(Don't) Forget to Change

(Don’t) Forget to Change
Rabbi Keren Gorban
Erev Rosh HaShanah 5775
Temple Sinai of Denver, CO
Once there was a man named Shlomo who lived in a small house with his wife, his
six children, and his in-laws. Shlomo loved his family and liked the house, but space was
tight. He awoke every morning to the sound of his children tripping over toys and bumping
into each other in their half-asleep daze. He prayed each morning to the music of pans
clanging and knives chopping and forks hitting plates as his wife prepared breakfast and
fed the kids. He worked to the rhythm of the clicking of his mother-in-law’s knitting needles
and the scraping of his father-in-law’s knife as he whittled toys for the children.
But could those knitting needles be any louder?! And, for goodness’ sake, could the
children put away their toys at night so there’s one less thing for them to trip over?! And
how can cooking cause that kind of racket? And the baby crying all night! And…oomph! He
stepped on a toy and landed on the floor. Why did his father-in-law have to make so many
toys?! Didn’t his children have plenty?! Couldn’t he just have a moment of peace in his
Soon, Shlomo began to snap at his wife and yell at the children. It took all of his
energy not to throw his in-laws’ belongings out the door and send them packing. He was
tired and irritable and miserable. So he went to the rabbi for advice.
“Shlomo,” the rabbi said, “I know what to do. You have some chickens, yes? Bring the
chickens into the house with you. That will help.” Curious and surprised, Shlomo went
home, brought the chickens into the house, and went about his day—to the sound of
clicking and clanging and chopping and scraping…and squawking and flapping and
crowing. The last straw was when he sat down for a peaceful Shabbat dinner and a chicken
landed on his head.
The next morning Shlomo ran to see the rabbi. “I can’t take it! There’s so much noise
and not enough space! What should I do?” The rabbi told him to bring in the dogs. Another
week passed and Shlomo had had enough. But the rabbi told him to bring in the goats. After
a week of clanging and tripping and squawking and barking and bleating, Shlomo was at his
wit’s end. But still he followed the rabbi’s newest advice: to bring in the cow.
At the end of the week, Shlomo was in tears. His head hurt from the noise, his feet
hurt from the cow stepping on him, his clothes were torn from the chickens that perched
on his shoulder and the goat that kept chewing on his shirt sleeves. He had never been so
miserable. Again, Shlomo went to the rabbi for advice.
“Shlomo,” the rabbi said, “it’s time. Go home and let all of the animals out of the
house.” At that, Shlomo ran home and shooed the chickens, the dog, the goat, and the cow
out of the house, Shlomo looked around and saw his wife chopping vegetables for the soup,
the children playing on the floor, and the in-laws knitting and whittling. He breathed a sigh
of relief and thought, “There’s so much room! And it’s so quiet! Finally some peace.”
Our memories are funny things. How many of us have disliked something, only to
decide once it’s gone that we actually liked it? Other times, our brains fixate on phrases or
ideas or emotions and suddenly, that’s all we experience. All too often, we remember
utterly inane, useless information, but forget of some of the things we need to know. And
haven’t we all sat with friends or family reminiscing when someone butts into our story to
say, “That’s not how it happened!” Sometimes our imperfect minds are a liability—on a
test, trying to think of a person’s name, when we need to find that one piece of paper
among the piles on our desks.
And sometimes, especially in our relationships with others and with ourselves, we
need our memories to be imperfect. When we remember everything with perfect clarity—
the sweet, generous, or loving moments, along with the ordinary, everyday, nothing-special
moments, together with the infuriating, frustrating, or painful moments—the balance is
likely to tip toward the undesirable aspects of our relationships. There are a number of
reasons for this: our negative emotions are often more powerful than our positive ones, we
have a tendency to discount our neutral experiences, and we may actually experience more
of those bad moments than good ones.
And yet, we don’t usually consider our relationships with our close friends and
family to be bad. Not only do our brains enhance and cherish those sweet, generous, or
loving moments so that they take precedence over the others, we also spin some of the notso-great moments into funny stories and remember them as positive. On top of that, we
blur many of the unimportant ordinary and challenging times to make the good stand out
more clearly.
My younger brother was a pain in my tuchus growing up, as little siblings—
especially brothers—tend to be. I used to call him my “baby bother” for that reason. I
remember that much. But I don’t really remember all of the ways he needled me and
irritated me. Except that he had the most ingenious way of winning any fight: he would hit
me and then start crying. My parents would come running and I would get in trouble. It was
not amusing at the time, I’m sure, but in the years since, those incidents have taken on the
nice rosy glow of memory. They go nicely with the memories of hikes and favorite jokes
and building things together. Our flawed brains can help us maintain our relationships by
changing how we remember reality.
But sometimes our minds work against us. Instead of minimizing the instances of
pain and frustration and anger, we blow them up until they obscure everything else. It’s
like Shlomo, who went about each day noticing only the sounds and experiences that
irritated him. He couldn’t see the joy that his father-in-law brought to the children as they
played with the toys. He didn’t notice his wife’s effort to occupy the children with breakfast
so that he could pray in peace. He missed the new sweaters and blankets that his mother-
in-law made to keep the family warm as the weather cooled. He only noticed all the ways
they were obviously trying to annoy him.
Although we occasionally find ourselves in a situation where it seems like someone
(or everyone) is trying to find each and every way to provoke us, most of the time it’s not so
extreme. Instead, over the course of years, our loved ones hurt and upset us in a variety of
different ways that we try to ignore and move past. Forgive and forget—right? Except that
we don’t always forgive or forget, especially not when a similar experience reminds us of a
previous slight. Whether it’s a friend who cancels plans last minute, or a spouse who
forgets your anniversary, or a coworker who doesn’t respond to an urgent email in a timely
manner, we forgive and forget until it happens again…and again…and again.
