The year was 1944. As the second World War raged overseas, my grandfather (of blessed memory) was a young army private, based at Camp Croft, South Carolina. To that point, he hadn’t been deployed overseas because he served as a clerk at the base, and was apparently indispensable to his unit’s baseball team.
But one fateful day, Grandpa injured his leg, and couldn’t play ball anymore. So instead, he got shipped off to Europe as an infantryman.
That November, Grandpa’s battalion was stationed near the Belgian-German border, preparing for what the Allies hoped would be a final push through a rugged area called the Hurtgen Forest, across the Rhine River, and into the German heartland.
On the eve of the assault, Grandpa’s commanding officer was outlining the battle plan. Divvying up responsibilities, the officer asked whether any of his soldiers had been trained to fire heavy machine guns. Grandpa had heard that the soldiers who knew how to use those kinds of weapons would be sent to the front lines, and would likely draw first fire. So Grandpa kept his mouth shut. Not particularly brave, I admit, but definitely pragmatic.
Now, the thing you have to know about my Grandpa is that he had an awful poker face. The officer zeroed in on the terrified-looking young soldier trying desperately not to be noticed. “Private,” he asked, “what was your training?” Grandpa answered that he was a clerk and a baseball player. The officer took a good, long, incredulous look at his soldier. “Okay, wiseguy,” he responded. “Now you’re a scout.”
Scouts, just so we’re on the same page, are the soldiers who are sent out ahead of all the other troops to gather information about the enemy’s positions, vehicles, weapons, and movements. It’s one of the most dangerous jobs during wartime, because scouts are the ones who, by design, often encounter the enemy first.
So the next morning, the Army’s newest scout was dispatched into the forest ahead of the other troops.
His squad almost immediately came under fire from German snipers hidden in the tree canopy. Grandpa was shot in the head. The bullet pierced his metal helmet and tore off a chunk of scalp.
He survived, thank God. His helmet sufficiently slowed the velocity of the bullet to prevent the blow from being fatal. But he was rendered instantly unconscious.
Courageous medics were able to evacuate him from the battlefield and bring him to a field hospital for treatment. When he regained consciousness, Grandpa discovered that he was paralyzed entirely on his right side and that he had lost the ability to understand or express speech. Shortly thereafter, he was shipped off to England for treatment, not knowing if he would ever speak or walk again.
I don’t know for sure how Grandpa felt in those early days following his injury. Sure, he was probably relieved; after all, he managed to survive a gunshot to the head, a fate not enjoyed by thousands of other soldiers who were much less fortunate.
But I imagine it more likely that he was scared, filled with unanswered and unanswerable questions about what his future would hold. Not only did he not know whether he would ever fully recover from his injuries, but at that point, he had no way of knowing whether the U.S. would win what would become known as the Battle of Hurtgen Forest (spoiler alert: we didn’t), much less the war altogether (spoiler alert: we did).
He also was probably angry — at himself, at his C.O., at the Army, at the Germans, maybe all of the above. And I imagine he was overcome with sadness, dwelling on all of the life experiences he would miss out on without the ability to walk or talk or use his right arm again.
In the end, Grandpa made a full recovery and lived a long and fulfilling life. After a year of physical, speech, and cognitive therapy, he regained the use of his right arm and leg, and relearned how to communicate. He went on to attend graduate school for psychology, ultimately earning his doctorate. He became one of the country’s foremost experts in childhood psychopathology, published three books, and received tenure and a departmental chairmanship at one of the country’s leading universities. He met and married the love of his life, my amazing grandmother, Bobbie (who just turned 90 on Saturday — happy birthday again, Grandma! — and is as vibrant as ever), with whom he raised three children. Their children, in turn, each became professional successes in their own rights and raised beautiful families of their own.
But here’s the thing: while I know that he overcame both the physical challenges of his injuries and what must have been the overwhelming emotional challenges that accompanied those ailments, I don’t know how he did it. How does anybody face what he faced and not only endure but flourish?
That’s the question I want to invite us all to think about today, because I know that, as we gather for this High Holy Day season, many of us are struggling and looking for a lifeline.
