Rabbi Ruben Gober
In the Gemara Rosh Hashana (34b), the Rabbis state that God instructed us to recite the paragraph of Zichronos (Remembrances) on Rosh Hashana in order that our memories (or our being mentioned) should come before God for good. At first glance, this statement seems quite problematic. While it is true that Zichronos focuses on God’s Omniscience and knowledge of everything that has occurred and will occur in the world, why does our recital cause us to be remembered, in a favorable light? How do we understand this “cause and effect”? Additionally, what does it mean to be “remembered for good”? If this is really a reference to our being judged (in Hebrew, the word is ‘din’) and the intent is for us to obtain a favorable judgment, why isn’t that the term “din” used?
When we look at the actual text of Zichronos in the Additional Prayer (Musaf), we observe some seeming contradictions. On the one hand, the prayer repeats numerous times that God remembers all, “You remember the actions of the world…Before You is revealed all that is hidden”. Yet at the same time, we continuously speak of how God never forgets, “There is no forgetfulness before Your Seat of Honor”. The question then presents itself: if nothing is forgotten before God, then how can we speak of Him remembering? This contradiction is most glaring at the end of the paragraph, just before the final blessing, when we say, “For You Remember all that is forgotten eternally and there is no forgetfulness before Your Seat of Honor and the ‘Sacrifice’ (in Hebrew, “Akeidas”) of Isaac, may You remember mercifully today for the sake of his offspring”. In one statement we say that God remembers all and never forgets, and yet at the same time we ask that He remember the Akeidas Yitzchak. How could this request make sense? If God does not forget, then how can we ask him to remember? We need to establish the meaning of the words ‘remember’ and ‘forget’ in relation to God.
A basic foundation of Judaism is that any term we use when we speak about God, is only allegorical and not literal. Man cannot have any positive knowledge of God. The Rambam in his Laws of Foundations of Torah (1:9) writes that the Torah speaks in the “language of man”, meaning, any time a term is used in reference to God, it cannot be understood literally. Rambam says that man can never attain any positive knowledge or perception of God, and so the Torah, and thus our Sages as well, used terms that we are familiar with as an allegory: a means of conveying some notion of God, though they in no way reflect the true, accurate knowledge of God. The terms are used strictly in an allegorical sense in order that man should possess some notion of God so as to relate to Him.
With this principle in mind, we can establish the meaning of these words: “There is no forgetfulness” means that in contrast to the human framework where certain events and knowledge may be forgotten or unknown at certain times, as an Omniscient Being who is outside the realm of time, there is no such notion with regards to God. We must have in mind that before God there is nothing that is known at one time and not known at another time. So what does it mean for God to “remember”? As the Rambam says, these terms are all allegorical, so that we may have some notion of God to be able to relate to Him. The allegory here would be that, again, from our perspective it is as if God remembers in that He has knowledge of that, which for us is in the past, and is no longer remembered. The parable brings to mind the notion that information, which for us is ‘forgotten’, lost in history or somewhere in our minds, God ‘remembers’ and has knowledge, as His Knowledge is different from ours.
This understanding of the terms resolves the seeming contradiction - though we know that God as an Omniscient Being who never changes, never ‘forgets’ and therefore never literally ‘remembers’.
On this day in which we are being judged and we stand before God with all our past deeds and thoughts, it is to us as if He ‘remembers’ everything. We relate to this day as one in which everything is remembered.
Thus, in referring to God, the term “not forgetting” is applied: He does not forget. While in reference to His lack of forgetfulness about “ourselves”, we use the term “remember”. Remembrance is applied to God only in as much as the object of remembrance is concerned, i.e. mankind’s actions. Thus, God is not One Who “forgets”, therefore, He “remembers” our past.
This understanding of the blessing leads to a new insight about Rosh Hashana: as we stand before God in judgment, we must keep in mind that even our notion of God as ‘Judge’ is only allegorical and not precise. The human notion of a ‘Judge’ is one in which a person is presented with evidence for and against the defendant, as well as the defendant trying to persuade the judge of his innocence or goodness. Thus, the judge is very limited in his ability to be exact and precise; he may not have access to all the facts, he may also be influenced in how the evidence is presented, and he may have his own biases or emotions that influence his decision. From the blessing of Zichronos we see that Rosh Hashana is different - God has all the information, nothing is concealed from Him, even our thoughts: He knows the precise state of our souls. The only reason we refer to ‘Judge’ is because we know that in effect there is a ‘Judgment’, as the Mishnah on 16a says, that the whole world passes before God and there is some form of decree. However, in no way is the term “Judge” accurate.
Now we are in a position to answer our original questions. Why is it that Chazal use the term “zicharon”, our memory, as opposed to “din”, our judgment? As we said, when we come before God for a decree, it is not a regular judgment; we stand before God with everything - all our deeds and thoughts - and it is on that basis that a decree is established. What is meant that our memories should be favorable? We mean that when all we have done or thought is ‘remembered’ by God on this day, it should be for a good decree. We emphasize that.
What is the cause and effect relationship between saying Zichronos, and our being remembered for good? With what we have said, an essential idea to Zichronos is that God’s Knowledge is completely different from ours; whereas man is subject to memory loss, God, Who is beyond time, never forgets and always remembers. When we reflect on this idea, we are involved in the most basic and important notions of man: his notions of God. How man relates to God is a fundamental part of his state of the soul and therefore it is these notions that will determine how man is remembered on Rosh Hashana and what his decree will be. For that reason, when we reflect on how God is a different being and His Knowledge is different from ours, we are placing ourselves in the correct relationship to God and it is for that reason that we may be remembered for good on this day.
When man possesses the correct notions of God, he thereby renders himself a being that embodies God’s desire. He partakes of God’s plan for mankind, and his life is therefore worthwhile before God. God may then remember him for life, and all good might then be decreed for him.