Rosh Hashanah Day 2 5780 – A New Application of Zachor – Remember

By: Dr. Joel Roffman

Last month, I saw a patient in the office named Mike. Mike is a fully alert and competent 77-year-old man who has been through lots of heart and circulatory issues. He had a major heart attack in 1990, 29 years ago, when he was 48. It left his heart quite damaged. He had 4-vessel coronary artery bypass surgery at that time. Since then, he has had his aortic valve replaced, then his mitral valve. Then he needed a pacemaker, and he’s had stents to open the arteries in his legs. Good grief! Still, he and I soldier on. Together.

I’ve learned over the years that  asking about their family make patients feel special. Don’t tell Mike, but I keep notes right in his electronic record, so I’ll sound like I remember his family. But to really hit a home run, there is one more step – anyone know what it might be? Ask to see a photo!

So at the end of his appointment last month, I asked Mike about his family. At the time I first met him, his children – I believe he has two sons – were both in college, a couple of years apart. The oldest was about to graduate. Now he has several grandchildren, the first of which has just graduated college. So of course, I asked to see a photo. He took out his phone and scrolled to the picture of his grandchildren. He got to the photo of his oldest, in her college graduation gown, with her family – parents and siblings. And then he started to cry. Sobbed like a baby! Whooaa – what to do? I gave him some tissues, sat right next to him on the exam table, and put my arm around him. I didn’t have to say a word.

I can’t know what was going on in Mike’s head, but I suspect that at that moment, the enormity of what has happened to him and what these years have enabled him to see and to experience hit him really hard. I don’t know whether he had thought about it much before – his emotions lead me to believe that maybe he hadn’t. Maybe he hadn’t taken enough time to take a step back and realize . . .

Rabbi Bradley Artson of the AJU talks about how people typically move from task to task. Obligation to obligation, occasionally forgetting or not appreciating great moments because we turn them into these tasks and obligations. So I want to weave together some things I’ve read and experienced during this past year, and maybe give us all some take-aways.

We often need a reminder to remember to enjoy and savor special moments – or simple moments, for that matter. The moment is passing. We all need a call. Rosh Hashanah is that call.

A tiny bit of psychology is in order here. Affective forecasting and the Arrival Falacy are terms relating to our ability to predict how events will make us feel. There is a tendency to think of only the upside of our goals. So we predict that becoming a manager in our company or earning a certain amount of money will make us feel satisfied and accomplished. Well, we get there, but alas, there is no lasting satisfaction. The terms describe how people are deceived into thinking that if only they can achieve a particular goal, all will be well in their lives. They will achieve lasting happiness and fulfillment. It could be a goal in work, it could involve finances, it could involve making a school sports team or getting a particular grade in school. Parents can push and push and push their kids, but even if the kids achieve all their parents hoped they would, there is no guarantee of happiness – for the kids or for the parents.

Our satisfaction upon achieving goals may well be quite short-lived. We may find that our new position brings with it a whole new set of work-related problems. And our wealth might come at a time when we have health or family issues that overwhelm us. Things aren’t at all what we thought they were going to be! That’s Affective Forecasting and the Arrival Fallacy. We think we will know how we’ll feel if only . . . but at what cost, for how long, and with what concurrent issues?

Achievement doesn’t equal happiness – at least not in the long term. We’re pretty good at knowing what will make us, and maybe our kids, happy in the moment, but we’re not very good at all at knowing how good a particular achievement will make us (or them) feel in the long term.

Instead of saying, “Dayenu!” (now, you see, I’m starting to get into the Jewish stuff), we’re disappointed that there is yet another step on the ladder. That all is not bliss. That for all we have, there always seems to be one more missing item.

Well, today will be the good old days before too long. So we must not wait until then. We must cherish moments now, taking time to enjoy those around us. After all, we’re all on the same bus, ultimately going in the same direction. And seldom can we replicate moments of joy.

So with that as the background, here are my proposals to apply in the coming year:

First. Several weeks ago, Nancy and I went to North Carolina for the wedding of the child of friends. The father of the bride, Andrew, walked his daughter down the aisle. Andrew had a very serious bout with cancer last year, and it was uncertain whether he would survive. And here he was. I don’t know about Andrew, but I got very emotional as I watched him walk past me, arm in arm with his daughter.