First and foremost, we are all dealing with the ongoing trauma of this pandemic, both as individuals and as a society. Each of us may be struggling in different ways, but by definition a pandemic impacts all of us on some level.
And the unyielding and still out of control COVID crisis has been compounded by our experiencing and bearing witness to other man-made and natural disasters this year: harrowing assaults on our democracy, horrific mass shootings, ruinous wildfires, deadly floods, and devastating hurricanes. We have seen earthquakes level cities, buildings collapse without warning, and America’s longest-ever war end in chaos and humanitarian catastrophe. I am certain I’m not alone in feeling as though we begin these Days of Awe against the backdrop of our world collapsing all around us.
And those are only the crises we all have in common. As we gather today, many in our community are holding their own distinct anxieties, wrestling with their own frustrations, and coping with their own grief on top of overlapping calamities and compounding stresses. How do we confront what we are individually and collectively facing and not only survive, but thrive?
I never got to ask my grandfather that question before he died back in 2008. It’s probably just as well; he may not have even had a clear answer. I doubt that a 21 year old army private, paralyzed and in the throes of aphasia, thought through the why’s and how’s of his recovery. And, as thoughtful, intelligent, and self-aware as my grandfather was, I wonder if, even looking back on it later in life, he would have been able to unpack how, exactly, he overcame those challenges. The truth is, I suspect that most people who make it through difficult times do it without a roadmap and can’t necessarily articulate after the fact exactly how they did it.
But if we are sensitive to it, this holy day offers us a guide to navigating and triumphing over our crises, whatever they may be.
As a festival marking and celebrating a new year, Rosh Hashanah is a liminal moment, a doorway between our past and our future. It therefore has always struck me as counterintuitive that even as Rosh Hashanah invites us to look ahead toward the coming year, it places its primary focus on the past.
The theme of remembrance pulses like a bass line through the holy day’s liturgy: Each time we recite the Amidah, we include the prayers, “Zokhreinu L’hayyim / God, remember us for life,” and “zokher yetzurav l’hayyim v’rahamim / May God remember God’s creations for life and compassion.” Right before the musaf Amidah, in the famous liturgical poem Unetaneh Tokef, we affirm that on this day, God remembers all forgotten things, and opens the Book of Remembrances. The festival is even repeatedly referred to in our liturgy as Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembrance.
In the course of our worship, it seems like we refer to this holy day by its backward-looking title more than any other, including, notably, the decidedly forward-facing ‘Rosh Hashanah’, the Beginning of the Year, a term that is never mentioned in the Bible, and seldom mentioned in the prayerbook.
Stop for a moment to consider how strange it is that a holy day which is ostensibly about anticipating the future seems so fixated on the past.
In this holy day’s emphasis on the centrality of memory, our tradition is pointing us to a fundamental truth of our humanity, which is that the way to discern our path forward is bound up in remembering our past.
Now, I recognize that what I just said likely seems contrary to common-sense expectation. But it turns out that our identities, our fundamental understanding of who we are and what we are meant to do in this world, are rooted in our memories. Each of us possesses a unique sense of self that develops over time out of the memories we carry, and the stories we construct from those memories. As Israeli scholar and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman puts it, we are “remembering selves”.
The truth that we are “remembering selves,” that the essence of our being is memory, is perhaps easier to recognize by identifying its opposite. Many of us have had the excruciating experience of watching a loved one slowly slip away from some degenerative cognitive condition, like Alzheimer’s Disease. My own grandfather passed away after a years-long struggle with a similar condition called Lewy Body Dementia (or LBD), which, ironically enough, doctors believed was traceable back to his wartime head trauma. So this is a pain my family and I unfortunately know all too well.
What conditions like Alzheimer’s and LBD demonstrate is how intertwined memory is in our ability to fully function in the present, much less to move constructively into our future. When a disease slowly destroys the parts of the brain associated with memory, it destroys everything that makes you you: your continuity with your past; your awareness of your relationships in the present; your sense of your position in space and time; your learned skills and talents; even ultimately your innate physical abilities. The tragedy of losing one’s memory is that, as memory disappears, the self vanishes.
