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Rabbi Berel Wein

Kislev 6 5781
The human brain is an unbelievably complex organ. It houses millions of facts, of data and information. It also is the storehouse of human memories. In fact, everything that has ever been said or done by any individual is, somehow, stored and remembered by the individual’s brain. Most of the time, we can control which memories we wish to bring to the fore, and which events and conversations we would prefer to sublimate and store in our subconscious mind. As I grow older, I notice that there are incidents, people, conversations and events that I have not thought of or remembered for many decades, that now suddenly pop into my mind, and are in the forefront of my memory. This is not always a sanguine experience, for many memories are at best annoying and, at worst, embarrassing and shameful. But no matter how hard we try, we are often unable to repress memories at will, even memories that cause us pain and humiliation. We would hope to be able to retain our selective memory, but, apparently, some of us are doomed to, God forbid, lose all memory, and others are destined to remember almost everything, even facts and events they would prefer not recalling.

There are many who follow the ideas of Sigmund Freud, who said that by the time we are five years old our brain is, so to speak, set in stone and will dictate our personality and behavior for the rest of our lives, no matter how long that may be. I've always felt that this is somewhat of a radical statement, but I do realize, as I'm certain that all of you do, that childhood events and memories continue to play a great role in how we react as adults, even many decades after those childhood events have passed.

My aversion to a certain type of teacher or instructor relates to my second-grade teacher in public school, who was a great teacher but a very nasty person. I have always tried to avoid nasty people, and to judge my teachers not only on their professional ability to communicate knowledge and facts, but also on their personality. My focus was on what type of human being they were, and how they treated others, even those who were not star pupils. Somehow, over the past few weeks, my memory bank has revisited my experiences in the lower grades of elementary school in long-ago Chicago.

Even though in many cases it has been 80 years since those events occurred, my memory has made them fresh and immediate again. I imagine that that is why all of us have a wish that we could relive certain times of our lives, as well as certain words and events that we created. Unfortunately, we all realize that there are really are no do overs in life, and that the wise person is one who ascribes to a certain degree of morality, always learning from previous errors, to make sure that they are not repeated. Memory serves to remind us of those previous mistakes and contributes to our ability to avoid similar problems in the future.

I have also found it interesting that so-called good memories do not really displace those memories which remain troubling and challenging. And, the fact that this flood of memories is not controllable, makes the situation even more difficult. In effect, we are all challenged in a psychological manner to deal with our memories head-on and without rationalization. By so doing, we become better people and we avoid repeating past errors and grievous mistakes. King David and Solomon said that "My sins and errors are forever before me."

We may wish to forget much of the past, but we are wired that this becomes an almost impossible task to fulfill. We must deal with our memories as we must deal with all current events in life, with honesty, humility, and the drive to improve and overcome. Perhaps that is the very reason that we are so flooded with memories as we grow older and more distant from the events and people that triggered those memories. The Torah emphasizes many times the necessity to remember the great and good positive things, as well as the negative occurrences that are occasions for shame and repentance. We should never shirk away from our memory bank because through it we can understand our inner essence and reach greater spiritual development.

Shabbat shalom

Berel Wein

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