Memory and Forgetting
It’s my understanding that according to Judaism, everything has a potential good side and bad side. Could you elaborate on what might be both the good and bad sides of both memory and forgetfulness?
This is a very unique and interesting question. I don’t remember ever being asked this before!
Of course, memory is a very good and important attribute to both material and spiritual well-being. But it has its downside which can be countered by the beneficial side of forgetting.
Without memory, we would not be able to care for our most basic, simple needs. Society would not be able to function either, since people would not be able to remember and fulfill their obligations and commitments to one another, and no one would be able to rely on anyone for anything. Nor would we remember our Torah learning, ritual and religious obligations or even the existence of G-d Himself.
On the other hand, constantly remembering bad experiences, suffering, or the misdeeds of others would make us depressed, apathetic and paranoid. Therefore, in these instances, it is a great kindness that G-d created us with the ability or tendency to forget. Forgetting our own misdeeds may also be beneficial in enabling us to do teshuva and then to move on, rather than becoming spiritually paralyzed through regret and remorse.
Unfortunately, we generally demonstrate selective memory in our interaction with others. We tend to remember even the smallest offenses of others against ourselves yet forget even great offenses we commit against others. It really should be the other way around – we should overlook and forget even the major wrongs committed against us while remembering and trying to placate others for even minor offenses we’ve done to them.
Interestingly, there are times when we must “forget” even our Torah learning. For example, in unclean places where it is prohibited even to think about Torah ideas or holiness, we must push such thoughts out of our minds. For most of us, that’s not so difficult, and it would be wonderful if we were able to maintain such thoughts even when permitted. But for people immersed in Torah, whose love for it constantly draws their intention to it, this can be quite a challenge.
It is told of the Vilna Gaon that once the solution to a very difficult passage of Torah learning occurred to him while in the bathroom. He was distraught over this, and ultimately came to forget this learning that came to him in a forbidden way.
Conversely, a story is told of the Chafetz Chaim who was once seen on Yom Kippur lamenting over a list in a small notebook. People wondered what transgressions could possibly be written there to make him so upset. When they questioned the rabbi, he explained that this was a list of everything he had done throughout the year, except that he could not reckon for five minutes of his time, which he refused to overlook and forget but rather recalled in order to beseech forgiveness!