At the same time, our identities, meaning the ways we understand ourselves in relation to our world, are not created simply as the sum total of the conscious experiences that have been imprinted on our minds. Rather, our identities are the result of stories we tell about ourselves. Our memories don’t produce these stories. Instead, we construct these stories from our memories. We connect the dots of the experiences imprinted on our minds into a particular picture. And, just as with any story, we invariably pick and choose what details to include, and what to leave out; we emphasize or embellish some parts, while diminishing the importance of others.
We are often not fully conscious of this process, but the implications of this narrative construction are massive. Everything about how we conduct ourselves in the world — how we behave, how we live our lives, how we move forward into our future — is an extension of the stories we tell about ourselves.
This, in part, is why, standing at the threshold of a new year, our tradition has us focus not so much on where we want to go, but rather on where we have been, and what that says about us, because only by reviewing our past can we know who we are, and only by knowing who we are can we discern how we are to be moving forward.
Returning for a moment to my grandfather, it seems to me that in order not only to successfully endure the hardship of recovering from such a traumatic injury but also to flourish through and beyond that experience, he would have had to construct an understanding of himself as someone who could, should, and would survive and thrive. Perhaps it was embracing that self-understanding, that identity, which emboldened him to do whatever it took to overcome his adversity.
So it is with us: whether as individuals, as families, as a nation, our ability to triumph over whatever challenges we are confronting calls on us, first and foremost, to see ourselves as the kind of people who can, should, and will emerge victorious.
But there is a danger inherent in all of this: If we can construct our sense of self out of our memories, that also means we can tell incorrect, incomplete, or downright false stories about ourselves. Our memories are imperfect and subjective. Our minds are not recorders, constantly capturing everything that we experience from an objective vantage point. We only remember what we experience or what we come to believe we have experienced. And even then, it is mostly the unusual experiences, or the experiences that we make a point of paying attention to, that stick out for us in our minds’ eyes. We struggle to see ourselves and others accurately, sometimes seeing the best in ourselves and the worst in others, sometimes only seeing what we lack that others possess, and these biases color how we process and remember our experiences.
And our propensity toward what social scientists call confirmation bias — the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms what we already believe to be true — applies also to how we construct the stories we tell about ourselves. We ignore memories that do not conform to the narratives we want to tell about ourselves; we skip over uncomfortable facts in the process of weaving our memories into stories. Yale University psychology professor Jennifer Richelson puts it this way: “The mind is a remarkable instrument, adept at many things, including self-delusion.”
What happens when we act in accordance with a self-understanding that is deficient, distorted, or deluded?
Let’s go back to my grandfather. Let’s say, as he lay wounded in his hospital bed, not yet fully aware of the severity of his condition, he became determined to construct an understanding of himself as someone who could, should, and would endure, recover, and flourish. Then suppose, as he constructed that narrative, he, whether deliberately or inadvertently, failed to recognize his paralysis.
Chances are good, the moment he tried to get out of his hospital bed, he would have had to grapple emotionally with the dissonance between his self-understanding and his obvious disability. Perhaps he would have easily overcome this dissonance. Perhaps it would have left him feeling discouraged, deflated, or defeated. Perhaps it would have rendered him depressed and despondent, or left him consumed by rage. Perhaps he would have simply fallen flat on his face and injured himself further, maybe even irreparably.
One thing is certain: he couldn’t have avoided the reality of his condition forever, especially if he ever hoped to fully recover. In order to regain his ability to walk and talk, he had to directly confront what had happened and work through it. We can’t fix what we don’t face.
We Americans are conditioned to be primarily forward-thinking. Our prevailing cultural sensibility has long been optimistic, future-oriented, self-assured, and convinced of our inherent goodness. We explore the uncharted, chase new horizons, and embrace the unbounded possibilities of the future.
To be sure, this mindset has its benefits, and has contributed to extraordinary individual and collective accomplishments throughout American history. But our forward-facing national ethos, our sometimes vehement refusal to look back, and our inclination to turn away are also at least partly responsible for many of our nation’s greatest historical injustices and our chronic inability to solve complex ongoing challenges — from the persistent inequality of Black and Native Americans, to the lingering impact of repeated foreign policy catastrophes, to the quickly-accelerating climate crisis, to the still-raging COVID pandemic. It is understandable to want to move on and turn the page rather than honestly confront yesterday’s mistakes or today’s pain. But avoiding thinking or talking about those uncomfortable truths only increases the likelihood that the ghosts of our past will continue to haunt or hurt us in the future.
