Rosel is not in our choir loft this evening. Captain Jack won’t be at Kiddush Club. Anita Greenwald nor Louise Kaplan will be attending any Wesleyan classes this spring. Lauren Bullington at the Bashuk’s house. Merrie Kaplan won’t be at lunch. Nor Beverly Held at Shabbat services. I won’t ever get to meet Richard Dannenberg, but his four children tell me he was a good father. Zichronam Livracha. May their memory be for a blessing.  

Brenda Shaugnessy, the author of “I Have a Time Machine,” says:

"The pertinent messy question about memory, is what the heck do you do with the awful ones? The ones that nearly kill you...The ones you'd do anything to change. Who can live with them? But we can't live without them because there is no – without. When something really bad happens to you, it's difficult to incorporate that into yourself. But..memories will find you even if you couldn't find them."

"We may be stuck in our bodies' place in time and space," Shaughnessy suggests, the multi–purpose tools of memory, metaphor, and the poetic can be liberating. Their confluence can be a regenerative force with the potential to loop time. Crunch space. Shape-shift. “And you might be thinking, well, if I'm stuck with these memories, and real–life tragedy, and mourning, I certainly don't want metaphors. Metaphors can't help me. [But] Poetry, is a way to live with the unbearable...What else is a meta for (metaphor)

[Because] "What if we're not just time machines with sticky gears and no brakes, but truth machines. Not just a bag of memories. Metaphor offers us respite from unbearable memories by giving us a way to separate ourselves – from them. A way to access that we don't, can't, or won't remember. The poem can bear it, when and if, we can't,” she says. [3]

The High Holidays, more than anything else, are about memory. Music. Poetry. Metaphor. They’re about finding anthems or tunes that fit the notes of our past year. On our Days of Awe, God charges us to sync our memories to music. The playlist of 5779. We are invited to illustrate our shortcomings, our promises – using poetry. Because our piyutim – our "liturgical poems" – lend their symbolisms to us. They ask us to use their words when we are speechless. Their allegories, meter, and alliterations are intended to bring solace. 

Music, when soft voices die,
Vibrates in the memory—
Odours, when sweet violets sicken,
Live within the sense they quicken. [4] 

Author Percy Shelly, in 1821, “Is speaking to the power of human memory. Music lives on in our memories after it has ceased to be played; when the sweet violets decay and die, their pleasant scent lives on because we can recall it.” [5] Poetry, music, whatever name you give it – has the power to retrieve the past in a way that no other medium can:  

Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.

In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.” 

So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past. [6] 

Interwoven with ancient and modern words, our very own machzorim, the High Holiday prayer books, are not merely books of prayer: They're sorting machines for our laundry – for “the flood(s) of remembrance.” Viewing rooms for our past. Time machines that bring us backward, so that we can ultimately move forward. And just like laundry, we’re never fully through with it. Memories forming still even as we remember. An infinite cycle. A never ending loop.

Because “The mitzvah of Yizkor [remembrance] is a door that opens on eternity, making the present more significant by allowing us to combine memory and hope.” [7] As Ralph Waldo Emerson says, “Memory performs the impossible for man by the strength of his divine arms; holds together past and present, beholding both, existing in both, abides in the flowing, and gives continuity and dignity to human life. It holds us to our family, to our friends. [8] “[Memory] is the companion, the tutor, the poet, [and] the library, with which you travel,” Mark Van Doren adds. [9]

At a rate of one second per second, everyone here has managed to travel from one moment to the next. We sit thinking, “Wow, I haven't gotten far at all…” And yet, it feels as if we’re “traveling so light in time.” We glance in our rearview mirrors to see what we’ve left behind – observe the fish swimming in backward circles. And then, in a flash, another year has gone by. And another. 

On this evening, however, I encourage you not only to remember – but to let those memories be here. Now. All of them heaped together in one giant pile. The good, the bad, and the ugly. And after they’re all sitting there. Together in one overwhelming pile. Let the hymns, strings, and songs be our guide. Let the prayers speak words of contention, but also grace. Compassion as well as hope. As Rabbi Bokser reminds us: 

“We live at any moment with our total past. We hate with all our past hatreds. We love with all our past loves. Every sunset we have ever seen has formed our sense of the beautiful. Every bar of music we listened to is included in our response to the [melodies] which now rings in our ears. This why it is so important that we be cautious in what we make of each day. It will stay with us always.” [10]

[1] “I Have a Time Machine” by Brenda Shaughnessy
[2] I Have A Time Machine, Brenda Shaughnessy, TEDxHarvardCollege, Nov 1, 2016
[3] Memory: Judaism's Lifeblood” by Ismar Schorsch 
[4] “Music when Soft Voices Die (To ––)” by Percy Shelley
[5] ‘Music, when soft voices die’: A Short Analysis of Percy Shelley’s ‘To—’ by Interesting Literature
[6] “Piano,” by Poet D. H. Lawrence 
[7]Mishkan Moeid: A Guide to the Jewish Seasons,” edited by Peter S. Knobel
[8] “Works: English traits, Conduct of Life” By Ralph Waldo Emerson
[9] “The Eternal Light: A Heritage Album,” by Jewish Publication Society; p. 163
[10] “The Eternal Light: A Heritage Album,” by Jewish Publication Society; p.164

Aaron Sataloff