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Memory & Imagination: My Visit with Mom

12/09/2019 10:11:54 AM


Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky

The man who would later be known as St. Augustine was enthralled by the power of memory, a power which enabled the human mind to transcend time and space. “Even when I dwell in darkness and silence”, he wrote, “in my memory I can produce colors…  I [can] discern the breath of lilies from [that of] violets, though smelling nothing…”

Indeed, who has not had the experience of being transported by a memory to an earlier time and place, there to see again the pattern on dishes long ago broken and gone, to hear again the crunch of yesteryear’s autumn leaves, the laughter of friend whom time took away long ago, or a taste that belonged to childhood ? Memory truly is an astounding, miraculous reservoir, a veritable time machine.

But I wonder, is it memory alone doing this work?  Is it memory alone that recreates these past events?  I know I’ve been in many situations, recollecting a moment, together with other people who were also there… and somehow our memories are never exactly the same! What exactly was said, who exactly was present, what time of year it was… and we’re each completely certain that our memory is the accurate one! It would seem undeniable then, that memory exists on a continuum with imagination, as the latter fills in the details that the former is either sketchy on, or is perhaps deliberately suppressing. Such was certainly the case earlier this morning for example, when Rachel asked that Leah please give her  some of those mandrake flowers – flowers with aphrodisiac qualities – that Reuven had brought, and Leah, quite remarkably responds, “Is it not enough that you have taken my husband, but you also want the mandrakes brought to me by my son?!” Wait, what?! Rachel took Leah’s husband?! Which sister was it who was clandestinely in the marital bed that had been prepared for the other?! Which sister was in fact the not intended one? The interloper? But who could blame Leah for suppressing some of those memories? And where memory is suppressed, imagination rushes in.

It’s always some combination of memory and imagination. The two are joined at the hip.

I found myself contemplating the relationship between memory and imagination last week as I was traveling home from Israel after having spent several days with my mom, who had just been transferred from a geriatric psychiatric hospital to the nursing home that is her new address. One of the heartbreaking realities that immediately slapped me hard was that - on top of her depression and acute anxiety - mom’s short-term memory was now also effectively gone. Which resulted in – among other things - her repeatedly describing for me the circumstances that had brought her to this home… circumstances which had no grounding whatsoever in reality. Where memory failed, imagination rose to fill the gap.

Over the course of the long flight home the idea began to occur to me that this fluid relationship between memory and imagination might not be all bad, perhaps not even mostly bad. In fact, maybe it’s actually positive and useful. Our practice of Judaism consciously utilizes – even depends on - this relationship. The most obvious case is our observance of Shabbat זכר למעשה בראשית – as a remembrance of the act of creation, an event of which there is no human memory AT ALL. All we have is a skeletal Biblical description, which we are clearly – each Shabbat - intended to flesh out with an act of grand imagination – an act of imagination that constitutes the fountainhead of our faith.

Different – but not so different - is the Torah’s command to remember the day we stood at Chorev, at the bottom of the mountain as God spoke to us. It’s different in the sense that there is in fact a collective national memory of this event. But when we read the Torah’s description of that event, of the sounds and sights on that day, and even more so when we read the Midrashim and the commentaries there, what emerges clearly is that these sounds and sights were completely unique, unlike anything that had been experienced by human beings before or since. Here too the Torah is depending upon us to utilize our imaginations in order to fulfill this foundation-affirming mitzvah.

And remembering the exodus from Egypt - a story which is told in vivid detail and in this sense easy to “remember” - our Sages insisted that we have not fulfilled our obligation until we have activated our imagination. “Every individual is obligated to see himself as if he had been there!” Imagination, as a fluid partner to memory, sharing with it an amorphous boundary - is positive and useful and important human faculty.    

And strange as it seems, and as much as it was heart-wrenching and profoundly disquieting to see my mother’s memory and imagination totally running together, I think there is actually some comfort in this. I hope and suspect that for my mother, being able to stitch together a story - regardless of what its elements are or from where those elements were drawn - must feel much better than being unable to locate any story at all.

There is, of course, a fellowship of people who care for loved ones who have become cognitively impaired. A fellowship that no one ever enters voluntarily, though upon entering it you discover two things: (a) that misery really does love company, and (b) that there is much wisdom within the fellowship’s folds. One piece of wisdom comes from Rabbi Dayle Freidman, who founded Hiddur: The Center for Aging and Judaism. She is someone whom I have never met, but whose writings are a treasure. In a particularly striking passage, she places the unique challenge of caring for a loved one who has dementia within the Biblical Mitzvah of אהבת הגר – of loving the stranger. In its original Biblical context, this mitzvah is about finding a way to overcome the sense of distance and remoteness that is naturally generated by the strangeness and otherness of this person standing before you, and about finding a loving path through which you learn to tolerate – and even to embrace – that strangeness and otherness. ואהבת את הגר

Rabbi Friedman’s extending this mitzvah to this situation, is a magnificent chiddush - one that beckons us to summon up our imagination, to imagine that a most familiar person is also and at the same time a new and different person – a stranger whom God wants and needs us to love.  And it points to tens of other ways in which utilizing our imagination is indispensable to religious and spiritual life.

Let us never underestimate what our medieval sages dubbed the כח הדמיון – the power of imagination. It is not memory’s handmaid. Rather memory’s partner. And a vital human faculty in its own right.

Mon, July 22 2024 16 Tammuz 5784