Time, Space, and the Memory of God - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Time, Space, and the Memory of God

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Time, Space, and the Memory of God

By Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman
Professor of Liturgy, HUC-JIR/NY

Every Rosh Hashanah, we say that God remembers. But how can God, who is beyond time, remember? Isn't memory a temporal function, so beyond God who is eternal?

Human thought differentiates time from space. Time, we think, is a video strip, passing frame by frame through the window of consciousness. Time "passes;" space does not. With space, we can "expand our horizon" - "see the whole picture." Time, by contrast, "comes," then goes forever. In space, we get to revisit the sites we like; not so time, except in memory which becomes just the imaginary revisiting of time past. Memory is what is left of yesterday's movie show.

But if you are a physicist, you know that space and time is really a single continuum. And if you are God, you know that too, because you are melekh ha'olam, "Ruler of the universe." Would an earthly king who ruled the whole earth be melekh ha'olam? The answer is, no, because such a ruler would hold sway only over the space of the earth, but not its existence in time, whereas God is ruler of both. Olam, for God, is the time-space continuum. Time as a frame- by- frame video that passes irrecoverably into the past turns out to be a fiction dictated by the limits of human consciousness. For God, time is like space - it is all there all at once. God, then, does not "remember," the way we do.

How, then, does God remember, and what does it mean to say, as we do, that our prayers remind God to do the remembering? Take the liturgical words zekher and zikaron, which mean "remembrance." We say of Shabbat, for instance, that it is zekher li'tsiyat mitzrayim, "a remembrance of leaving Egypt" and zikaron l'ma'asei vereshit, "a remembrance of creation."

Because we mistake time for a video, it is as if we doze off for a Shabbat nap, thinking dreamily, "This must have been what it was like when God rested that first Shabbos afternoon." Our state of mind is something between "I remember Mama," and "Remember the Alamo!" - more pressing than nostalgia but less demanding than a matter of moral duty. If nostalgia turns out to be less than what it used to be, we can ratchet up the rhetoric by advocating "Remember!" as an ethical obligation; and when the force of history weighs us down, we can frequent therapists to put old memories to rest. We can variously live in the present, or the future, or the past, as our mental health requires. We do, in fact, live in that video-like reality of time. We have no choice. We are human.

Not so God, who is eternal and sees it all at once. To remind God of something is therefore not just to dredge up some old memory. Reminding God about an instance in time is like pointing out a distant place on the map of space. Zekher or zikaron, with regard to God, then is not so much "remembrance," as it is a signpost directing God's attention somewhere on the time-space continuum.

Space and time are only two maps of the human spirit. There are others. In the realm of logic, for instance, you get synapses of reason that are charted on maps of mental acuity. Apply logic to life, and you get a map called Halakhah. Join two points in the map of Halakhah and you have a logical demonstration. Like the dots in a connect-the-dots game, things make sense only when they are joined together. The line we use to join the dots depends on the nature of the map. The map of time uses lines of memory; space features highways, shipping routes, and air corridors; logic uses Aristotelian propositions, algebraic equations, and halakhic hermeneutics.

And in the map of Halakhah, we find this rabbinic axiom: im em r'ayah ladavar, yesh 
zekher ladavar: literally, "Though there is no proof for a thing, there is zekher of it." Clearly zekher, is not "remembrance," here, but "pointer." Physics speaks of a weak and a strong force; so too in halakhic prooftexting! One would prefer a strong proof, but in its absence, the Rabbis cite a biblical verse that is no airtight demonstration, but is a zekher, an "indication," that at least points the way to the thing under discussion.

Now we know what it is for God to remember us, or for us to remind God to remember. Since God cannot forget, God can neither remember, as we do, nor be reminded as we are (for being reminded presupposes that God had forgotten).

Our prayers, however, can be pointers, directing the mind of God to the things on the time-space continuum that matter. The liturgy lists several: the covenant, for instance, but most of all, ourselves.

When we say, for instance, that God "remembers the righteous deeds of our ancestors" (zokher chasdei avot), it is not that God flips through a picture album to recall the good old days of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Imagine God instead surveying space like time, and looking first at our ancestors and then at us, and then applying the connective tissue of divine grace between one and the other. It may be, therefore, as Avinu malkenu asserts, that em banu ma'asim, "we have no good deeds" with which to plead our own merit, but trust God to be compassionate anyway on account of Abraham and Sarah who are not dead and gone, but still alive and well somewhere else on the map which God alone can fathom.

The gift of Rosh Hashanah is this sweeping vision of space and time that is knowable all at once, only to God. But we can weigh the relative significance of different points on the map, "reminding" God to attend to this quadrant rather than that. Liturgy reshapes the cosmic map; that, in part, is what it means to be partners with God in creation.

It follows also, that human beings are not mere statistics in a universe that is too impersonal and too large to keep us in mind. We are always in the divine mind. That is the point of Rosh Hashanah. Its liturgy is the means by which we are pointed out, visited, remembered, even saved. There can be no nobler hallmark of the human spirit than this conviction that every one of us is worthy of God's attention, and that we gather in prayer so as to be pointed out on the divine map of eternity.