We will gather on Yom Kippur to recite Yizkor, our prayer of memory for our loved ones who have died. The Jewish value of "memory" pervades our lives, our sacred story, and this time in our Jewish calendar year. Many of us were raised on the phrase "Never forget." We have spent our lives being taught that a Jew is obligated to remember those who came before us, from our ancestors in the Torah, to the martyrs of our history, to the loved ones who made our lives possible.
And so we read in our portion this week:
"Remember the days of old,
Consider the years of ages past;" (Deuteronomy 32:7).
But, the opposite of remembering, forgetting, is also a part of our Jewish legacy. Though we are commanded to remember, we fail and forget. As Moses speaks his final words at the end of Deuteronomy, he reminds his listeners that we do not always remember the God who gave us the Torah, the Guardian who guided us through our journey in the wilderness.
We read: "You neglected the Rock who begot you,
Forgot the God who labored to bring you forth" (Deuteronomy 32:18).
Of all the themes that have run through the Book of Deuteronomy, the message of allegiance to the one God of Israel is Moses's final chosen theme. Twenty-six chapters after we were told, "Hear, O Israel [Sh'ma Yisrael]! The Eternal is our God, the Eternal alone" (Deuteronomy 6:4). Moses, our leader and hero, the voice of Deuteronomy, underscores the fact that Israel too often fails to hear. Hence we have the name of our portion, Haazinu, "Give ear."
The Maggid of Dubno, Rabbi Yaakov ben Z'ev Kranz (1741?1804, Poland) translated this verse as, "The Rock fathered in you the ability to forget, and you forgot the God Who bore you." As the Maggid explains, "God gave man the special faculty of being able to forget, lest he grow too weary from all the troubles and miseries of a lifetime on earth. But instead of putting this blessing only to the use for which it had originally been intended, man has turned the ability to forget against Him Who graciously gave it to man, for man has come to neglect God's holy commandments and thus forgotten his Heavenly Benefactor," (B. Heinemann, The Maggid of Dubno and His Parables[Jerusalem, and Nanuet, NY: Feldheim Publishers, 1978], p.139).
And who is this God we have forgotten? The parallel verse of Deuteronomy 32:18 clearly reveals that this is the God who went into labor with us. This is the God who birthed us in Genesis. On this last page of parchment of our Torah scroll, the Hebrew creates the perfect literary bookend for the imagery begun on the first page of parchment we read a year ago. We hearken back to our creation, even as we are aware that we will soon return to relive it again, in a matter of days.
Rashi underscores this unusual birthing image for the God of Deuteronomy who is usually depicted as a warrior: "The God who has brought you out of the womb" with "travail as that of a woman in childbirth." Thus, revealed in our text is the reality that the child does not remember the pain or effort of labor, while the mother never forgets. It is only when the mother reminds the child and vividly describes the experience that the child can grasp the magnitude of the expectations and obligations that result from that travail and sacrifice. The maternal God, not often seen in Deuteronomy, appears in our book's final chapters showing a parenting style that is quite strict, imposing punishments and offering reprimands.
Who is the God we come before during these Days of Awe? On Rosh Hashanah, we have the choice in Reform congregations of reading Genesis 1 to encounter the God of the Creation or Genesis 22 to engage a God who demands sacrifice and submission. Others view God differently, as a royal scribe who records deeds or as the medieval ruler of our liturgy who metes out judgment. Today, a growing number struggle with God's role in repentance and forgiveness. Yet, on Yom Kippur, we strive to emulate the God of Holiness in Leviticus 19, and we will stand with all generations to listen to God's voice from Deuteronomy 29 and 30, which sets before us life's choices. And now, in Moses's final oration, this week's passage from Deuteronomy makes it quite clear that God is our Rock, albeit forgotten and neglected.
The written Torah text provides us with another opportunity for interpretation. Written by scribes, from generation to generation, we have inherited a rich legacy of unusual letters and embellishments in our sacred scroll, which have been used as a source for interpretation and insight. One such letter appears in our verse (32:18), which contains a smaller than normal letter yod at the end of the word teshi, which means "neglected." Our Torah commentary cites Ibn Ezra's explanation that the yod is a later addition to the original word tesh, which also means "forget" (see W. Gunther Plaut, gen. ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, revised ed. [New York: URJ Press, 2005] p. 1,403). But knowing that it might have been added, does not explain why it is half the size of the other letters.
I believe this diminished yod is an important metaphor for these Days of Awe. According to the soferet, Avielah Barclay (http://avielahbarclay.blogspot.com, Thursday, September 24, 2009 entry): "This diminished Yud is written so because of our own failings. God has been expansive with us, so therefore we should have returned to Him in expansiveness. Instead, however, we contracted from Him, contracted our agency, our power, our yad, 'hand.' God had opened His hand (yad) to us, but we closed our yad to Him . . . a Kabbalist rabbi . . . wrote that a letter written in miniscule indicates that a person or people in the narrative have somehow missed the mark; that they could have done better." She concludes her entry: ". . . we have a small Yud to remind us . . . not to forget."
In this new year, we have the ability to sort through the past year and to forget that which diminished us personally or spiritually. We may have missed the mark or forgotten the Rock who birthed us, but we are using these Days of Awe to return and to remember.
Rabbi Amy R. Perlin, D. D., is the senior and founding rabbi of Temple B'nai Shalom in Fairfax Station, Virginia.