The Challenge of Zichronos

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

We are all familiar with the three themes found within the musaf prayer on Rosh Hashanah: malchiyos, zichronos and shofros. Each presents a different idea about God along with a unique request. At the same time, together they give this important day its distinct character. When reciting each section, we are presented with a poetic yet confusing array of descriptions, praises that seem difficult to understand when first looked upon. Of these three different tefilos, the area of zichronos seems to be the most problematic. To talk of God “remembering” seems to be an absurd concept, more anthropomorphic than the norm. In this series of articles, we will take a look at the different concepts in the tefilah of zichrionos, hoping to gain some insights into the writings of our chachamim. 

When looking through the first section in the first paragraph of the tefilah of zichronos, several questions jump out:

“You remember (zocher) the deeds done in the universe and You recall (poked) all the creatures fashioned since the earliest times. Before you all hidden things are revealed and the multitude of mysteries since the beginning of Creation, for there is no forgetfulness before Your Throne of Honor and nothing is hidden from before Your eyes. ”

The essential methodology here involves an attention to detail. One example is the use of “zocher” and “poked”, which seem to mean the same thing, “remembering” and “recalling”. In fact, throughout the entire tefilah of zichronos, we see a switch between one and the other occurring frequently. If they were truly synonymous, then just using zecher would be enough. Thus, we must ask what the difference between the two terms is. 

On a deeper level, the whole notion of God remembering and recalling needs to be clarified. After all, it is quite obvious that the notion of memory as we understand it attached to the Creator is ludicrous. What idea is being evoked here?

Finally, this first part ends with how nothing is forgotten and nothing is hidden before God. This would seem quite obvious after reading over the first sentence of this tefilah. What new idea is being expressed?

One of the most difficult challenges for man is to be able to properly verbalize our praise of God. On the one hand, we are dependent creatures, and we must come to God, hat in hand so to speak,  to recognize this state of being. We must also express the qualitative difference between us and Him. On the other hand, our words can never truly do justice, fail to ultimately identify, the greatness of God. To do so would imply a positive understanding of God, a concept that does not exist within man’s domain. The Rambam explains this very point in the Moreh Nevuchim, where Moshe requests from God the opportunity to understand His essence. God replies that no man can have any positive understanding of God; instead, it is only through negative knowledge that one can know Him. This delicate balance makes the very institution of tefilah that much more challenging. We therefore rely on the knowledge of Chazal, through their writings, to guide us in the appropriate way to verbalize these ideas.

This methodology is on full display in the composition of the tefilah. Before entering into the heart of zichronos, we must first establish the notion of God in the context of remembrance of our deeds. We notice something distinct about God at the outset – God remembers everyone and everything, at all times. Thus, when discussing God and memory, from our human conception of what remembering entails, we see God as remembering in a way like nothing else can remember. This concept is at the core of the discrepancy between zocher and poked. We see zocher being applied to deeds, while poked relates to the creatures themselves. One commentary found in Otzar Tefilos, based on Rashi, clarifies this a bit: zocher refers to actions, while poked refers to those who perform said actions. What, then, is the message here? There are two types of knowledge we are speaking of, based on Rashi’s insight. One refers to God’s knowledge of all actions, meaning a complete remembrance of every deed done. Such knowledge includes every cause and effect that led to said action, as well as the consequences from said action throughout time. Only God possesses such a “memory”. There is another kind of recollection here, one that is not referring to the world external to man. It is the knowledge of the inner workings of man, a complete knowledge that man himself is limited in. This knowledge refers to all the details that led to the execution of the action. What was the person thinking? What were his drives? God is aware of it all, no matter when it occurred. The point here is not that there is a difference between recalling and memory – it is distinguishing between the world outside of man and his internal thoughts.

This brings us to the next part of the tefilah. After first establishing the fact that the notion of God remembering is distinct, we cannot leave it at that. The statement that there is “no forgetful ness” implies a very important concept, referencing the point made above. If there is no notion of God forgetting, then there really is no idea of memory in the realm of God. To remember something implies that there is something that lends itself to be forgotten. God does not actually “remember” in any real sense we can understand. Furthermore, “nothing is hidden” from God, again unquestionably establishing the fact that His knowledge is one that we cannot truly understand. 