To some extent, we need to remember these repeated offenses. We need to learn
what the people we interact with regularly are capable of—and what their limitations are.
And, we need to pay attention when these incidents are more than just annoyances, as we
determine whether working, friendly, or romantic relationships can continue in the longterm. But at a certain point, we also need to own our own response—does the other person
intend to hurt or irritate or disregard us, or are we annoyed that things aren’t the way we’d
like them to be? If there’s intent, we need to address the underlying issue. Often, however,
we, like Shlomo, simply find ourselves overreacting to the things we can’t control.
Sometimes, however, the offense is more than an annoyance. When someone hurts
us deeply, it takes time to heal the pain, the betrayal, and the loss of trust. And despite
forgiving the person, we’re wary for a long time afterwards, out of worry that it will happen
again. That concern, that inability to forget, is essential until trust is built again. In order to
move on completely, though,—whether we remain in relationship with that person or
not—we also have to forget, to let go, to let the memory blur and fade.
Abraham and Sarah, two of the main characters from our Rosh HaShanah Torah
readings, set an interesting example. Abraham and Sarah were married for approximately a
hundred years, during which time they dealt with moving far away from their families to
start a new life and religion, infertility, dangerous situations, and a handful of other
challenges. Through this, their relationship seems to have been a strong one. Still, I imagine
that they had to work hard to maintain their trust and respect for one another through all
of the challenges that they faced.
To begin with, Abraham asked Sarah to pretend to be his sister to protect his life—
twice. And both times, she was taken by the local king to be his wife (don’t worry, the kings
both discovered the ruse before consummating the marriage). While I imagine that Sarah
might have agreed to act as Abraham’s sister the first time, my guess is that she was not
happy with Abraham when, all of a sudden, she was engaged to the king and couldn’t see a
way out of the situation. But the second time? I can hear her arguing with Abraham, trying
to remind him that it didn’t go so well the first time, so there better not be a second. Or
maybe Abraham knew that Sarah would not agree to the charade again, so he didn’t tell her
at all. The Torah just says that Abraham told the king that Sarah was his sister and that the
king took her for a wife. Whether Abraham went against Sarah’s wishes or he went behind
her back, Abraham breached Sarah’s trust when he lied to the second king. Yet these
deceptions don’t haunt their relationship. The two stories happen as isolated incidents and
are never referenced again.
I hope that Sarah held Abraham accountable for that second act of deceit, at least to
impress upon him how it hurt her. However, in order to maintain the strength and trust in
their relationship, Sarah had to allow those memories to fade from her mind and from the
way she interacted with her husband. I doubt that it was easy, and I wouldn’t be surprised
if there were times when Abraham did something that reminded her of those earlier
incidents. But they happened in a past that cannot be changed. So rather than remaining
stuck in that past, in those memories, she let go of them—and of her own sins—and made
room in her mind and in her heart for goodness in the future.
During the Yamim Noraim, these Days of Awe and repentance, we are expected to
remember, to make an accounting of our deeds from the past year, especially the ways in
which we missed the mark and fell short of our potential. We do this, not to dwell on how
terribly imperfect we are, not to beat ourselves up over our mistakes, but to give us a
chance to acknowledge our failings and those of the people around us and move on with
our lives. Without this opportunity to confess, to apologize, to atone, we pile up the weight
of guilt from sins of years ago. Without this reminder, we let wounded feelings, broken
trust, and anger fester until they destroy our relationships. If we can use these days to
gather up our mistakes and our failings from the past year, to learn from them so that we
can do better in the coming years, and to apologize where appropriate, then we can put
them away in the back recesses of our minds and let them fade away. In order to grow into
the people we aspire to be and to let others do so as well, we have to learn to let go, to start
to forget what was to make room for what can be.
I have always found it interesting that the word shanah, as in, Rosh HaShanah, which
means “year,” has the same root as the word “change”—shinui is the noun, l’shanot is the
verb. Although we often imagine the calendar as a circle, where we come back to the same
months and holidays each year, we never return to exactly the same place. This Rosh
HaShanah, you and I are not the same exact people as we were last year. We’ve changed.
And if I imagine you, or if you imagine yourself, as the same person you were last year—
with it’s bad and it’s good—then you have no opportunity to change and grow. Hopefully
the goodness within us is like a fine wine, getting better with age. And hopefully, by
remembering our flaws, we learn from them and find ways to minimize their power and
effect. We need to let those memories of the past fade enough to allow that growth and
My “baby bother” is not the same person that he was twenty years ago—he’s
matured a bit, he’s respected and successful in his job, and he no longer hits me and starts
crying when he wants to win a fight. If I only related to him as the baby bother from our
childhood, I’d never be able to have the closer sibling relationship we’re developing as
adults. Likewise, if Shlomo’s family only remembered him as the irritable, angry, crazy guy
who brought all the animals to live in the house, they’d never have the love and peace that
Shlomo so desperately wanted. Shlomo’s family and I had to forget enough to let our loved
ones change.
On Rosh, the “head” or the “beginning,” HaShanah, we begin the changes that we
want to make over the coming year by remembering what we have done to learn how to
move forward. By the end of Yom Kippur, if we’ve done the work of remembering our sins,
apologizing to the people we’ve hurt, and approaching those who have hurt us to give them
the chance to apologize, we can let go of the guilt and the anger and the memories that keep
us stuck in the past. And then, we can move forward, growing into lives of blessing,
wholeness, and holiness. L’shanah tovah—may you change for good in this new year.