So number one is: beginning this New Year, make a resolution to say modeh ani – I give thanks –  when you wake up in the morning.  These are the first two words of a one-sentence statement: Modeh ani l’fonechah melech chai v’kayom, shehechezahtah bi nishmati b’chemlah rabah ehmunatechah. “I thank you, living and eternal sovereign, for Your kindness in restoring my soul. How great is Your faithfulness.” I make this declaration every morning as I am getting out of bed.

But if you don’t want to say the whole statement, I hereby give you permission to simply say, “modeh ani.” I give thanks. We live in a series of miracles. Appreciate them. Put your arm around your loved ones. Things happen. Time is fleeting. Appreciate the moments. That is what Rosh Hashanah, and perhaps the shofar, are about – that we must awaken. Don’t fall asleep. Time is passing all of us by. Judaism teaches that we have the task and the privilege of bringing light to each other and to a world that sorely needs it. As Jews, we have the task of illuminating the world with the light of Torah. Let us all awaken and be grateful for the miracles around us and that are ours to enjoy.

Thinking back to Mike, I believe he realized at that moment the extraordinary gift of time that he had received. Time in which he was blessed to see his children grow, mature and themselves become parents.

 Number two. I recently finished humor writer Dave Barry’s book about aging, and the lessons he’s learned from his dog, who is also in the later years of her life. One of them was that what made the dog the happiest was just to be with the family. Curious about lots of things, sure. But being with those who were important to her gave her more pleasure than anything else. Very simple. This was one of several lessons the author learned from his aging dog. We probably already know it – but it’s time to put the lesson into action.

So number two is: spend as much time and be as close as possible to those who mean the most to you. Maybe we have individually found what numerous studies in psychology have been telling us for years: the most important predictor of happiness is spending time with those we care about and with those who care about us – in other words, relationships.

And my third and final proposal: Make memories, and remember those memories. Appreciate special moments.

—Bernie and Joan White (Simma’s parents) celebrated their 50th anniversary in Jerusalem this past year. They had all their children and grandchildren with them. Bernie had 2 photos framed – one had all the grandchildren and the other, the entire family. What a keepsake! What memories Bernie and Joan created for their entire family!

—Another example. Last year, I spoke of my granddaughter Lucy’s baby naming and the indelible memory I had of that event. I can still picture the rabbi carrying Lucy into the congregation, holding her up for all to see. The newest member of their congregation, as he said.This year, I will always remember our trip to visit Lucy (and her parents) last month. She sat on my lap, looked me in the eye, smiled, and said, “Peerpa.” She then presented to me, upon my request, each ear, finger, her cheeks, her chin, and so on, so I could kiss them. Individually. All ten fingers, ten toes, and one nose! How sweet. Indelible memory.

Nancy and I saw wondrous things on our trip to southern Africa in July. We saw animals that are monogamous – living with the same mate until death do they part. We saw animals that are fiercely protective of their young – elephants, for instance, live in entire clans! It was truly magical. When we returned, as I always do, I made a photo book from our trip. Each time I look at it, I relive and enjoy once again the special memories from those days.

Do you know that there is an actual neural pathway in our brain for each memory we have? A unique map for everything that we remember! Whether it be a family event like visiting Lucy, a trip Nancy and I took, or some other special event, those memories have literally become part of me. The more I look at the photos and the more I relive special family moments, the more embedded the memories become. In that very way, those who have been closest to us through our lives are now, actually, part of our brains. They’re part of us! That’s why that moment of Lucy on my lap gets replayed in my mind virtually every day – so it will become further embedded in my brain and will always stay with me.

In Judaism, to remember – zachor – is a mitzvah. We are commanded to remember events of the Jewish people, like the Exodus. Personally, I take this a step further – I feel that the mitzvah of zachor also applies to joyous events of our lives – weddings, births, bar/bat mitzvahs, etc.

Although our tradition sets aside several times a year for the special remembrance of our deceased relatives called, of course, Yizkor, in Judaism, to have joy is also a mitzvah. The upcoming festival of Succot is called, “The season of our Joy.” The Ashrei prayer talks of our joy. Gratitude and Joy are common tropes throughout our liturgy.

So now, on Rosh Hashanah, these are my 3 proposed resolutions: let us resolve to give thanks for each day – modeh ani. Let us resolve to spend as much time as possible with those who mean the most to us, making joyful memories. And let us resolve to experience and remember and be joyful for the wondrous moments in our lives. Let us remember, and let us be joyful.

To our brothers and sisters in this wonderful Kehillah, Nancy and I wish you all shanna tovah. May we all have a sweet year, filled with joyous events.