In summary, then, we see a progression in these first few sentences of the tefilah. We first establish that the notion of God remembering is of a different nature than human conception of memory. This is the praise we must give to God. And then we conclude by acknowledging that we cannot truly understand God’s knowledge, and that in reality there is no idea of remembering attached to Him. 

When we look back at the next part of the tefilah, we see what would seem to be a repetition of this theme:

“All is revealed and known before You, Hashem, our God, Who keeps watch and sees to the very end of all generations, when You bring about a decreed time of remembrance for every spirit and soul to be recalled, for abundant deeds and a multitude of creatures without limit to be remembered.”

What new idea is emerging from this seeming restatement of God’s remembrance being of a different nature altogether?

As we mentioned above, before engaging in any type of request from God regarding His “remembering”, we first must ascertain what this idea of memory actually is when applied to God. We first describe it in an abstract way, acknowledging that God has knowledge beyond our comprehension. However, this is insufficient. We must acknowledge as well that God is not a Creator who remains distant and removed from the universe. There is an idea of hashgacha, a central point in recognizing the reality of Yom HaDin. God judges mankind, and everyone is subject to this judgment. We need to recognize the actuality of hashgacha, or else the concept of Yom HaDin ceases to exist. Thus, we emphasize the “time of remembrance for every spirit and soul to be recalled”, unequivocally stating that God relates to mankind through judgment.

This leads us to the end of the first section:

“This day is the anniversary of the start of Your handiwork, a remembrance of the first day. For it is a decree for Israel, a judgment day for the God of Jacob” 

What stands out most here is the reference to creation itself, how this Day of Judgment coincides with the time of the creation of the universe. Why is this significant? What does creation have to do with Yom HaDin? 

This last concept helps wrap up the progression noted above. We recognize God and His distinct knowledge. We recognize there is an idea of hashgacha, relevant to mankind. And then we finalize with an important statement regarding justice. The very concept of schar v’onesh was created with the universe itself, built into its very fabric. We should not see God’s justice as something applied at a later date, lending it a character of being haphazard. Part of the creation of the universe was the implementation of God’s justice. When one views the natural world, and sees human beings either benefiting or suffering, one must include in any observation that this reflects God’s justice in some way. Man is judged based on his actions, and this is part of the natural world, rather than something superimposed at some later date. 

Next week, we will continue our analysis of this important tefilah.

The Challenge of Zichronos – Part 2

In our last article, we began investigating the tefilah of zichronos, found in the Musaf tefilah recited on Rosh Hashana. As a brief summary, we noted a significant progression in the composition of this tefilah. First, the idea of God’s remembrance being of a different nature was established. Then we learned the fact that the whole notion of memory can never actually be applied to God. Finally, we saw how the tefilah relates this abstract concept to our experience of being subject to God’s judgment, as well as how the idea of God’s justice is tied into creation. In this week’s piece, we will try to explain some additional concepts found in zichronos.

Each of the different tefilos of the Musaf – malchiyos, zichronos and shofros – share a similar structure in their composition. The Rav (Harei Kedem 1:46) discusses this outline in greater detail. All three start with shevach, praise of God. This makes sense in light of last week’s article, as it is imperative we have an idea of the specific theme we are speaking of prior to any type of request. Once we complete the shevach, numerous verses from Tanach are introduced, functioning to buttress the validity of the praises enunciated. After this, we move into the request stage, asking God to express his kingship to the world, or to remember us in a favorable way, or to bring the exiled Jews of the world together. In summary, there is the praise, the proofs of the praise from Tanach, and the request.

When looking at the tefilah of zichronos, specifically some of the verses, we see some consistent themes emerging. We begin the verses with an introduction:

“Moreover, You lovingly remembered Noach an You recalled him with words of salvation and mercy…”

Soon after, the first verse is introduced (Bereishis 8:1):

“God (Elokim)remembered Noach and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark, and God causes a spirit to pass over the earth and the water subsided.”

As we know, when the Torah uses “Elokim” rather than “Hashem”, it connotes the attribute of justice, the midas hadin. Rashi (ibid), in his commentary on this verse, offers a strange explanation:

“This name represents the Divine Standard of Justice, which was converted to the Divine Standard of Mercy through the prayer of the righteous.”

