Dear Jew in the City-
Why do we ask God to remember us on Rosh Hashanah? It’s not like God forgets things.
Thanks for your question, though my reply will probably have less to do with Rosh Hashana than you were expecting. It has more to do with grammar.
Obviously, we know that God doesn’t forget things. The “remembering” that you’re talking about is the theme of the section of davening called Zichronos (remembrances). That section begins:
“You (God) remember the creation of the world… Before You are revealed all the hidden things and the multitude of secrets since the beginning. There is no forgetting before the throne of Your Glory and nothing is hidden from Your sight. You remember everything that has occurred and everything formed – none of it is concealed from You. Everything is revealed and known before You, Hashem our God, Who observes and looks until the end of all generations. You set a time designated for remembrance, to consider every being and soul, to cause many deeds to be remembered, as well as the endless multitude of creations.”
So, yeah. We know that God doesn’t forget things. The question is therefore, what do we mean when we say that God remembers? Isaiah 55:8-9 tells us, “My thoughts are not like your thoughts, and your ways are not like My ways, says Hashem. Just as Heaven is higher than the Earth, My ways are higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.”
In other words, many nouns and verbs don’t mean the same thing when applied to God as they do when they’re applied to us.
The Rambam talks about this at some great length in Moreh Nevuchim (Guide for the Perplexed) and I have collected many of his examples as an appendix in The God Book. Here are two examples from the latter. (The numbers in brackets are the sources in Moreh Nevuchim):
There are several words in Hebrew meaning to see. These include raah, hibit, and chazah. The primary meaning of these is to perceive with the sense of vision as in, “He looked and saw a well” (Genesis 29:2). But these words can also refer to perceiving something intellectually, as in “My heart has seen much wisdom and knowledge” (Koheles 1:16). It is this sense that is to be understood when these words are applied to God, as in “They saw the God of Israel” (Exodus 24:10) and “God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:10). [I, 4]
Shema means to hear as in “Let it not be heard from your mouth” (Exodus 23:13). It also means to obey as in “They did not listen to Moshe” (Exodus 6:9). Examples of both of these usages are abundant. Shema also means to know or to comprehend something, as in “A nation whose language you will not understand” (Deuteronomy 28:49). This is the word’s meaning when applied to God, as in “God heard it” (Numbers 11:1). God does not have ears and does not hear as we do, through the vibration of sound waves; when applied to Him, “hear” can only mean to perceive and to understand. It also means for God to respond to the prayers of man as in “I will hear his cry” (Exodus 22:23) and “When you make many prayers, I will not hear” (Jeremiah 7:16). Instances of this use are likewise common. [I, 45]
If “seeing” and “hearing” have very specific applications when referring to God, it should not surprise us that “remembering” does as well. Looking at the verses in Zichronos, it’s not hard to see what that is:
- God remembered Noah and all the animals in the ark so He sent a wind to calm the waters;
- He heard the groaning of the Jews in Egypt and He remembered His promise to redeem them;
- God will remember His earlier covenant with us and establish an eternal covenant;
- God remembers Ephraim (i.e., the ten Tribes) so He will treat him (them) with compassion.
And, in the Torah reading, God remembers Sarah and fulfills His promise that she would have a son.
It’s pretty apparent that when we say that God “remembers” something, it’s not like when I say that I remember my grandfather or that I remember all the words to “Back Off Boogaloo” by Ringo Starr (which I don’t). When we say that God “remembers” something, it’s apparent that He is turning His attention to something in order to address it.
Which brings us back to Zichronos. We said that God “set a time designated for remembrance.” Continuing, we say that “all creations are considered on it (that designated time – Rosh Hashana), to be remembered for life or death.”
So, yes, God remembers but that doesn’t mean that He forgets. It means that He turns His attention towards us – all of us – and assigns an appropriate course of action for the coming year. He’s going to “remember” us one way or the other so we ask that He remember us for life and for good, but the fact that He remembers everything is a foregone premise.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
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