On the individual level, this truth holds as well. How many of us harbor some unresolved past trauma, some unhealed emotional wound, some unrepaired relationship, some deeply held grudge, some secret shame, or some nagging regret, that functions like an invisible anchor, preventing us from successfully moving forward in our lives? Refusing to remember past mistakes and failures, denying or avoiding uncomfortable parts of our past, all but guarantees we will make those same missteps over and over again, with potentially ruinous results.
Whether as individuals or as a society, in order to overcome our obstacles in the present and flourish in the future, we have to reckon with all of our past — the good and the bad, the pleasant and the ugly, the triumphs and the mistakes, the achievements and the defeats, the pride and the pain — fully and honestly. Otherwise, we risk remaining stuck right where we are, or suffer fates worse still.
The Torah offers us a powerful model: The Torah emphasizes humanity’s inherent capacity for goodness and records how many of our ancestors tried to live up to their godly potential. But it also is replete with examples of our ancestors’ failures in the course of their striving: Adam and Eve. Cain and Abel. Jacob and Esau. Joseph and his brothers. The Children of Israel constantly complain and rebel in the wilderness. Even Moses, the greatest of our prophets, fails and is barred from entering the Promised Land. And what’s more, this warts-and-all remembrance of our people permeates the rest of the Tanakh.
See, the Bible is not an aggrandizing myth about Jewish greatness, or gauzy nostalgia about how our ancestors believed with perfect faith and acted with perfect righteousness. Rather, it deliberately tells a story that repeatedly calls out our ancestors for their failings in order to remind us that, in the course of our lives, and over the course of generations, all of us will experience highs, lows, and everything in between. And we can only ever really move forward if we tell a story about ourselves that acknowledges all of it.
That, I think, is why the zikaron, the remembrance, that we invoke on Rosh Hashanah is so comprehensive. We say during the special section of musaf called zikhronot, which is dedicated to this theme of remembrance:
Atah zokher ma’aseh olam, u’foked kol yetzurei kedem, You God remember the deeds of the world, and You are mindful of Your creations from the beginning of time. Before You stands revealed all that is hidden, and every secret from the beginning. There is nothing forgotten before the throne of Your glory, nothing concealed from Your eyes. You remember every deed, and no creation is hidden from You. Infinite our God, everything is revealed and known to You…
One does not have to believe in an anthropomorphic God to recognize that everything in our past, even the things we fail to remember ourselves or would rather forget about, is a part of our reality. Everything in our past is what has made up our present whether we like it or not. The good news is that we can live even with the uncomfortable parts of our past. We’re already doing it. And what’s more, our tradition affirms that our God — a God who sees and remembers everything, who knows all of our secrets, who knows all of our flaws and shortcomings — loves us anyway and wants us to thrive in the year to come.
But if we want to make the coming year different from the one we are leaving behind, if we want to make our future better than the present we are currently enduring — if we want to stop simply enduring and start truly flourishing — we have to construct a complete and honest story about ourselves that incorporates everything — the good, the bad, and the ugly; connecting all of our dots into a picture that emphasizes our inherent capacity for goodness and our continuous striving to fulfill our godly potential while also acknowledging that we are imperfect people in an imperfect world who have stumbled and who will continue to stumble in the course of our striving. Only then can we commit ourselves to live in the year to come in a way that is more aligned with this redrawn picture of who we understand ourselves to be, and only then will we be truly worthy of another opportunity to keep trying.
My dear friends, I know that these are difficult times. But if we are willing to take it, this holy day offers us a pathway to enduring the challenges we face, and to flourishing beyond them, in the year ahead.
On this day, we look backward in order to move forward; remembering where we’ve been, rediscovering who we are, and rededicating ourselves to what we can become.
May we all be inscribed for a year of health, happiness, and love.