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Selective Memory

By: Rav Ari Shames

The teffilot of Rosh Hashana are exceptional in many ways. The most obvious aspect is the expanded nature of Mussaf. As opposed to the framework of every other Mussaf during the year which contains seven brachot, mussaf of Rosh Hashana has nine.

In general every Amida that we say contains a minimum of six brachot, comprised of the identical first three and last three brachot. These elements remain constant regardless of the day of the year or the particular teffila in question. The middle section is what varies. On a regular week day we say 13 different "requests" for the various items that we need from God. On Shabbat and on the Holidays the middle section is comprised of only one bracha that describes the unique nature of the day.

On Rosh Hashana during the Maariv, Shacharit and Mincha teffilot nothing surprising happens. As with any of the other Holidays we have the standard seven brachot. However, when we get to Mussaf things change.

The Mishna in Rosh Hashana tells us that we are to add to the middle section, in addition to the standard bracha, three new topics and themes relating specifically to Rosh Hashana. The three themes are:

  1. Malchuyot - Declaring the reign of God
  2. Zichronot - Remembrance
  3. Shofarot - Based on the idea of Shofar - it's exact definition will be BEH the subject of next year's shiur

I would like to focus on Zichronot. What is the idea and concept of this bracha? It is not obvious as to who is remembering and what it is that they are remembering.

Before we even begin to examine the text of the bracha I would like to point to conflicting evidence as to the relationship between the Zichronot and Rosh Hashana. On the one hand it seems to be THE theme of Rosh Hashana, the very day itself is described as "Yom HaZikaron" in all of our teffilot. This is how we refer to the day in both the start and end of the middle bracha in Maariv, Shacharit and Mincha and as well during Yaale Ve Yavo. It would seem that Zichronot is a bracha about Rosh Hashana. On the other hand, Zichronot also appears on the list of special brachot that were said on public fast days on the occasion of drought or other natural disasters. These occasions seem to have nothing to do with Rosh Hashana, and yet Zichronot plays an important role there as well.

The structure of this bracha is the same as the other two special brachot. They all open with an introduction to the theme, followed by 10 verses quoted to support the point, and finally a closing summary.

In the introductory section we start to get some answers to our question. It is clear that it is God who is the one doing the remembering and it is also clear what it is He is remembering. In this context God is taking stock of all things in the world - from the personal level of each and every man's actions and even thoughts to the larger societal questions. The individual, the society and the nations all are evaluated to determine if their behavior in the past has met the standard and therefore what the future shall hold for them. Rosh HaShana is a day of remembrance in that God uses the memory of the past to decide upon the future.

It seems to be that this is the way that Rav Yosef Elbo viewed this bracha as well. Rav Elbo authored the "Book of Principles" dealing with the basic tenets of Jewish faith. He was reacting to the Rambam who established his famous 13 principles and writes that indeed there are only three basic principles:

  1. Existence of God
  2. Reward and Punishment
  3. Divine Revelation

He writes in the introduction to his work that the proof to these being the most basic elements is their incorporation in the three special brachot on Rosh Hashana:

  1. Malchuyot
  2. Zichronot
  3. Shofarot

In this equation the bracha of Zichronot is aligned with the principle of reward and punishment. This, of course, is consistent with the mood that many people associate with Rosh Hashana, a very solemn and introspective day. (This is in contrast to the attitude that others have concerning Rosh Hashana as a festive day, which is based on the focus of Malchuyot, the Coronation of God).

In short, Zichronot expresses God's evaluating and judging the world on this solemn day of reckoning and as a result the future is decreed for all living things in the world.

The introductory paragraph then leads us into the proof texts used to support this notion. Here is where it all changes. The references made in all of the verses still refer to God as the one remembering, however the nature of the memory is very different. All of the references are of God remembering his commitments to Mankind or the Jewish people. These are not in the context of an accounting in order to punish us for mistakes and provide reward for the good we have done, rather God remembers his promises to provide for the good DESPITE what we may have done.

God is portrayed not as playing the role of judge but rather the role of the ultimate benevolent One. God remembers Noah, the Jews in Egypt and in the future he will remember his love and commitment to our forefathers and that will stand up for us under all circumstances.

This new, more optimistic theme is clearly demonstrated in the closing of the bracha where we conclude "barach ata Hashem zocher habrit" - God is the one who remembers the covenant. He is not remembering/judging but rather remembering/advocating.

This may explain the dual nature of the use of this bracha, as we noted above. While it is obvious it is to be a main section in the Rosh Hashana prayers it equally expresses our sentiments during times of crisis when pleading with God not to abandon us.

This combination of God remembering us along with the hope and prayer that he will look upon us favorably is summarized in another familiar tefila - Yaaleh VeYavoh - that we add on Rosh Chodesh and any Holiday. There, as well, we ask that God remember us (Zichronenu) and all of our essential associations (from our forefathers to Mashiach, to all of the Jewish People) in a favorable manner. In fact, it is interesting to note that the poskim have a large debate as to whether the exact formula should be used during the Rosh Hashana Mussaf or we can suffice with the way it appears in our machzorim. Chazal tell us that each and every Holiday, and indeed each Rosh Chodesh, is a mini judgment day (see Mishna Rosh Hashana 16a). (This is also what stands behind the custom of reciting the 13 attributes before taking the Torah out on Chagim).

Indeed in each such occasion we need to keep in mind that we are being judged and as well to keep in mind that without the Divine assistance, always having selective memory, we would be in a much more precarious position.

Shana Tova

Rav Shames


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