Forgetting to Remember for Posterity

Vayeshev By :  Abigail Treu Posted On Dec 5, 2012 / 5773 | Torah Commentary

When my grandmother first starting losing her memory several years ago, the impulse to correct her facts was overwhelming. No, Grandma, we weren’t together last weekend. No, you didn’t just eat dinner. No, Grandma, I’m Abigail, your granddaughter.

Over time, as her memory has disintegrated and she lives entirely from moment to moment or fantasy to fantasy, the impulse has softened. When she announces that she is living with her mother in her childhood home, we no longer bother to explain that she actually resides in an assisted-living facility with her husband of 42 years. If she is surprised that my children are her great-grandchildren, we let it go. The facts don’t seem to matter so much anymore, and we have come to appreciate a beauty in her ability to live each moment as it comes, and to place herself psychically where she needs to be.

Remember the Sabbath day. Remember what Amalek did to you in the wilderness. Remember what God did to Miriam. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. Memory is integral to our identities as Jews and as individuals. What happens when we lose our memories, or our ability to remember altogether?

The question arises for me this week because the themes of losing (memories and much more) and forgetting run strong in this week’s parashah, and indeed throughout the entire Joseph story. Jacob and then Joseph lose track of the brothers when they go out to pasture. Reuven leaves Joseph in the pit, and when he returns, “the boy is gone!” (Gen. 37:30). The brothers lose Joseph altogether as they sell him into slavery. Judah loses the prostitute (really Tamar) and his staff, cord, and seal. Even Joseph loses his clothes in the grip of Potiphar’s wife. The theme continues in coming weeks as objects disappear into Benjamin’s sack, and as Joseph remembers the forgotten dreams of his youth (42:9) and names his firstborn son Menassah, “because God has caused me to forgot all my trouble” (41:51).

Most explicit is the closing cliff-hanger line of the parashah: “Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph; he forgot him.” (40:21). The commentators wonder about the chief cupbearer’s forgetting. What might the difference between not remembering and forgetting be? Rashi and others suggest that the difference is temporal: the not remembering describes what happened the day of the cupbearer’s release from prison, and the forgetting is what happened after that. Ibn Ezra suggests that not remembering is that the cupbearer did not mention Joseph to Pharoah; and that forgetting is ba-lev—what happens in one’s heart. Radak says just the opposite. None of this satisfies, but their close read is helpful: there is, the language of the verse suggests, an important difference between not remembering and forgetting.

This distinction between forgetting and not remembering is crucial, whether we are struggling with loved ones losing their memories or our national quest to never forget our heritage as Jews for whom “never forget!” has become a mantra. The verse, in using those two verbs (not remembering and forgetting) is suggesting something deeply meaningful: that, in fact, in order to remember something, we need to forget it in the first place. In order to find memories, lost objects, or an identity, we need to be in a state of searching for something lost.

Professor Regina Schwartz of Northwestern University suggests, “There must be a break to enable something to be repeated, just as something must be lost to be recovered, forgotten to be remembered; and continuity, because the fact of repetition, recovery, memory, ensures a living-on” (The Resurrection of the Text,  54). Joseph loses his brothers at pasture, but then finds them in Dothan. Judah cannot find his staff, cord, and seal, or the woman he left them with, but Tamar returns them all to teach him a great lesson. Joseph’s shirt lost into the hands of Potiphar’s wife is crucial to the plot, landing him in jail but then ultimately bringing him to his greatest heights. At the ultimate climax to the story several parashiyot from now, Joseph—thought to be lost forever—is returned to his father. Were it not for each of these losses, return and recovery would not be possible.

This seems a nice, albeit abstract, literary point to make as we read the parashah. But what does it have to do with our ongoing quest to retain Jewish identity, or with our loved ones whose identities seem to be slipping away through the sieve of memory loss?

Because it is in forgetting, and then remembering, that interpretation takes place.

Professor Schwartz writes,

Remembering is persistently linked to survival. The future Walter Benjamin depicts must be nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren . . . But when we say that remembering is the condition of survival in the Bible, we cannot mean it in any naïve sense. With no such thing as accurate memory possible, dependence on such memory would enable no future at all. Rather, it is interpretation that becomes the ground of continuity, enabling a future interpretation that is, in turn, enabled by repression. (53)

In other words, we retell the Joseph story with our own interpretations, and it is in the power of those retellings that the stories live on. My grandmother can no longer tell her own stories, but we can. And in our retelling them, we reinterpret, or put them in new contexts, and in so doing ensure her continued identity. Memory is what defines us as individuals and as a nation. But what we learn from the parashah is that there is a difference between forgetting and not remembering. As long as someone, somewhere, remembers our stories for us, our identities remain intact. There is indeed great wisdom in the age-old expression “May one’s memory live on, for a blessing.”

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant by Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.