As Julie was checking out of the hotel, I went to the hotel's parking lot to retrieve the van. I went to the spot where I knew I had parked it... and it was not there. My immediate thought, of course, was the same feeling that many of us have when standing in a parking lot wondering where on earth we had put our car a couple of hours before. My first instinct... was to question my memory. (My memory was fine, by the way. The van -- and our two car seats -- was indeed gone. Next time I'll think twice about that supplemental insurance they offer.)
Memory is a precious and so fluid thing, for individuals -- and for communities.
Sharing and shaping the stories of our lives, we seek to take the seeds of recollection inside of us, and plant them in a permanent way, to move from story to history. Just as it is important for people to share the stories of themselves with others, so, too, must a community from time to time seek to assure itself about the future by recalling a continuity with the past. To review the journey. To tell the tale. To share the story of yesterday with the community of today.
We Jews have been called a people of memory. We are blessed with a long tale to tell, with a journey that has lasted for almost four thousand years. We are burdened with moments of torture and pain, ennobled by visions of glory, and triumph, and the simple and sublime transmission of our heritage, from generation, to generation, to generation.
And yet, as I stood there in that parking lot in San Diego questioning memory and sanity, I learned another lesson as well. That we are shaped by our memory, but we are not fully defined by it. For there are times when the stories -- and answers -- of the past fail to soothe the soul. There are times when, in panic or consternation, they fail to come to mind. And there are times, as well, when doing things just because that is how they have always been done will not do at all.
Do you remember the story of the pot roast? (What? You don't? But, you must have heard it somewhere!) A mother, in cooking a meal (this story has only women cooking; it is in no way meant to imply that men can't cook), takes one end of a brisket, cuts it off, and throws it out. She does the same thing to the other end. Her daughter asks her what she is doing. Why she is throwing out the two ends of the meat. (If you are a vegetarian, substitute: tofu loaf. No actual animals were harmed in the writing of this column.) The mother replies: "I don't know. That is the way my mother always cooked the meat. You know, let's go ask her." The pair then go to grandma, who says the same exact thing. The three women now go to the great-grandmother, conveniently still alive and able to answer the troubling question.
"Great grandmother," the young girl asks, "why, when you were baking a brisket, did you cut off one end, throw it away, then cut off another end, and throw it away?" "Oh, that," the woman replied. "I remember doing that! It's because I only had a pot so big," and she gestures, making a size smaller than a whole brisket might have been expected to be.
We are, indeed, powerfully shaped by our past, in more ways than we will ever know (except for those of us with the patience, energy and insurance plans to spend multiple years in Freudian-style analysis). But when memory fails, old answers don't work, or something truly new arises, it is the way we adjust, the way we innovate, the way we change that serves as the guarantor of the future.
There is an old, traditional adage that "chadash, asur min haTorah." Anything new, anything innovative, anything not found in the vast data banks of experience of our people's past -- is forbidden by the Torah. But it is an adage of those afraid of change, afraid to stand on that perilous bridge between what was and what may yet come to be.
Memory is one tool which makes us who we are. But there is another. It is called adaptability. And blended, the one with the other, the knowledge of the past and the spontanaity of the moment, the way we react to the new... when the two work together well, that is called growth.
May we all be able to get from here to there in healthy growth... but, also... with all our future rental cars intact.