What is Rashi telling us here?

The second verse listed is well known (Shemos 2:24), referring to God’s intervention to begin the process of redemption of the Jewish people from Egypt:

“God [Elokim] heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob.”

Once again, we see the use of the name of God in context of justice. Yet in this instance God is responding to the cries of the Jewish people, who are on the verge of obliteration – a clear demonstration of mercy. How do we understand this?

There are two common themes that persist throughout these verses from Tanach. One is the use of Elokim, rather than Hashem. The other is a focus on covenants, and God’s remembrance of them. In fact, the closing bracha of the tefilah is “zocher habris” (Who remembers the covenant)

On a basic level, the use of Elokim makes sense, as we are dealing with judgment. However, the use of bris is a bit more troubling. As we know, one of the essential ideas of this tefilah is the greatness of God. One would therefore assume that these verses would “back up” this claim. Is this indeed the case?

Let’s take the case of Noach. God commanded Noach to build the ark, to gather the different species and enter the ark, and ostensibly reside there until God decided it was time to bring him ashore. Many of the commentaries point out that this should be viewed as a covenant. Therefore, it is safe to assume that God would have kept up His end of the deal, so to speak. It is unclear how long Noach was originally intended to stay on the ark. However, as Rashi is indicating, God intervened to bring Noach back – “God remembered”. And, as Rashi points out, this seemed to be somewhat due to the tefilah of Noach. Noach, then, through recognizing his ultimate dependency on God and having a greater insight into man’s status vis a vie God (the essential ideas of tefilah), reached a higher level of perfection. If so, why is it such a big deal that God interrupted His promised covenant? Isn’t this what a benevolent king would do? Let’s say, for example, a man is sentenced to a long time in prison, with a defined end date. However, due to certain good deeds performed in prison, the higher ups decide to commute his sentence. Most of us would intuitively see this as a normal response to the change in the individual. Yet, when it comes to God, we are not to view His ways as a “normal response”. How do we understand these verses singling out His greatness within the context of “who remembers the covenant”?

The spotlight of Rosh Hashana shines primarily on God’s kingship, as we must internalize this reality prior to truly appreciate God as the Judge. When we then enter into the section on zichronos, we begin to see how God’s justice is applied to man. The paradigms used to display God’s judgment are these instances of God’s early intervention. Let’s look at the situation with the Jewish people and their enslavement by the Egyptians. No doubt, the Jews cried out to God. But this was more than crying out. Numerous commentaries point out that the righteous people of this generation were engaged in tefilah. What this is telling us is that the Jewish people were not just in a state of near physical and ideological annihilation. They realized there was no other salvation and thus turned to God. Similarly, we see Noach being engaged in tefilah, expressing clearly his complete dependence on God. God intervenes, as man has changed, has perfected himself in some way. Yet it is important to note that this is not a causal necessity. It does not mean the moment Noach was engaged in tefilah that God “reacted”. How long Noach or the Jewish people were involved in their tefilos is not important. What we do see, though, is that God chooses to intervene. When God intervenes, He does so based on a complete knowledge, one we cannot understand. This means God is picking the ideal time, the perfect moment, to reveal Himself. In the case of the Jewish people, this was the moment to have the covenant enacted. It was the time for the Jewish people’s redemption to begin. It was the time for Noach to be saved, offering him the best opportunity to capitalize on his perfected state. These are not acts of inherent mercy. When God acts with midas rachamim, it implies a change in plan. Here, there was no change in plan, as God inevitably would have saved Noach and the Jews in Egypt – and thus the use of Elokim. But the fact that God intervenes when He does reflects on the perfection of His justice. His justice takes into account all the particulars, all the knowledge possible. It demonstrates the greatness of His justice.

This idea serves as the guide to God’s adjudication of justice to mankind. We are all subject to judgment. As such, God judges us according to our merits, good and bad. Yet man can change, he can perfect himself, he can truly understand how insignificant he is in relation to the Melech Elyon.  His ability to change allows for a different execution of justice. And in turn, when God indeed judges man, He judges in a manner that is ideal for man. His justice is perfect.